Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series is a sprawling saga that not only builds a universe of gunslingers crossing deserts and dimensions to battle evil wizards, but also one which ties together King’s entire literary oeuvre. To adapt the series for any visual medium would be a daunting task. To boil it all down into one 95-minute feature film is straight up madness. But that’s exactly what director Nikolaj Arcel and Sony have cooked up here: Madness. Not so much a straightforward adaptation of King’s original “The Gunslinger”, The Dark Tower is instead a toxic mélange of story elements from across the series spun into one incoherent blast of narrative gibberish.
The series tells the story of Roland of Gilead, last in a long line of fabled gunslingers, whose mission is to stop an evil sorcerer known as The Man in Black from destroying the Dark Tower at the center of the universe.
The film instead focuses on Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a New York City kid who has visions of a dark tower, an evil man in black, and the gunslinger sent to stop him. When Jake’s mom and stepdad try to ship him off to a farm upstate to play with all the other mentally ill kids, Jake escapes and discovers a portal to Midworld. There, he meets the gunslinger from his dreams, Roland (Idris Elba), who is out for vengeance after the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) murdered his father. Meanwhile, the Man in Black—his name is Walter, let’s call him Walter—is kidnapping children with psychic abilities (a nod to The Shining), and using them to power a wacko laser contraption to blast the Dark Tower to smithereens.
Jake, we soon discover, possesses super Shining abilities, and Walter would love nothing more than to find Jake and use his brain to destroy the Tower. So in adapting King’s novels to the screen, a decision was made to focus less on the gunslinger, a tragic hero with complicated motives and a wavering moral compass, and more on this magical chosen kid with a sad backstory and cool superpowers. Jake is essentially Harry Potter, which completely short circuits any intention the film might have had of fleshing out Roland as a character. We get too-brief glimpses of Roland’s backstory and learn tiny snippets about his gifts as a gunslinger, but for the most part Idris Elba gets nothing to work with here. He’s mostly on hand to lead the action sequences and save YA Hero Kid from certain death because YA Hero Kid hasn’t learned to harness his YA Hero Powers yet.
Complaining that the film is different from the books will get us nowhere, though.
Adaptation happens all the time. Sometimes adaptations work out beautifully; other times, not so much. That’s life. Still, in deciding to adapt King’s books this way, they’ve stripped what drama there was in Roland and Jake’s partnership out of the story. There is exactly one scene in which Roland and Jake actually bond as characters. The film asks us to pin an awful lot of emotional weight on a scene in which the two shoot some cans together. In the books, Roland becomes Jake’s surrogate father, but the film instead portrays them both as orphans with a shared interest rather than would-be father and son.
This film also sees to it that remarkably little of the series’ inherent strangeness made it onto the screen. There are inhuman creatures wearing human faces, and we get to see a couple of cool-looking demons attack Jake during his travels, but so much of what made these stories sing is completely absent. For every mention of the number 19 or “thankee sai” we get, it feels like we miss a hundred other prime opportunities for more Dark Tower weirdness. Or not even weirdness, but rather just the flavor of what made this story so unique. I realize this is purely a problem for fans of the books, but it breaks my heart a bit to know what could have been, and then to see a final product that just plain didn’t.
It’s a tough balance to strike between giving readers what they want and making a film that Joe and Jane Moviegoer will actually understand. But what made it into theaters still seems like an inscrutable tableau of western cliches and CGI demons. Part of that is due to the hackjob of a script, written and rewritten and overwritten by the director, Goldsman and a handful of others. The only character who comes close to having a definable arc here is Jake. He somehow gets 95% of the screen time, because God forbid we actually develop any secondary characters. (Jackie Earle Haley is in this movie, by the way, as one of Walter’s flunkies. Who is he? What’s his deal? Beats the shit outta me.) Roland and Walter both enter the story loooong before their characters are ever actually named or explained, which is baffling considering they’re the HERO AND VILLAIN OF THE FILM.
The Dark Tower plays out like some half-remembered fever dream, with weird narrative jumps, CGI monstrosities that appear and disappear at random, and voiceovers that sound tacked on months after the fact. It’s blatantly obvious that most of McConaughey’s lines are canned, like whatever he thought he was doing on set didn’t work and they forced him to bellow his lines into a microphone while sitting on the toilet. The action setpieces are frantic jumbles of gunplay and wizardry, cut to ribbons to rob them of any dramatic tension. How you generate dramatic tension, though, between a guy who shoots guns well versus a guy who can pluck bullets out of the air is beyond me. (The solution this movie comes up with is the hokiest kind of “gotcha” horseshit.)
There is no reason for anyone to see this film, newcomers and Dark Tower fans alike. If you want western gunplay, there are dozens of classic westerns out there to get your fill. If you’re looking for dark fantasy, ditto. And if you’re in need of a Stephen King fix, I hear there’s a creepy looking clown waiting just around the corner.
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