After a difficult development, The Dark Tower hits cinemas in August. Let’s take a look at its possibilities of success.
The Dark Tower series is one of the most well loved of Stephen King’s works. I fell in love with the novel series in 2004 after finding the first novel The Gunslinger at Sydney Airport. The airport bookshop was carrying the first two of the series and I was about to spend two weeks on a beach. I’d only read a few of King’s books at this stage, had generally liked what I’d read, and decided to give it a go.
I was immediately taken with the series. It’s an amazing mix of high fantasy, western, sci-fi and horror, which King himself described as his magnum opus. A film adaptation titled The Dark Tower hits the silver screen this August, and I don’t know how to feel about it.
I’m generally happy for my favourite novels to remain novels only. But there are some that I’d dearly love to see brought to life. Not so much for the sake of the story itself, but more for some of the visuals that my tiny brain struggles to imagine.
A classic example is the battle outside Minas Tirith in The Return of the King. I’ve come to hate the overuse of the word ‘epic’ in today’s language, particularly when it’s used to describe things that are usually quite mundane, but that scene WAS epic. Tolkein’s language is so immersive and heroic that it’s hard not to get swept up in the scene.
‘Death, but not for you, Gunslinger’.
But for all the majesty of the writing, it is still amazing to see the scene brought to life. I don’t even care that it’s 190% CGI (exaggerated for effect and to avoid actual research). And with every re-read of the novel since viewing the film, my imagination enhances Tolkein’s words with Peter Jackson’s own imagination, and my whole experience is better for it. Ultimately, I feel that a good film adaptation can compliment a novel, and vice versa.
In this article I’m going to examine what we know of The Dark Tower adaptation so far. I’ll outline (without spoiling) King’s original story, fawning over it some more, and touch on some of the features that made the story so great. I will look at the development history of the film and also discuss some of the things that I’ve seen in the trailer that I’m excited about, and some things that I’m not so excited about.
The Man in Black fled across the desert and the Gunslinger followed.
Think of all the novels you’ve ever read. Can you remember the opening lines? You’ll remember characters, plot, maybe a few scenes. But very few opening lines I’d imagine. The opening line of a novel should convince you to read the first page, and the first page should convince you to read the book (ideally). But once the line hooks you, chances are you won’t remember it.
I’ll never forget the opening line to The Gunslinger however. It’s etched into my brain (and the sub-heading above). This line tells you so much about the characters, the tone and the setting of the story in just a sentence. And while a picture can paint a thousand words, sometimes just a few of the right words, can do so much more. This is the trouble with adapting great novels to movies.
What is The Dark Tower’s story?
The Dark Tower novels tell the tale of Roland Deschain. He’s a Gunslinger, which is a kind of mix between a knight, a cowboy and a noble.
Roland comes from Mid-World. A world that’s a strange mix of Old West and medieval. This is somehow both pre-industrial, post-industrial and post-apocalyptic!
Mid-World is dying, and as the last Gunslinger, Roland is charged with a quest to find the Dark Tower in order to stop that from happening. The Dark Tower being some kind of a nexus of time and space mcguffin. He doesn’t know where it is. But he’s going to get there.
Roland has a nemesis. The Man In Black. He goes by a few names, Walter O-Dim, Randall Flag are just a few of them. He’s been a reoccurring villain in quite a few King novels, but he’s more like a Saruman, than a Sauron (to continue the LOTR analogy). A seriously evil dude (The Walking Dude – for The Stand readers), who just wants to watch the world burn.
Along the quest to the Tower, Roland finds some companions. In the book, these are Jake Chambers, a young boy from a 1980s New York; Eddie Dean, from New York in the 1980s; and Odetta Holmes from…New York in the 1960s.
New York in kind of a big deal in this series. We only know for sure that Jake will appear in The Dark Tower movie at this stage. But I hope we’ll see the others (including Oy, a strange Raccoon/Dog hybrid).
Why I love The Dark Tower.
I’ve always been a fan of the fantasy genre and King’s work. So The Dark Tower was right in my wheelhouse. But there are many things to love about the series that I hope can be translated well into the film.
Firstly, Roland makes for a great protagonist. There’s no denying he’s a hero, but he’s not without significant flaws and contradictions. While he cares for and loves his companions, he struggles with the possibility of having to sacrifice them for his quest.
Roland is also incredibly formidable. And not just physically. As his enemies are quick to point out, his most dangerous asset is his unyielding will. In the novel, Roland is tempted many times to ‘swear off the Tower’. But he can’t. As his companion Eddie Dean puts it, he’s ‘a tower junkie’. Which also puts his companions on edge, who wonder where he’d stand if confronted with a choice between them and the tower.
Like a lot of King’s works, the mood of the series is quite dark (which shouldn’t be a surprise). You won’t be comfortable when reading these books. And I don’t expect you’ll be comfortable watching the movie either (mentally, not physically).
There are some difficult subjects: addiction, mental illness, murder and of course plenty of death. These themes are wrapped around the main characters so masterfully that you’re pulled through their journeys with them. You can’t look away and you won’t want to.
Don’t forget the art!
Hardback copies of the novels also come with some great artwork by some amazing illustrators. My favourites were the first and seventh novels and the artwork my Michael Whelan. An amazing artist whose style and colour doesn’t seem to have been adopted during the development of the film (if the trailer is any indication). This is a little disappointing for me, but I won’t write it off yet.
There’s also a really great Graphic Novel series by Marvel that details some of the events that take place before the novels, and events that are only hinted at during the novels. I’m working my way through these now and I love them. The art in these is also awesome, with many great artists working on the project, including Jae Lee, one of the industry’s best.
The prospect of seeing all these things being brought to life is intoxicating. The realisation that it might be possible to replicate in anything but a superficial way fills me with dread.
It can’t be easy to adapt…
Stephen King’s novels have never been easy to adapt. King himself has proved hard to please with greats such as Stanley Kubrick failing to please the author with his adaptation of the Shining.
His shorter stories have fared better however. The Shawshank Redemption is an adaptation from a King novella that received much praise. If there’s a trend to be seen here, it’s that perhaps the longer stories result in worse adaptations. Well, The Dark Tower is one of King’s longest…
There is fantastic imagery in Dark Tower novels. They have scenes that were so vividly described that I can remember where I was when I read them. And not just the place, but the warmth of the room, the time of day and the music I was listening to. As though the words hypnotised my brain into exceptional memory retention. That’s a lot for a movie to live up to.
I don’t want to get into a literary sledging match with anyone, but adapting something like The Dark Tower is going to be a little more difficult than your average shiny vampire, dystopian future movie for teens. It’s a seven novel series, with ties to dozens more of King’s stories.
King’s created very complex characters, with deep (and sometimes connected) backstories. A fully realised fantasy world, with its own history and legends. There’s no simple way to adapt that (and I have to come to terms with this).
But I’m not the only one who’s realised that this adaptation is next to impossible (of course not, and the people you’re about to read about are far more talented than me).
A difficult development history
Ten years ago. I still had hair, a slightly mobile metabolism, no children keeping me awake ’till the small hours. And J.J. Abrams was in the midst of a moderately successful TV show called Lost. Not satisfied with his wins at the time, he and his fellow (Damon Lindelof) took a stab at adapting The Dark Tower.
The pair were obviously daunted by the scope of the project however and their attachment to a planned seven movie series started to look in doubt. Eventually, the pair dropped out of the project altogether after their three year option expired.
Happy days followed shortly after when Ron Howard announced that he’d be taking up the quest (get it?…Happy Days…Ron Howard?…shut up). Howard paired with Universal Studios to create a trilogy of films with two TV series sandwiched in the middle. This was promising news for fans of the series. Howard was an Oscar winning director who had worked with some of the film industries best (and will soon be working on this little flick).
But alas, the happy days were soon gone. Despite having names such as Javier Bardem and Naomie Harris attached, Universal soon passed on the idea. Howard kept working away at getting the series off the ground however, with Warner Bros, Columbia and even Netflix being touted as a possible home for the movies and TV series.
Warner Bros, with Akiva Goldsman now writing, were lining up Russell Crowe and Aaron Paul for the main roles. Eventually they too passed on The Dark Tower.
The film’s saviour came in the form of Sony Pictures. Howard moved on (but remains a producer for his loyalty) and Nikolaij Arcel was brought in to direct. I don’t know much about him, but that’s not a bad thing. More on him later.
So will The Dark Tower movie be any good?
That’s the million dollar question (the producers will be hoping for more than a million). So let’s break it down.
Firstly, the studio. Sony have not had a lot of success lately. In fact, they haven’t had a significant hit since Spiderman in 2002 (significant in this instance being $500 million gross).
In terms of brand recognition, The Gunslinger is nowhere near as well known as Web-Slinger. So I’m sure that Sony wouldn’t be expecting Marvel/Star Wars/Disney levels of success. But they’ll want a reasonable return for this film, and with a reported budget of only $60 million, they might get it.
Sony are able to make good films. It’s just been awhile. In this instance, they have good source material to work from, and good writers (Goldsman is still attached) to adapt that material.
As for the director, he’s not terribly well known, but he’s an up and comer. He helped adapt The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and directed the well received A Royal Affair, starring Mads Mikkelsen. Sony are trusting this fellow with a potential new franchise, they must have quite a lot of faith in his talent.
And back to the budget for a moment. $60 million is not a lot of money (for a film, that is. It buys me a lot of Chicken Big Macs). I’m not sure what they’re spending on promotion, but if that added another $40 million, Sony are still only spending $100 million on the film. It’s a fairly safe amount, and if the film does well, it might make a tidy profit. We’re probably not talking Deadpool money (it had a similar budget), but maybe enough to kick off a sequel or two.
Alright, Alright, Alright!
Don’t forget the stars of the film either!
Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey star as Roland and The Man in Black respectively. These are choices that I’m very happy with. Elba has gravitas to spare. He is perfectly suited to this role. He projects an air of majesty like no other, but still looks like he could tear the head off a grizzly.
And McConaughey? Who better than him to play an unassuming, but completely twisted and evil villain? (No one, says I). These are great castings that give me much hope.
And one more thing…
This isn’t strictly speaking a direct adaptation. It’s more like a sequel to the novels. I can’t say too much more without spoiling the end of the novels, and potentially the movie. But when I heard this little tidbit of information, I was very intrigued and quite pleased with the reported approach. I’ll leave it at that…
The clearing at the end of the path
Any novel adaptation is fraught with danger for a movie studio. Particularly one like Sony Pictures, who will be relying on movies like The Emoji Movie to keep investors happy this year. But no great movie franchise has ever been made without some kind of risk.
I’m glad that The Dark Tower is finally getting made. The time is right. There are good writers attached, great actors and a director who clearly knows how to make a good film.
If this film bombs then it wasn’t meant to be. I’ll probably still buy the Blu-ray and sit it on a shelf next to The Shining and The Stand and any other great King novels that seem impossible to adapt. But as mentioned in that little paragraph above, Arcel and his team have a little ace up their sleeve. A kind of ‘get out of the adaptation free’ card that I think will come in handy and lets the makers tailor the source material to the medium of film.
I can’t wait to see it!