For my birthday my best friend took me to see The Dark Tower. I entered the theater with a mix of excitement and trepidation. Another friend once said that it is important to separate the book from the movie and to appreciate each for what it is. In this case, truer words were never spoken.
The Dark Tower series was written by Stephen King over a period of over twenty years between 1982 and 2004. Roland Deschain is the last of the gunslingers, a legendary group of warriors descended from Arthur Eld, his world’s version of King Arthur. In the first installment, The Gunslinger, Roland is following the evil Man in Black, a powerful sorcerer. This version of Earth shares characteristics of the Old West but also has powerful magical elements. Roland’s Earth has “moved on” as throughout the series we see traces of advanced technology placing this time period into the far future. This world appears to be on the verge of total collapse. Roland’s quest is to find the legendary Dark Tower which stands at the nexus of all creation. Dark forces represented by the Man in Black seek to destroy the Tower thus releasing the forces of darkness over the entire multiverse. As the series progresses, Roland arrives on our version of Earth to recruit others to join him in his cause.
I cannot express enough how important these books are to me as they influenced my love of reading as well as writing. This series was my Harry Potter. Although the first book reads as more of a collection of interconnected stories around the Gunslinger, trust me when I say that you will become hooked by the third installment. Anyone that refers to King as just a writer of horror should read these books. A fantastic feat was accomplished through a combination of multiple genres such as science fiction, fantasy, and westerns. They are beautifully written as well as epic in scope. These books will in my eyes always represent King at the height of his literary powers.
Now that I’m gushed about the magnificence of these books, let’s turn our attention to the movie shall we.
The Dark Tower film was co-written and directed by Nikolaj Arcel. Another co-writer and producer on the film was Akiva Goldsman. Rather than adapt the first book, the movie serves as a sort of “sequel alternate universe” reboot to the book series. Rather than tell the story from the point-of-view of Roland, our main character is eleven-year-old Jake Chambers played by Tom Taylor. Jake has been having nightmares of the Man in Black, played by Matthew McConaughey, using children to destroy a giant tower in the clouds. His visions also include Roland the last Gunslinger, played by Idris Elba, attempting to oppose the Man in Black and his evil plans. Jake’s mother and stepfather believe he’s insane, and Jake’s psychiatrist think that all of Jake’s visions and drawings are fantasies to protect him from his grief over the death of his father from the year before. When minions of the Man in Black arrive posing as staff from an exclusive psychiatric hospital, Jake runs away. His visions lead him to find a teleport which transports him to Mid-World and the hero of his visions.
Honestly, I didn’t leave hating the movie the way I thought I would. I thought the film did a capable job of telling a very enclosed tale. Through Jake serving as the protagonist, we were able to learn about Roland and the Tower along with him. For the most part, everything was explained fairly well for those that have never touched the books. I thought the acting was mostly solid. Idris Elba is a fantastic actor who brought real pathos to the character of Roland. There were moments which contradict the character from the books, but I’ll overlook that for now. I will admit that Matthew McConaughey is not my favorite actor, but here he gives a subdued performance as the Man in Black that is quite menacing in scenes. Newcomer Tom Taylor is quite likable as Jake, as I always enjoy movies with child protagonists. There are several moments of wonder as Jake interacts with various aspects of Roland’s Earth. Ultimately it works well as a standalone science fiction piece. And this is exactly the reason why it fails in my eyes.
Imagine taking the Wheel of Time books and condensing then down to a ninety minute movie. What if Game of Thrones was told in such a short amount of time? Stephen King painted a magnificent landscape with The Dark Tower books, which the film only allows brief glimpses. Unfortunately, the majesty and splendor that made these books great is lost in the translation. It just didn’t feel like the beginning of a fantasy epic. Instead, it was a fun and fast-paced romp that serves as an introduction to this universe. In short, it felt very watered down. I understand that you can’t put everything from the book into the movie, but when you cut the best bits you are really doing a disservice to the tried and true fans.
The movie does boast some decent special effects. I especially loved the scenes of Roland shooting his guns, particularly watching him reload them in the blink of an eye. There’s also a great scene where the Gunslinger saves Jake from being kidnapped by listening closely during a major attack on a village and firing a single shot right on target at the bad guy. There was some real Jedi shit going on there!
When Roland enters our version of Earth, it is mostly played up for laughs. Overall it works, and didn’t wear out its welcome. However, by this point we are almost to the end of the movie. The last act felt extremely rushed as if the director realized he wasn’t watching the clock and said “we need to wrap this up now!” I think with a slightly longer running time, this last part might not have felt so empty.
Ultimately this raises a huge question about books and cinema: namely, is part of the job of a book-adapted movie to make you want to read the book? I don’t really feel that this movie will accomplish that feat for newcomers to the series. Sometimes, a movie intrigues us enough to want to read the books. For example I saw Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone before I read the other books. Of course, I found the Harry Potter movies to be exceptional in their own ways while this movie just didn’t quite reach that level of awesomeness. Would I want to read The Dark Tower books based on this movie? Sadly, I think the answer would be a negative so I’m glad I read them.
The other demographic of viewers would be the ones who are quite familiar with Stephen King’s magnum opus. I’m concerned that like me, they won’t find this movie to match the wonder and excitement of the books. Yes, it’s only the first installment of a proposed series, but that wasn’t enough of an appetizer to want to stick around for the main course. This raises another important question, namely can the books be translated into successful films? I honestly don’t have an answer, but I wonder if maybe a television series would work better for this type of epic grandeur.
At some point, I will reread this series to show you how truly awesome these books are. As far as further film adventures, I have a bad feeling that the future looks grim. Hopefully, a creative team will come along who can give Roland and his ka-tet the treatment they deserve.
What do you think? Have you read this book or seen the film, or both? Leave a comment down below!