Stephen King’s epic fantasy tale of Roland Deschain and his quest for the Dark Tower has finally escaped from development hell and has made its way to theaters. It joins other adaptations of King’s novels, but is perhaps be the most crucial one yet. The eight Dark Tower novels connect to many of King’s other works, including, but not limited to: The Stand, It, The Shining, Desperation, The Regulators, Salem’s Lot & Christine. With this film possibly being the first of many sequels (and a prequel TV series), the pressure is on for it to be a hit…
Since 1976’s Carrie, there’s been a steady stream of movies/TV specials translating Stephen King’s novels to live-action. Some, like Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, are landmarks of cinema and suspense. Others, like Riding the Bullet, are easily forgotten and were not well received. King’s works can quickly devolve into camp when not given due talent or production resources. Adherence to the source material is a given, despite King’s verbose page counts, his stories endure because of their quality and his understanding of the horror genre.
King’s Dark Tower novels, starting with The Gunslinger, chronicle a lone and grizzled cowboy making his way through a post-apocalyptic world of radioactive mutants and dark magic hunting The Man in Black, Walter O’Dim. Roland Deschain is the last of the gunslingers, errant knights who were tasked with preserving peace in Mid-World, rough analogues to the Jedi in Star Wars. Along the way, Roland meets a young boy from another world named Jake Chambers who befriends him. Jake’s survival becomes a weapon that Walter uses against Roland, as he must choose between the boy and his quest for The eponymous Dark Tower. The Tower is the spoke of all reality, and Roland believes it is the key to restoring his world. He searches for it obsessively, and will sacrifice everything to reach the Tower.
Roland himself is one of my favorite protagonists in literature, although he is something of an anti-hero. He is kind, strong, and charismatic, which draws companions on his quest; however, he will decisively let them die if it’s necessary for him to continue. Roland is not evil, but he will let nothing stop him in his quest. It’s this contradiction that makes Roland so compelling, this melding of heroism and cruelty. My chief concern with any movie adapting The Dark Tower series is a softening of Roland’s character, as there aren’t many protagonist as layered as the Roland of the novels.
Roland’s nemesis, Walter O’Dim, is a mysterious man who engineered the fall of Gilead, Roland’s home and the “Camelot” of Mid-World. He is revealed to be an ancient figure who is skilled in dark magic and uses hidden means to travel to other worlds beside Mid-World. Walter actually appears in other King novels in various guises, such as Randall Flagg in The Stand. In a sense, he’s the ultimate villain for King to plant in many of his stories and its possible we’ll see Matthew McConaughy in more adaptations as Walter’s other personas.
With a compelling protagonist and villain, the movie at least has two ingredients to be a hit. A secondary concern for me involves the third ingredient, a good plot. The Gunslinger remains my favorite of the Dark Tower series, but the director has plainly stated that the films won’t strictly follow the books, leaving more room for error. Adding to that, the movie is only ninety-five minutes long. While run times don’t necessarily determine a film’s quality, and modern day movies tend to run 30-40 minutes too long, its odd that The Dark Tower is less than two hours long but has to convey enough material to raise interest for additional sequels and a TV series.
Marvel Comics has been adapting The Dark Tower novels for years, with moderate quality since they had an expert on the mythology writing them. Between the moody artwork, and Robin Furth’s understanding of King’s novels, Marvel has been able to publish multiple miniseries starring Roland and his friends searching for the tower. As an aside, the comics don’t drift too far from the events of the books outside of chronology.
It seems that the film adaptation of this material is destined to fail, or at least give pause to any future endeavors in Mid-World. This is not due to Idris Elba’s casting as Roland Deschain or apathy towards Stephen King adaptations, rather, I think it has to do with a drift from the material itself. Perhaps in choosing to adapt one of the books, instead of all of them at once, the film might’ve saved itself or avoided what pitfalls it found already. The Gunslinger remains my favorite book of the series because its the most straightforward of the eight: Roland chases after the Man in Black, meets Jake Chambers, and resumes his quest for the Tower. It gives you plenty to enjoy, but leaves you craving more of this striking man named Roland and what events forged him into the force of nature he is.
What makes The Dark Tower stand apart from the greats such as The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Christine, and Misery, is its lack of respect for the pages it mines for paltry sums.