Adapting books into a visual medium like film is a very tricky gambit. Sometimes the filmmakers care very much about respecting the source material, resulting in cinematic masterpieces like To Kill a Mockingbird and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Sometimes the filmmakers do care about the source material, but for one reason or another, they end up making a film that fails to do the book justice, like comic book legend Alan Moore’s work. But by far the worst thing any filmmaker can do is not care at all about the source material, which is what happened with such works as the Percy Jackson series, Eragon, and the subject of today’s review, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower.
Stephen King’s history with adaptations has always been rather spotty. It seems that for every good adaptation of his work (The Shining, Carrie, Stand by Me, The Shawshank Redemption), there’s a bad one lurking just behind it (Maximum Overdrive, Children of the Corn, Dreamcatcher, etc.). Perhaps nothing illustrates this dichotomy better than the two big adaptations that came out in the summer of 2017, namely The Dark Tower on August 4th and It on September 8th. Whereas the latter stands at the time of this writing with an 86% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and rave reviews calling it one of the absolute best Stephen King adaptations, the former stands at only 16%, with many critics lambasting it as “wildly unfaithful and simplistic.” And honestly, as someone who read all eight books before the movie came out, I think they were right on the money.
Before I get into why, though, let me clear up a misconception often stated about this movie; Sony Entertainment (who distributed the film under their Columbia Pictures division) was not trying to condense the entire eight-book series (totaling 4,250 pages) into a single film running a measly 95 minutes. It was actually intended as a sequel to the books, which was made possible by how the end of the seventh and last book in the series revealed that protagonist Roland Deschain’s quest to find the tower was actually an extended cyclical time loop. In theory, this would have allowed the filmmakers to keep the story’s basic gist intact while having some license to change some elements around.
In execution, however, the film ends up a confusing mess haphazardly combining story elements from several different books in the series. Even though I’ve read the books, I still had trouble following what was going on, so I can only imagine what the film must feel like to someone who hasn’t read them.
The basic Lord of the Rings meets The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly premise of the books is kept intact. The gunslinger Roland Deschain roams an empty, post-apocalyptic fantasy world called All-World in a quest to find the Dark Tower, a universal linchpin that guards the universe against the primordial chaos. Roland believes that the Tower holds the secret to rebuilding his dying home. He has two main enemies that he faces in his quest. The first is an evil wizard called Randall Flagg (or the Man in Black/Walter O’Dim in the film), who seeks to control the Tower. The other is All-World’s despotic ruler, the Crimson King, who wants to destroy it. He is joined by several companions hailing from Earth in his quest, including Jake Chambers, Eddie Dean, Susannah Dean, and Father John Callahan.
However, the film seems to shift the focus away from Roland in favor of making his child companion from the first book, the aforementioned John “Jake” Chambers, into the main protagonist. This, I think, does a great disservice to Roland and his actor, Idris Elba. Granted, I think that Tom Taylor (Jake’s actor) is pretty good as far as child actors go, but I also think that more focus on Roland in his fantastical setting would have helped to better establish the unique universe that Stephen King set up in his books.
Of course, the fact that the film is only 95 minutes long certainly doesn’t help matters. You would think that a film in development hell for ten freaking years would have had at least a little more to offer us. This film definitely needed at least another twenty minutes to make it a proper introduction to the Dark Tower mythos.
One thing that definitely suffers from the minuscule run time is the main characters’ motivations. For example, Roland’s tragic backstory, which explains so much of his single-minded pursuit of the Tower and his need to save his decaying land, is very quickly glossed over in the film in a few short flashback sequences (most of which were re-shoots done after poorly received test screenings). We also receive no explanation as to why the Man in Black (played by Matthew McConaughey) wants to use the psychic energy he gathers from kidnapped children to destroy the Tower. The best we get is “Death always wins,” maybe suggesting an ultra-nihilistic viewpoint.
Furthermore, this is the complete opposite goal of his book counterpart. In the books, he wanted to seize control of the Tower and become a god. It was the Crimson King, who is directly related to the demonic creatures that live in the primordial chaos, who wants to destroy the Tower so he can rule over the chaos left in the void. What makes this even more confusing in the film is that at several points, we see graffiti declaring ALL HAIL THE CRIMSON KING, which just made me wonder where the hell he was supposed to fit into this mess if the filmmakers were going to make the Man in Black into a copy of him.
There were also several instances in the film where I thought that the book’s key terms were misused. For example, when a bolt of psychic energy strikes one of the energy beams that hold up the Tower, Roland refers to the event as a “beamquake.” In the books, however, a beamquake happens when one of the beams actually snaps, which, on top of leaving the Tower more vulnerable to collapse, results in the fiery destruction of any ground that lay in the path of the beam.
Another term I thought was misused was “taheen.” In the film, Roland uses it to refer to the half-human half-rat minions of the Man in Black hunting him and Jake down. However, in the books, the rat-men are referred to as “can-toi,” or “low men.” They are hybrids of humans and the taheen from the books, who are basically humanoid creatures with animal heads (very much like Egyptian gods in appearance) who are speculated to be the only supernatural beings left in All-World. The taheen in this film, however, are basically nothing more than generic evil minions.
Some other miscellaneous elements that didn’t make sense:
- Roland’s character arc was stupid. He starts out being as nihilistic as the Man in Black, also thinking that the Tower’s going to fall one day anyway, so why bother protecting it? He now only seeks to kill the Man in Black for the sake of revenge. Except… wouldn’t that still be protecting the Tower? You know, killing the single biggest threat to its existence? Roland gets lectured more than once about putting revenge ahead of protecting the Tower. I don’t see how the two can be mutually exclusive in this case.
- Speaking of things about Roland’s character that don’t make sense, what was the deal with him being immune to the Man in Black’s magic? It doesn’t really add anything to the story other than plot armor for Roland. The optimist in me wants to think that the writers may have had an explanation for this, but it’s probably more likely that they couldn’t figure out a better way to stop the Man in Black from just killing him on the spot.
- At one point in the film, Roland sees a GEICO commercial featuring talking raccoons and asks Jake if the animals still speak in his world. This joke makes no sense even if you have read the books, because talking animals never show up. The closest we get (aside from the aforementioned can-toi and taheen) is Oy, a billy-bumbler (looks like a cross between a raccoon and a corgi) that Jake adopts as a pet in Book III, The Wasteland. Even then, his speaking abilities are no more developed than that of the average parrot, repeating simple words and syllables that he hears the rest of the team speaking.
There were elements of the film that I liked. While Idris Elba was a controversial pick since his character was white in the books, I personally thought he nailed the gruff personality of Roland Deschain, even if the script didn’t leave him much to work with. I also liked Tom Taylor as Jake Chambers, even if he did steal the spotlight for the first half-hour, and the bonding scenes between him and Roland were a definite highlight. Matthew McConaughey was also clearly having a lot of fun playing the deliciously depraved Man in Black, and watching him snatch Roland’s bullets out of the air with his bare hands and kill people just by telling them to stop breathing was both entertaining and terrifying.
The visuals, I thought, were also well done. The portrayals of All-World in all its decaying glory were a lot like how I imagined them. The way the Dark Tower itself was portrayed in the film, soaring high above the clouds, definitely does justice to its status as the center of all reality. Finally, the action scenes were exciting to watch, even if the Man in Black’s death was a little too unrealistic. Seriously, how does a .45 caliber bullet wound to the head not leave any blood? (Speaking of which, the film really shouldn’t have been a PG-13 film. The books had a lot of foul language and bloody violence, as do most Stephen King books. Granted, the former wasn’t really present until Eddie Dean joined the team in book two, but still…)
In the end, I think my main problem with the film comes down to the execution. The world set up in the book series involves an order of Old West-style gunfighters descended from King Arthur and his Round Table knights (Roland’s revolvers are even fashioned from Excalibur’s blade) roaming a post-apocalyptic world that suffered a nuclear war so terrible that the world still hasn’t recovered thousands of years later, with magical and supernatural threats lurking around every corner. On top of all that, the laws of space and time are slowly unraveling due to the Crimson King’s constant attacks on the very Tower that is holding the universe together.
The film does justice to almost none of these elements. It takes a maddeningly pedestrian approach to everything in its unique and imaginative source material, treating it like nothing more than your average shoot ’em up action film, but with a supernatural twist.
I’ve read rumors on the Web that a follow-up series that Amazon is developing (originally a sequel series adapting Roland’s backstory as depicted in the fourth book, Wizard and Glass) will be revamped as a complete reboot of the franchise. I’ll wait for the series to air before I judge it (which might not be a while, since Amazon passed on the pilot in January). As for the film, I give it a 5 out of 10. It is a shame that the filmmakers made such a flat and uninspired film out of such vibrant and imaginative source material. To paraphrase Rotten Tomatoes: “Go then, there are better Stephen King adaptations than this.”