At long last, Stephen King’s magnun opus has hit the big screen! Is The Dark Tower a worthy addition to the epic tale, or have the people involved forgotten the faces of their fathers? Find out now!
The Dark Tower (2017)
Starring: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor
Directed By: Nikolaj Arcel
Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series means a lot to me. A large chunk of my time in college was spent devouring those books, and the tale of Roland and his “Ka-Tet” as they traveled Mid-World to get to the Dark Tower had an incredible hold on my imagination. While some may be Harry Potter fanatics or worship the works of Tolkien, The Dark Tower was the series that latched onto my brain and took me on an adventure I’d never been on before. Naturally, Hollywood has tried to bring the tale of Roland and The Man in Black to the big screen for a long time now. J.J. Abrams tried, and couldn’t crack it. Same for Ron Howard. But now Sony Pictures has seemingly done it, with relatively unknown director Nikolaj Arcel.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, they forgot the faces of their fathers.
For a movie adaptation of such a sprawling and epic work of fantasy, The Dark Tower is aggressively mediocre. It moves along at a brisk pace, for sure, but those 95 minutes feel twice as long. Scenes that should be connective tissue are missing, and in their place are only ones that either feature action or move the plot along. Dark Tower is like taking the first three books of the series, making up an ending, putting it through a young adult novelization filter, and then filming the result. It features two of the best working actors around, but it barely does anything with them, though Idris Elba tries his hardest with the material he’s given.
The Dark Tower, pitched as a sequel of sorts to the original seven book series (eight if you count Wind Through The Keyhole), finds The Man In Black, also known as Walter (played by Matthew McConaughey) attempting to destroy the titular tower. Serving as a safeguard against the forces of darkness for our world and a host of others, the Tower can only be toppled if children with psychic powers known as “The Shine” (the first of MANY Stephen King references in the movie) are harnessed and shot at the tower. Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a young boy who lives in New York City, has been dreaming of the tower, the Man in Black, and the Gunslinger (Idris Elba), and is soon drawn into their conflict when it’s revealed that his Shine is stronger than others.
Before I jump into the aspects that don’t work about this movie, I’ll mention one of the few things that kind of works: Idris Elba. Now let’s get one thing out of the way: Idris Elba is black. Roland Deschain has typically been depicted as white. Get over it.
Still with me? Good.
Idris Elba brings the weariness and badassery that’s a requirement for anyone playing Roland Deschain. He makes you believe in not only the crazy exposition that he has to deliver in the midway point of the film, but also that he can pull off the awesome gunplay when it comes time for him to pull the trigger. I’ll even admit to getting some goose bumps when he first recites the Gunslinger oath.
But even he can’t help this film when the time comes, and the director and screenwriters (and even Stephen King himself, who had veto power over a lot of the film) make a pretty major flaw with his character. While Roland is looking for some vengeance against the Man in Black in the novels, that’s not his sole driving force. Roland believes he’s the only person who can protect the Tower, and it becomes his sole mission to do so, and he makes some insane sacrifices in the series to get to his goal. It’s this obsession that ends up being the driving theme of the series, as Roland learns that he needs the allies that he meets and loses on his journey. Taking that aspect away from him for this film might seem like a weird thing to nitpick, but when you’re as invested in this series as I am, it says a lot about how the people adapting the story viewed it. Instead of giving Roland the nobility of protecting the Tower because of destiny, the creators involved simplified that into a simple revenge story that takes a lot away from the character and his relationship with The Man in Black.
Speaking of him, let’s talk about Matthew McConaughey’s Man in Black, henceforth known as MIB or Walter because I’m tired of writing the whole thing out. I always imagined MIB being evil, for sure, but also a little off. He’s not a complete, moustache twirling schemer, but he’s definitely someone enjoys causing chaos and, as the yin to Roland’s yang, wants to destroy the Tower (I’d put him a few steps below The Joker on the “anarchy” scale). McConaughey though, sees him as a cool, swaggering guy who wants to topple the Tower because, well, it’s cool. He casually walks into scenes, tossing magical commandments like one would order food at a restaurant. And while some of these scenes work (there’s a particularly good one involving a little girl getting ice cream with her mom), McConaughey is slightly off. He’s both not sinister enough and too over the top. He keeps calling Roland “old friend”, thought we’ve only seen a brief aspect of their history together in the movie. He’s magical, more so than in the books, but for some reason Roland is “impervious to his Magicks”, which isn’t really explained either. McConaughey looks to be having fun at least, but with a character that has so many ties to Stephen King’s work (the Man In Black is also Randall Flagg from The Stand and a host of other King books), he doesn’t leave the impression I was hoping for.
Tom Taylor’s Jake is fine, but the movie centers too much of its brief running time on him, and not Roland. The first act of the movie is entirely on our world, and we don’t get to see any of Mid-World until Jake crosses over with the help of a dimensional terminal that sounds like an old dial-up modem (the doorways into Mid-World aren’t supernatural in this world; they’re a part of ancient tech). Using Jake as the audience surrogate makes a lot of sense, but with a movie this truncated, and with a marketing campaign that focused a lot on the battle between Roland and MIB, it’s definitely jarring, and you’ll find yourself waiting for Idris Elba to show up.
I like to think that, for the most part, I can separate an adaptation from the original work. Hell, there’s plenty of times where I’ve found that certain changes in adaptations were either well done, or I understood the reason for the changes. But here I just can’t wrap my head around why Sony, Nikolaj Arcel, and even Stephen King (who again, had veto power over everything) made the decisions that they made. It almost seemed like whenever they worried that the audience would be bored, they threw another reference to Stephen King’s other famous stories to keep the mega fans intrigued (it’s worth noting that while the Dark Tower series does cross over with other King works, it’s handled with a little more nuance than in this). The more I think about it, the more it seems like Sony got cold feet with their initial cut, and crafted a movie that would appease test audiences rather than just trust in the original vision for the movie. You can see what Arcel is trying to do with the film, but this feels like the work print cut that needs a little more time to flesh out the story.
As a glimpse into what The Dark Tower series is about, the movie is fine. As a straight adaptation, it’s a failure. As a sequel to the books, it doesn’t work, simply due to the fact that Roland’s father is killed by Walter in the film, where as Roland’s father dies when he’s only a teenager in the original story, a fact that, without giving anything away from the original novels, wouldn’t be changed in this movie due to the ending of the books. I doubt anyone going into this movie cold will be picking up a copy of The Gunslinger either, as it hinges on you having at least some working knowledge of what the series is generally about.
In the end, the one thing this Dark Tower fan was worried about came true. The movie isn’t the train wreck that the reviews or Rotten Tomatoes score would lead you to believe. It’s just a fine, middle of the road fantasy movie that has more in common with other franchise non-starters like Eragon, The Golden Compass, and The Seeker than Lord of the Rings, and that’s something that the series does not deserve at all. In retrospect, this should’ve been given to a network like HBO or Starz and given the prestige TV treatment. At least there you’d be able to go a little more in depth and wouldn’t feel the need to get a rushed, cliff notes version of the series on film.
For better or worse, the wheel of Ka moves on.