Director: Nikolaj Arcel
Writer: Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, Nikolaj Arcel
Starring: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Claudia Kim, Fran Kranz, Abbey Lee, Jackie Earle Haley
Genre: Science Fantasy Western
The Dark Tower – Stephen King’s sprawling multi-volume epic – is widely regarded by many as an unfilmmable work, being far too expansive and multi-dimensional for the medium of cinema to handle. I’ve been defending the notion that you can make a great movie out of ANYTHING for some time. Does this one have me standing corrected? Well, not quite, but it tries its darndest at doing so.
Violence/Scary Images: Lots of fantasy gun violence. Some blood. Knife fights with some stabbing. Kids get into fights. A few explosions. Some scary drawings and monsters.
Language/Crude Humor: Some uses of the “S” word.
Sexual Content: None.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Use of painkillers.
Spiritual Content: None.
Other Negative Themes: Revenge-centered plot.
Positive Content: There really isn’t much. Roland learns to help and protect Jake after a while, but he’s more driven by revenge than anything.
From what I’ve observed, there are a few ways in which one can go about adapting a sprawling literary series deemed by many to be unsuitable for the silver screen due to its expanse, scope, or format. Many audacious approaches have been taken to varying levels of success and failure. I’m motivated to name and summarize a few here:
The Series of Unfortunate Events approach
This approach is something of a daredevil act in which one attempts to cram the entire narrative into a single film while taking great pains to retain whatever coherence to the story one could get from reading the books. For what flaws this film had, I still greatly appreciate its dedication and style as well as its winning performances. This method has a long track record of upsetting dedicated fans while at least grabbing the interest of newcomers. This is mostly recommended for more humble productions that have neither the resources nor the aim to let the story breathe more than they have to. And then many years later, someone invents Netflix and someone else gives it another go with a Netflix series.
The World War Z approach
This approach means essentially foregoing most of the material in the original source and focusing on what is largely an original work loosely inspired by the source material. At this point, one could be forgiven in thinking that the definition of the word “adaptation” is being stretched. With regard to actually connecting audiences to the original work, this approach can be rather unserviceable. There is an advantage to this method, since it liberates the filmmakers to simply do whatever will make the film respectable on its own merits rather than in relation to its muse. While this runs the risk of curtailing whatever interest the uninitiated might have to the original work, there’s no reason why this cannot be at least an accomplishment on some level. After all, isn’t this what Disney has been doing since its inception?
The Watchmen approach
This method is only for the daring, as it means following with complete and unshaking faithfulness to the source material as far as the medium will allow you to. Some will even go so far as to treat the original work as a preliminary script or storyboard depending on its nature. The approach is respectable in its brazen premise, though to go hard is to fail hard. Wherever the filmic medium presents a wall for the adaptation to collide with, collide it will. And what a collision it will be.
The Harry Potter approach
Dedicate a film per installment, get a bunch of directors with a diverse range of creative visions, cast actors willing to do this during the best years of their lives, and be willing to pay a LOT of money. Also, split the final installment into two films because reasons. And watch others do the same thing also because reasons. Just stay faithful to the material enough to keep the fans appeased. Shouldn’t be difficult, but watch someone screw it up right around the penultimate showing.
The Game of Thrones approach
Remember that David Chase already destroyed the stigma that television will always be an inferior storytelling medium to film way back in 1999 and go full ham on the thing. Charm everyone with your expanded approach and twiddle your thumbs while you wait for the source material to develop further. Excellent method for those looking for a more faithful and complete treatment. In my judgement, more adaptations should consider this approach.
The Lord of the Rings approach
Give the entire task to one masterful visionary, and have everything and everyone work out in just the right way at just the right times to make what is unarguably the Citizen Kane of the genre that will be revered and heralded internationally for years to come. Essentially lightning in a bottle. Good luck with that.
The Dark Tower approach
Be as grindingly conventional as you can muster without putting anyone to sleep, largely neglecting the scope of the work in order to service the convention. Good approach if you really don’t care two pence about the end result, just so long as you can say you were the first to do the adaptation. Sure, the actors may give their all, but that doesn’t mean you will, will you, Mr. Arcel? With your short run of films, I don’t expect Peter Jackson’s accomplishments, but surely you can do better than this. But of course, with this method, you shouldn’t do better.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Stephen King is crying himself to sleep in response to this lackluster treatment of what he has long considered his magnum opus. The Dark Tower novel series, a sprawling multifaceted dark fantasy epic making the wild attempt to draw together King’s countless other works into a single fictional universe is here reduced to a horribly-edited 90-minute cheaply-made action movie romp about a kid with special powers who helps a good guy stop a bad guy from destroying the world. Seriously, that’s all there is to it. Excellent form, Mr. Arcel.
It’s not as though there wasn’t enough raw material to work with. While I have little to no familiarity with the source, it seems to me that there is at least some degree of clarity in the structure of the plot – clarity that is largely lacking here. The film starts with a conundrum in that we are not given a clear understanding as to about what our psychic protagonist is receiving visions. Is Jake (an admittedly robust and versatile Tom Taylor) having visions of another world or a post-apocalyptic future? And why is he the only one in the city who has any concern for the uncomfortably frequent earthquakes going on? These are the baffling questions we should be left with if this approach is to work.
Once Jake finds and makes his way to this mysterious world (time?) of his visions and comes across Roland (a fittingly solid Idris Elba), it seems to happen by pure serendipity. Guess any time used for development was seen as wasteful by the powers that be, so that won’t do. No need anyway, since all these characters are really here to do is to find and kill a powerful ageless sorcerer known as “The Man in Black” (Matthew McConaughey), who is gathering children with the same powers that Jake has.
This psychic ability is known as “the shine” and is the only explicit call out to another Stephen King work that I could recognize on my own. It is also what the Man in Black (or Walter O’Dim, as his character is also known) plans to weaponize in order to destroy the eponymous Dark Tower, a massive monolith that acts as a beacon to both connect multiple worlds and provide a barrier against a world of darkness populated with hideous creatures. Walter wants to destroy this tower to let all the bad things in because…well, just because really. So Roland – the last of a knightly order of marksmen known as “Gunslingers” – and Jake have to find him and stop him because he’s not being very nice.
If you want to ensure that this approach will result in a woefully unsatisfactory product, it helps if you give the film as rocky and uncertain a production history as you’re able to manage, with the film going through multiple directors until you finally settle on one willing to do it for a Blow-Pop and a full tank of gas.
You’re also allowed to meekly gloss over all the world building details, but far be it from you to actually commit to any of them for more than a few expository tangents. Otherwise, they might actually develop and mean something. Can’t have that, now can we?
If there are action sequences to be found within the work, don’t put too much effort into making them interesting, engaging, or unique. Instead do it fast, cheap, and inconsequentially so that no one will care about them while they’re happening or remember them after they’re finished. This way, perhaps the uninitiated won’t bug anyone for a sequel to a movie that was clearly made by people who really didn’t want to make it. But you still have to end the movie with a promise of a series of sequels because this approach does require a small degree of insanity to fully work. Besides, you gotta throw the fans a bone, don’t ya?
The Last Airbender approach
Shoot your best friend in the leg, pay for half of his medical bills, club a baby seal to death, burn a crop field with kerosene oil, get drunk on the kerosene oil, wreck your car on a freeway without actually hitting anything, blame it on the last Bush administration, donate some blood, car bomb the blood bank that you just donated to, rob a convenience store of their supplies of mustard, nail polish, Cetaphil lotion, and Nutella, and use all those products to make a Jackson Pollock-inspired performance piece while stepping barefoot on a bed of LEGO pieces blindfolded.
Also, shave a kid’s head while you’re at it.
+ Decent performances + “Interesting” mythology
- Incoherent plot - Lame action sequences - Terrible editing - Weak pacing and payoffs
The Bottom Line
Imagine going to a restaurant where they serve you that Whopper you had for lunch last week and some three-day-old Chinese take-out and called it “filet mignon with rice pilaf.” You could almost respect the boldness if it didn’t make for such a poor meal.