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Josh Reviews The Dark Tower

Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series is an extraordinary achievement, a work of breathtaking genius that represents one of my absolute favorite fictional sagas of any medium.  The series consists of seven main novels plus an eighth follow-up novel (The Wind Through the Keyhole), plus a novella (The Little Sisters of Eluria), plus a series of illustrated prequel stories published by Marvel Comics (The Gunslinger Born).  Plus, of course, the Dark Tower novels connect to many, many of the other novels and stories written by Mr. King, from The Shining to The Stand to ‘Salem’s Lot and more.  Many have described The Dark Tower books as unfilmable, impossible to adapt faithfully to the screen.  But I have always disagreed.  I think this marvelously rich, sweeping saga could be extraordinary if adapted properly on TV or in a series of movies.  I continue to believe that The Dark Tower is one of the best-kept secrets of fiction, filled with incredibly original ideas and wonderfully engaging characters.  This series would BLOW PEOPLE’S MINDS if adapted with the same care, attention, love, and budget given to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy or HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Sadly, that’s not what has happened.  The movie adaptation of The Dark Tower, directed by Nikolaj Arcel and with a screenplay credited to multiple writers (Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, and Mr. Arcel), is a disappointingly small-scale, mediocre affair.  The film isn’t horrible.  It has a strong cast, and a few memorable moments.  But it takes this humongous, sprawling story and makes it feel very small.  It takes Mr. King’s wonderful characters and original situations and makes them feel flat and familiar, pale echoes of characters and stories we’ve all seen before in vastly superior movies.

The film is not a direct adaptation of Mr. King’s first Dark Tower novel, The Gunslinger Instead it’s a mishmash of characters and plot points from all seven of the main Dark Tower novels.  This is the type of approach that was, for decades, standard for a Hollywood adaptation of a beloved genre property.  But in 2017, in a post-Harry Potter world (in which all seven novels were faithfully and lovingly adapted into individual movies), in a world in which we have seen how creatively and financially successful the Marvel Cinematic universe has been in faithfully adapting the Marvel characters to the screen, this is a crushingly disappointing decision.

Now, let me be clear, I don’t immediately object to not beginning a Dark Tower film series with a direct adaptation of The Gunslinger.  That novel is the shortest and weirdest of the series, and many of the ideas that Mr. King would develop over the years were not yet fully formed in that first installment.  Several of the series’ main characters aren’t even included in that first book.  So I can forgive taking some liberties, as it would have been great to incorporate into a movie adaptation some of the larger ideas that Mr. King would build towards in his future books.  (When this film adaptation was first announced, I felt sure the first movie would draw liberally from book two, The Drawing of the Three, so as to include Eddie and Susannah.)

Unfortunately, in diverging wildly from the text, this film adaptation manages to feel even smaller-scale than that original book!  Much of the series’ wonderful mythology and back-story has been omitted, and of the series’ sprawling cast of characters, the movie focuses on only three: Roland, the Man in Black, and young Jake Chambers.  (Nope, no Eddie or Susannah to be found.)

The film makes the curious choice to swap main characters with the novels.  In the books, the main protagonist is always Roland, the last Gunslinger.  But in the film, the main character is the young boy Jake, who grows up on “our” Earth, in New York City.  I can understand the desire to use Jake as an audience-surrogate character, to provide the audience’s way in to this strange and wonderful fantasy series.  That’s not inherently a bad idea.  But as executed, the film winds up out of balance.  Instead of the fascinating tragic character of Roland as our main character, the Dark Tower movie is mostly about Jake, a boy with superpowers finding out he’s special and using his powers to save the world.  If that sounds like a plot you’ve seen a million times before, it’s because you have.  And suddenly Mr. King’s magnificent work is reduced to one more version of a boringly familiar story.  This is the film’s biggest and most fatal flaw.

(By the way, the film doesn’t even have faith in its own idea of using Jake as the way into all the fantasy weirdness of the story.  We get some unfortunate text slapped on the screen at the very beginning, giving us a description of the Dark Tower and its purpose.  Wow, way to take all the mystery out of this story by just spelling it out for the audience right there at the start before the movie has even begun.  Sigh.)

It’s a shame, because there is the potential within this film for what could have been a great movie.  I love the casting of Idris Elba as Roland.  It’s a bold, color-blind choice, and I love it.  And, indeed, Mr. Elba is pretty terrific in almost every moment he’s on screen.  He brings great gravitas and world-weariness to the character of Roland.  Then there is Matthew McConaughey, who is equally perfectly cast as the Man in Black, Roland’s great nemesis.  Mr. McConaughey is a genius choice for the role: his movie-star good looks and smooth-as-silk charm are perfect as the oily, evil Man in Black.  Unfortunately, both men are failed by the film’s script, which doesn’t give them much of any interest to do, or much of anything clever to say.

Some other thoughts:

* I am glad that the book’s iconic opening line (“The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed”) is in the movie, but it’s just thrown in there and not in any way that makes much sense or that means anything.  I am really disappointed that the film did not begin with this line and that image, before cutting away to Jake in New York.

* One thing the film did very well was incorporating connections to other works by Stephen King, just as the Dark Tower novels did so well.  We get a glimpse of Pennywise’s ruined circus (from IT), we see a photograph of the Overlook Hotel (from The Shining), a door code seen at one point is 1408, etc. etc.  Those little touches were nicely done and very well-appreciated by me.  I was also intrigued by how often the film referred to Jake’s psychic powers as a “Shine” (a nice reference to The Shining).  There were references in the later Dark Tower novels to the “Shine,” but not nearly so frequent as here in the film.  (Of course, in the book, Jake didn’t have psychic superpowers, which explains why this wouldn’t have come up so often.  I do not love the change to give Jake psychic superpowers, by the way.)

* I loved the “Tet Corporation” opening title card, stuck in there with the film’s other production companies.  Nice.

* I liked the film’s repeated references to the number 19, an important number in the books.

* I liked seeing The Dixie Pig, and the Taheen, and the references to a number of other names, companies, and places of significance in the books.  These small attempts to broaden the scope of the story were appreciated by me, but not enough sadly to make too much of a difference.

* Based on the trailers, I wasn’t expecting to like the film’s depiction of Mid-World, Roland’s home, but actually as executed in the film I was rather fond of what we saw.  It’s not what I’d imagined from the books, but it’s an acceptable depiction.  I particularly liked the little shanty town seen in the third act, nestled in the shadow of a vast, sophisticated but now abandoned technological fortress.  That fit the tone of what I’d imagined from the books exactly.  I wish we’d seen a few of the doorways between worlds looking more like real doorways, as depicted in the books, but I did like the look of the technological doors as seen in the movie.  (One choice I didn’t like: the look of Roland and his father’s outfits in what little we saw of their final battle.  Those costumes looked way too “Civil War” for me.)

* I loved the choice of Dennis Haysbert to play Roland’s father in the film.  Another genius casting choice!!  But I did not care for the film’s depiction of his death, a radical departure from the books.  And the super-small-scale look the film gave us of the fall of Gilead was a disappointment.

* Thank goodness they decided to drop the magical glowy blue look that Roland’s guns had in the trailers!!

* I guess Fran Kranz is still working in the Dollhouse, huh?  I liked that a lot.

* Damn but it was great hearing Idris Elba as Roland recite the Gunslinger’s code! (Speaking of which, I missed hearing him say those lines when he makes the incredible shot to free a kidnapped Jake, the way it was structured in the trailer.  But I liked the idea presented in a later scene that Roland had never said those words following the death of his father.  That’s an interesting new idea.  The scene in which Roland teaches the code to Jake is one of the best scenes in the movie.  I just wish the film had done more to develop their relationship, so as to make that feel more earned.)

* Speaking of which, and beware big SPOILER territory now, but I couldn’t believe that the film’s climax didn’t force Roland to choose between saving Jake and defeating The Man in Black.  That’s the iconic, central moment in the first novel, when Roland chooses to let Jake die.  It’s a moment that much of Roland’s arc in the rest of the novels is about: earning redemption from that choice.  I can understand that, in this Hollywood movie, Roland wouldn’t let the kid die.  And in fact, as Dark Tower fans know, the film has worked in a sneaky way to justify a reversal of that choice from the books.  Because we see Roland carrying the Horn of Eld, we know that the events in the movie aren’t a direct depiction of events in the book, and thus allow for Roland and other characters to make different choices.  (To explain why this is would be to ruin the ending of the novels, so just trust me on this.)  But while I didn’t expect Jake to die, I DID expect the film to build to Roland’s being forced to make that choice!  And, indeed, there’s a moment at the end, with Roland shooting at the Man in Black while we see Jake, captured and suffering, through the doorway, which I was sure would build to Roland’s having to choose.  Even if you haven’t read the books, just based on the story of the movie, this seems like a clear climax to the narrative, with Roland’s having to give up his quest for vengeance and reclaim his humanity by valuing saving Jake over killing the Man in Black.  Unfortunately, the film sidesteps this entirely and never forces Roland to make this choice, allowing him to both save Jake and defeat the Man in Black.  What a missed opportunity for a dramatic climax to the film!!

* And why oh why does this film end with the death of the Man in Black?  Had Roland saved Jake while allowing the Man in Black to escape, we’d have a satisfying emotional resolution to this particular story while leaving the door open to future sequels.  Instead, the film wraps everything up in a neat bow.  This is part of what I meant when I was describing above how the film takes this vast story and makes it feel small.  At the end of this short 95 minute movie, it’s as if the story is done and everything has had a happy ending.  I hate films designed to start a franchise that are so focused on setting up sequels that they forget to make their first film a satisfying whole.  But The Dark Tower film represents failure at the exact opposite end of the spectrum.  It leaves me scratching my head.  (As, by the way, did that last scene of Roland’s inviting Jake back to midworld with him to become a Gunslinger.  That doesn’t really make any sense in the context of the story being told — Jake is going to go to another world and become a trained killer?? — and just felt to me like they ran out of ideas as to how to end the movie, and so went with the laziest choice.)

Sigh.  I really didn’t hate this film.  There are some interesting and exciting sequences, and watching this cast at play is fun.  But despite those aspects that I enjoyed, overall the film is vastly disappointing to me as such a huge fan of Stephen King’s original novels.  This feels like a colossal missed opportunity, and it’s a bummer.

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