The Man In Black Walked Across the Desert

The Dark Tower (2017)

Say what you will about the works of Stephen KingRising to fame with the release of his first book, Carrie, Stephen King is one of the most prolific, and most successful, American authors (in any genre, not just horror). (and I've noted in the past that I think his writing is uneven and he's written some terrible endings for his stories), the man is absolutely prolific. He has 65 novels and novellas to his name, with more still on his desk, waiting to be finished. And he's managed to create something of a share universe, carrying over towns, characters, and concepts from one book to the next over time, slowly building his own pocket world.

That was made most obvious with The Dark Tower, a series of novels that became something of a magnum opus for the author. He wrote the first of the books, The Gunslinger, in 1982, and then added a new book to the run every few years, until the fourth novel, Wizard and Glass, in 1997. Then in 2003, after nearly dying, King cranked out the rest of the books, five through seven, in a couple of years, not wanting to let his grand series die with him (those who ave been avidly reading A Song of Fire and Ice, can understand that).

The Dark Tower is equal parts post-apocalyptic fiction, alternate dimension hopping adventure, and Tolkien-ian style mythical quest. It feels very different from much of what King has written but (at least, up until the last chapter of the last book) it still flows like the best of his novels. It's a sprawling, massive epic that really does go everywhere King could conceive, and then, because he's the way he is, the author still couldn't let go of the characters are wrote a bonus novel, The Wind Through the Keyhole, set between the fourth and fifth novels. King loves these characters and can't let them go.

This is all a lot of explanation to illustrate why the idea of tackling The Dark Tower as a movie, or series of movies, feels like a daunting task. Bear in mind that King doesn't write short novels. The Gunslinger is the shortest, and tightest, or the set, at 224 pages, but the rest grow from there, and they get very twisty, and very referential to King's other works. Various proposals were made over the years to try and adapt The Dark Tower the "right" way, from doing a movie based on The Gunslinger, and then a mini-series adapting the prequel portions of the fourth book, Wizard and Glass, in the lead up to a movie based on the second novel, The Drawing of the Three, but most of those plans fell through. It's just too big, and too sprawling, to fit in the Hollywood structure.

And yet, in 2017, we did get a film based on the series. Loosely based. Very, very, loosely based. The film does have a couple of the characters from the first book -- Roland, the Gunslinger (Idris Elba), a boy named Jake (Tom Taylor), and the Man in Black, Walter Padick (Matthew McConaughey) -- but in all other respects this is a very weird, unrelated version of the story that ditches so much of the source material that it may as well have not been called "The Dark Tower". Fans of the novels, and even anyone that had a passing knowledge of the stories, were not impressed.

The Dark Tower focuses on Jake Chambers (Taylor), a boy having nightmares that rule his every waking moment. He sees visions of mutants wearing human skin, lands twisted by war and disease, and a tall, dark spire sitting in the center of the world. He tells his mom Laurie (Katheryn Winnick) about it, but she doesn't understand, while his step-father, Lon (Nicholas Pauling), thinks he's crazy. But he's not, and his visions are the precursor to the power, the Shine, hiding within the boy.

A dark sorcerer, Walter (McConaughey), wants Jake. His Shine could be powerful enough to bring down the Dark Tower, the central spire that unites the worlds and keeps the universe functioning. Walter wants to end it all, to bring on the darkness in the name of the Crimson King. The only one standing against him is Roland Deschain (Elba), the former gunslinger hailing from the family of King Arthur. His guns forged from Excalibur, he's after Walter not to save the universe but for revenge: Walter killed his father, and everyone else Roland cared about, and now Roland will see him dead. Jake needs Roland for protection, and Roland needs Jake to get to Walter. Just maybe, in the process, the Tower can be saved.

As someone that has read the books, I didn't enjoy this film as it feels like a compressed, distorted, sanded-down version of The Dark Tower. The took, at that point, an eight-novel (plus one short story) series and, in effect, mushed it all down into a single, 95 minute film. So much of what made the stories special -- the bleakness, the wonder, and terror -- was missing, along with all of the plot, most of the characters, and anything to care about. Hell, it's not even a good adaptation of the first book, The Gunslinger, as it takes the setup from that novel, and then smashes it into the ending of the whole series... except not. It's... just weird. And stupid, that's for sure.

If you go into The Dark Tower, the film, you have to divorce yourself from everything you know. You have to accept this as it's own thing, distinct and unrelated to King's books. That's the only way to get into this story and maybe make it work. Bear in mind, what you'll then experience is a bland and uninteresting YA-lite adventure about a boy who meets a Gunslinger and then saves the world. It basically is King's idea but changed into what was popular in (ollywood in the mid-2010s (YA novel adaptations, as was the style at the time) without any concern for what the original novels were doing.

And that's a big issue: by taking the original novels and sanding them down into something palatable for (ollywood, they lost all the magic and wonder of the books. This film lacks any magic or wonder at all, in fact. Roland is a generic action hero with a chip on his shoulder. Jake is the special boy. Walter (who really should be Randall Flag, damn it) is just a bare-bones bad guy. Nothing they do is interesting in the slightest. And none of it gives you a good idea of why anything in the movie is happening at all.

Why does Walter want to end the universe? Destroying the Dark Tower (via Shine, projected out by kids, at the Tower) would end it all, but there's never any discussion of, "and then..." The whole plan is to destroy the Tower and then... nothing. No plans. No sense that there's a next step. Walter just wants it. If he were doing it because he wanted to die, or because there was a next step and he'd rule over the wasteland after, that would mean something. But because Walter doesn't have any depth, his whole plan is meaningless and lacking in substance as well.

That makes it hard to care about the heroes because, in the face of generic evil, of course the heroes will win. If Walter's plans were fleshed out, we'd know a possible next step and that might mean it could occur. But from a screenwriting standpoint, no further plans means the writers didn't consider it, and that means the bad thing won't happen. No worries that a sequel will occur where we'll have to see the heroes battle through the end of the world to try and save as much of humanity as they can. Nope, we know a super happy ending is on the way, so why bother caring.

That all gets back to the 97 minute runtime. I'm not sure 97 minutes is even enough time to adapt 224 pages from the first book, but it sure as hell isn't enough to flesh out a sprawling new take on this material. If you're going to do the whole epic (or some version of it) then you need time to flesh things out, to build, to make things interesting. This version of the story isn't interested in any of that. It boils the whole concept down to a generic chase story between a villain and heroes, and then has every save the day in the end. Film closed, nothing more to see. It's terrible.

I think a much better movie would be just an adaptation of The Gunslinger. Just on its own, with nothing else weighing on it. While that story isn't fully self-contained (it ends at a spot begging for a sequel), it's also the most complete single story in the set. Adapt that, properly, and then see about where to go next and how to handle the adventures. Films or mini-series or a long-from show, these stories need time to develop and reveal their full breadth. A 97 minute movie that rushed through all the details half-assedly just isn't the way to handle it. Not as a true adaptation, and not as something simply inspired by the source material.

I don't think the whole of The Dark Tower in unfilmable. I think the right studio, with the right creators, could make the right adaptation happen. I don't think that this 2017 film is the worst possible version that could have come from the novels. It's clumsy, it's rushed, and it doesn't understand the source material at all. Better to have just not called it The Dark Tower at all. Or, hell, they could have just not bothered to make this version. That would have worked, too.