WORDS: Patrick Kolan
Let me tell you about The Dark Tower.
In terms of cinematic tumult, the adaptation of dark-fiction sensei Stephen King’s offbeat horror-cum-western-cum-fantasy has weathered a lot. In the past twenty years, it’s changed directors and producers over and over, swerving back and forth from television to film, to a trilogy, back to basics. The current iteration suffered rewrites and reshoots, poorly received test screenings – and now a whopping 17 percent positive rating on movie review baseline, Rotten Tomatoes. It’s been an epic journey all its own.
Walking into the screening, you’d afford me some reservations. Also, I mean, I’m a fan – and you know that’s not going to do most filmic adaptations any favours.
Sadly and predictably, director Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) flubbed it and flubbed it hard. As one patron put it, “Well, it’s not the worst movie I’ve ever seen…”. Yeah, but it’s certainly one of the most disappointing in recent memory– and it was wholly avoidable.
To give non-Tower readers some context, King’s career-spanning series of seven core novels that comprise The Dark Tower saga are built on 40 years of intricate writing, cleverly weaving King’s characters, villains and universes together in the process. They underpin Danny’s psychic abilities in The Shining, the main villain in The Stand – and dozens of meticulously integrated (and well documented) references in the King library.
“It opened the doors for a future full of revitalised and interconnected King films.”
That forward-thinking makes for supremely enjoyable multi-layered reading – compelling you to delve into the collected works and pull at the threads, see where they connect.
In fact, and this is the crux of my argument, it makes for a fantastic Cinematic Universe all its own – one that film studios are so eager to assemble. The Dark Tower is (was?) a brilliant opportunity to connect Carrie (2013) with It (2017) for instance. It opened the doors for a future full of revitalised and interconnected King films – perhaps revisiting The Stand, tackling ‘Salem’s Lot or The Regulators. These stories share characters, settings, enemies and terminology drawn from The Dark Tower.
Taking a step back, if Sony Pictures had pulled itself together and worked through the tangle of license holders, we could’ve been looking at seven Dark Tower films over, oh, ten years –with “Expanded Universe” films like It in between. I can see it clear as day – and moreover, horror film fans would climb over themselves to see these films done justice. Linking back to The Dark Tower film itself, you can see why there might be more riding on this than first appearances.
Unfortunately, this just isn’t to be. Not now, and judging by the initial reception – perhaps never.
Nikolaj Arcel’s adaptation (apparently produced in conjunction with Ron Howard, who was once tipped to direct) short-cuts the sprawling adventure, stomping carelessly over themes, characters, plot points. It trims down the narrative thread to one strand: Roland the gunslinger and Jake the Plot Device get in between The Man in Black, Walter, and his plans to, uh, destroy the universe. Because reasons.
In the novels, the gateway between our Earth world and other realms like Mid-World are doors. In the film, this is now some kind of pseudo-computational technology involving LCD displays and evil air traffic controllers. What was humble, artful and striking imagery in the books has been replaced with a shake-and-bake deus ex machina.
Whole contexts and rationales have been wiped away; motivations are completely different. The story pushes through seven books to get to some kind of climax that neither satisfies or brings the viewer any closer to understanding the titular dark tower’s tricks and twists. We will never see Susannah (or Odetta). We’ll never see the triumphant return of Father Callaghan. No ka-tet. No giant crabs. No missing fingers. No moments of abject horror or crawling, clawing desperation. Just a cut-and-dry, A-to-B trek with precious little context.
They even blew one of the purest opening moments of a story – two men, running across the open plain, one in pursuit of the other – the artfulness practically storyboards itself. Instead, we’re shuffled quickly through a bland, meandering and confusing introduction to one of fiction’s best tales – one that ends before it really begins. Pure waste.
This vast oversimplification is a damning injustice to the source material and shameful waste of potential. There is no journey here, apart from the disjointed location-hopping of the second act. In the chequered history of development-hell this franchise has endured, it’s a sad and sorry outcome that this, this, is what audiences were left with. Moreover, it somehow took a team of at least four credited screenwriters to deliver a script that feels like a bad episode of Stargate: Atlantis.
Perhaps the most damning collateral damage? If you’ve never read the books, nothing in this film would compel you to. That’s a travesty – this film does such a disservice to the core of the franchise that it might well actively discourage readers from ever taking the chance.
Stephen King might have kindly given his blessing to this trash heap, but his material deserves better – and so do we.