Since 2007, Steven King’s The Dark Tower has been in development hell shifting hands from J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof, and Ron Howard before ultimately landing in the grasps of Akiva Goldman, Jeff Pinker, and Nikolai Arcel. With Idris Elba as Roland Deschain, Tom Taylor as Jake Chambers, and Matthew McConaughey as the Man in Black, The Dark Tower is finally in theaters.
There is a valuable lesson to take to heart whenever a movie adaptation of a beloved series is released. That is, a movie adaptation will never be the direct visualization of the comic book, video game, or especially the novel. It is a retelling by a screenwriter, director, editor, and many other people involved that will most likely not match what you see in your imagination. While a novelist like Stephen King has to answer to his editor, his literary agent, and his publisher the creative vision is mostly squarely on his shoulders. When that book is turned into a movie there are many hands in the pot including more frequently lately the original author. The man in black fled across the desert, and the spoilers followed.
While Stephen King has given The Dark Tower his blessing, the movie suffers from poor pacing, over emphasis on action, and condensing of the story to point of being unfollowable to new viewers. What this movie was lacking was time to breathe. It isn’t a Marvel superhero romp that has to keep the action constantly balanced with the exposition. What exposition it does deliver is quickly toppled over by the next to the point where Tower Junkies like me would blink and we’d miss a reference. It’s not so much that the story was hard to follow but the problem was there was no chance for the audience to take in plot points and exposition before being given more.
Idris Elba, for the most part, nails Roland’s stoicism, stubbornness, and one track mind for his goals but is given a cliched motivation of revenge rather than the obsession with the Dark Tower that colors his entire personality. Part of this character’s appeal is the mystery that surrounds him and his past but because this movie condenses plot points from many of the novels at once we are given too much of Roland’s backstory before we can form an opinion about him. Instead, they wholesale copied the reluctant king arc of Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings films, replaced all mention of “king” with “gunslinger” in the script, and handed it to Elba. The actor makes it work and we get glimpses of what could have been throughout the movie.
The mystery of the world and the Dark Tower is the other part of the story’s appeal but the movie shows the tower itself so many times and at such a fast pace that the audience is left asking why should I care? By withholding the tower the audience would feel as Roland does, a desperation for the tower to the point of obsession. Elba’s Roland doesn’t feel that though. For Jake and Roland, they traded less common tropes such Roland’s obsession and Jake’s neglectful parents, with tropes that quite frankly people are tired of e.g. Roland’s obsession with revenge for his dead dad and Jake’s tragic death of his parents.
This leads to the largest issue with the entire movie. Laurie Chambers, played by Katheryn Winnick who is best known as the fierce shieldmaiden on the show Vikings, is used as a plot device to bolster the evilness of McConaughey’s Man in Black, give Jake tragic motivation, and what might be worst of all is used for Roland to introduce to the Gunslinger’s Creed. It is lazy writing and cheapens all four character in the process.
Still, the movie is not without merit. It gives a satisfying confrontation between the Gunslinger and the Man in Black that was denied throughout the book series. The actual gunslinging itself is well done as it made me feel Roland’s other worldly talent using bullet time at a balanced speed that kept the action movie quickly and conveyed how much faster he was than his enemies. At first, McConaughey’s Walter o’Dim was too clean cut, too head of an evil organization rather than the frightening sorcerer that sends shivers down your spine but as the movie progresses he becomes more of a combination of the two. He sells the chaotic evil well even if it comes cheaply at some points.
Lastly, the aesthetic and the settings of the movie fails to impart that the world has moved on, as we’re repeatedly told. The Gunslingers are gone but Roland’s clothes still look freshly cleaned underneath that duster with the few scuffs on it and with a closely cropped hair and facial hair to go with it. The world has moved on but The Man in Black and his cronies sure do operate from a shiny new building with freshly pressed clothes. The world has moved on but the one village we get to see in Mid-World, Roland’s world, is fairly clean with healthy looking people with working sci-fi technology they claim they’re not supposed to have. The world has moved on, they say but it isn’t felt and the movie spends more time in New York City than it does in Mid-World so we’re never given the chance to.
The Dark Tower is an okay movie. Generic, mediocre, a grade of C-, but suffers even more because of its potential to be great. It needed a longer run time to take in the characters and the worldbuilding. It needed the aesthetic King describes in his intro to the first volume, The Gunslinger, of “Tolkien’s sense of quest and magic [in The Lord of the Rings] but set against [Sergio] Leone’s Western backdrop [of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly]. It needed fewer cliche tropes for character arcs and motivation.
One of the major problems is the story of Roland Deschain and the Dark Tower doesn’t necessarily fit into one genre. It has a foundation built on westerns and fantasy with horror, science fiction, and post-apocalyptic dystopia mixed in. The problem with making a movie of a story like that comes down the question every film studio has to ask: “How do we market this?” Because of this, The Dark Tower has to fit into the box of action thriller and the story suffers for it.
Follow Joshua MacDougall on Twitter @FourofFiveWits.