Adaptations are risky. There’s an art to transforming a work from the page to the screen, creating something that works as a standalone film for those unfamiliar with the source material while also appealing to book readers who already have a vision of what the finished product should look like. Even the best adaptations have detractors: It’s impossible to please everyone.
Then there’s The Dark Tower, a misstep so colossal that it’s guaranteed to please no one. The film scarcely counts as an adaptation of Stephen King’s epic fantasy series: The script feels like it was cobbled together from the memory of someone who read the books years ago and then recounted his wonky fever dream about them. There are certain recognizable beats, linked together by REM logic, and a plot that borrows haphazardly from all seven of King’s lengthy novels. To fans of the Dark Tower series, the end result is a nightmare.
How did this go so wrong? The odds were stacked against it from the beginning. The Dark Tower is an expansive, unwieldy series with a dense mythology that requires a deep knowledge of King’s oeuvre (there are characters from ’Salem’s Lot and Hearts in Atlantis, among others) and a willingness to get seriously meta (Stephen King himself is also a character). That’s one of the reasons this adaptation has been stuck in development hell for years, and it’s why fans of the books have approached the film with a mixture of excitement and dread. As much as we’ve longed to see the gunslinger Roland Deschain on the big screen, we had come to the terms with the likelihood that much of the series cannot be translated to film.
And to its credit, The Dark Tower established itself not as a true adaptation of King’s series, but as something close to a sequel. This makes some sense given that the books — major spoiler alert — end at the beginning: When Roland finally reaches the Dark Tower, where he’s been guided by destiny over the course of seven novels, he finds himself right back where he started. And this is ostensibly where the film picks up, with Roland (Idris Elba) pursuing the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) across the desert. We know that Roland is stuck in a time loop, but there are hints that it might not be endless: When his saga begins again at the end of the last book, he has the Horn of Eld that he had lost in his last run-through. So while his quest is the same, we understand that the story will play out a little differently this time. And that knowledge allows readers to approach the movie with cautious optimism: This is a different timeline, and some changes to the narrative we know and love are inevitable.
That doesn’t explain the confounding mishmash of a plot The Dark Tower ends up with. Rather than simply adapt The Gunslinger, the fairly straightforward first novel in the series, it opts to incorporate elements from all of the books into a 95-minute movie. The attempt to streamline an incredibly convoluted storyline makes sense, but the execution is baffling — somehow they managed to make it both overstuffed and completely empty. It’s unclear how screenwriters Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, and Nikolaj Arcel thought they could condense thousands of pages into a single film, let alone one that runs just over an hour and a half. But that seemingly impossible task is only the first in a series of head-scratching decisions that make The Dark Tower such a disaster. The problem is as much about what they include as it is about what they leave out. It’s almost impressive how misguided this film is — literally every choice is the wrong one.
Perhaps the biggest misstep of all is how much of the movie rests on Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor). The Dark Tower should be Roland’s story, but the film sidelines the gunslinger in favor of giving more screen time to the youngest member of his ka-tet. Instead of an epic battle between good and evil — or even a much simpler showdown between Roland and the Man in Black — we get a generic story about a young boy who discovers he has special powers. That’s not only derivative — it also reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what made the Dark Tower series work. Much like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, King’s books work best when they’re subverting familiar tropes, whether the genre is Western, fantasy, or sci-fi. Instead, in an effort to make the material more accessible, the writers of this Dark Tower have regurgitated the blandest of YA plots.
The half-assed storyline might be somewhat forgivable if the film at least had a stronger sense of the characters that grounded King’s opus. When his story went off the rails — and that happened more often than books fans might like to admit — we had compelling, richly developed characters to keep us from losing interest. But aside from his iteration of the gunslinger code (“I do not aim with my hand…”), this Roland bears little resemblance to the book version. He is motivated not by the Tower, but by revenge against the Man in Black. And while he appears hardened by his past, his trademark stoicism quickly melts away as he bonds with Jake. One of the most memorable moments in The Gunslinger comes when Roland lets the boy fall to his death — the film's Roland will stop at nothing to save him. That, coupled with Elba’s natural charisma, might make him easier to root for, but it also renders him unrecognizable to book fans.
And if this movie isn’t for fans of the book, why include so many deep-cut references? A commercial with talking raccoons leads Roland to ask Jake if the animals in his world still talk, an oblique reference to billy-bumblers that means absolutely nothing to nonreaders. We see roses and the number 19 scattered throughout. And there are nods to the Crimson King but never any explanations as to who that is, or how he relates to the Man in Black. If these in-jokes were an attempt at appeasing fans, they backfire, serving only to remind readers of what might have been: a billy-bumbler reference just makes Oy’s absence that much more keenly felt. Meanwhile, The Dark Tower makes a point to include Sayre (Jackie Earle Haley), Pimli (Fran Kranz), and Arra Champignon (Claudia Kim), characters even those who have read the series probably only vaguely remember.
Rather than try to be a perfectly faithful adaptation or the clusterfuck that we ended up with, The Dark Tower could have learned valuable lessons from Game of Thrones. The HBO series has made plenty of diversions from Martin’s novels, but it has at least captured the themes and broad strokes of his story. But The Dark Tower has more in common with the dreadful 2007 adaptation of The Golden Compass, which also flattened a rich, complex narrative into completely forgettable pablum. That, too, should have been the start of an expansive series but turned out so disappointing that book fans were grateful the project was DOA. The Dark Tower may actually continue — the prequel series appears to be going forward — but don’t expect book readers who suffer through the film to tune in. For us, the Tower has already fallen.