DISCLAIMER: It’s really hard to discuss The Dark Tower as a stand alone film without discussing the source material since the way it handles said material adds to why the film on its own doesn’t work at all. In order to properly illustrate the film’s fundamental flaws, comparisons to the books have to be made, so there will be spoilers.
After 10 years and a handful of directors attached to the project, The Dark Tower has finally been adapted for the big screen. Based on the epic, ambitious, and dark eight book series by Stephen King, this 95-minute, PG-13 film revolves around a young boy, Jake (Tom Taylor), who stumbles into an alternate dimension called Mid-World. There the last Gunslinger, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), is trying to protect to titular tower from being destroyed by the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) through the minds of psychic slave kids whose origins aren’t explained. In case that synopsis didn’t raise any red flags for hardcore fans of the epic series, this adaptation of King’s “magnum opus” is not only going to anger every single fan, but it’s also likely to leave casual film fans confused and likely bored as the film on its own is an incompetently crafted and generic fantasy film.
The big issue right off the bat is that the film is a complete and utter mess. It’s taking bits and pieces from primarily the first and third books in the series as a way to introduce viewers to the world of The Dark Tower. However, since there is so much material to cover in order to properly build this world, things are merely mentioned, but never really explained at all. For those who don’t know much about the books, prepare to be confused. What’s even worse is that this film is trying to cram in all of this world building within an hour and a half. Because of this, the film feels like a mashing of ideas with no explanations and absolutely no primary focus to drive the film forward.
The film is also a mess in regards to tone. It’s not only a disservice to the books in that regard, but it’s also incredibly inconsistent. While the books jump from horror to fantasy to western, it always retains a bleak, brutal and desolate tone to ground itself (that would never be caught dead in a PG-13 rated adaptation). The film, on the other hand, is a fish out of water comedy, a mid-90’s Jumanji-esque family film and a young adult fantasy all at once. Not only is that a disservice to the books, dumbing down the source material to aim for better ticket sales, but it also just makes things even more muddled and inconsistent while ruining any possible tension and stakes that were still lingering at this point.
The film being a mess is far from its only issue. It also suffers by making everything from Jake Chambers’ perspective, the young boy who accompanies Roland, the main character of the film. The issue is that Jake is an incredibly uninteresting character in the film. Also, the actor playing Jake is really bland and has no personality, which really helps make him much more uninteresting as a cinematic protagonist. In the books, Jake has more interesting character development and is a more sympathetic character due to his terrible situation (none of which could be depicted in this PG-13 movie, by the way) and he was mostly a side character to Roland, the protagonist. We saw everything from the point of view of Roland, who was also a deeper and much more interesting protagonist in the books. Idris Elba is also a fantastic choice to play Roland, so to see his talents be wasted as a side character with no development, is just as frustrating as Roland not being the main character of his own film.
Speaking of Roland, the film also royally screws up his character arc and motivations. In the books, Roland’s primary motivation is to beat the Man in Black (McConaughey) in order to stop the Tower from being destroyed, with personal vengeance being secondary. While that should be his primary motivation in the film, Roland seems more worried about exacting vengeance than saving the Tower. There’s even a scene in the film where Jake acknowledges this and calls Roland out on it because the change is that detrimental to his character arc and, therefore, incredibly stupid. By altering his primary motivation, it not only makes Roland look completely selfish, but also makes the film even more confusing to first time viewers because even they will be wondering why Roland is more worried about exacting vengeance than the ever increasing probability of apocalyptic chaos. There’s other changes that completely go against Roland in the books, but his motivation is by far the most frustrating.
They also do a terrible job of explaining the backstory of the Man in Black. In the books, the Man in Black is a sorcerer, servant to a greater evil, and actually has a deeper and more vicious past with Roland, his home and his family, which makes him a perfect enemy for Roland and a source of his personal torment. In the film, he’s just evil for the sake of being evil. He has no motivation whatsoever besides that he wants to destroy the tower for no real reason. They also make him the big villain of this universe when in all actuality, the big villain is the Crimson King (which explains that vandalism in the house that stores the portal to Mid-World) who wants the tower to fall in order to create universal chaos and rule in said chaos, and also has personal familial ties to Roland as well, adding emotional stakes to the books. The film rarely delves into that, instead just cheaping out in favour of an easy stock villain who can be developed quickly enough for this hour and a half long film. The best thing to come out of the film’s Man in Black is McConaughey’s performance. Because of how bad the material is, he doesn’t really try at all, instead he just strolls around the set, delivering his terrible lines (including one about how they don’t have chicken in Mid-World) as if he were parodying his suave performances in the Lincoln car commercials. As terrible as that sounds, he’s definitely the comedic highlight of the movie, intentional or otherwise.
The final major flaw of the film is how it establishes references to King’s other works as an author. Throughout the film, we get bombarded with references to Cujo, Christine, 1408, IT, and The Shining, without receiving any sort of explanation as to why these are there. The reason why these references exist is because the Tower is what keeps this giant universe and its many dimensions, worlds and timelines together without creating total chaos, and all of King’s works exist in this shared universe. Even characters from this film have been featured in other works by King. For example, the Man in Black, who is often referred to as Randall Flagg in the books, is also in King’s epic novel The Stand. However, the film doesn’t, at any time, explain that at all, which would lead anyone to justifiably assume that the director was just paying homage to all of these different properties.
With all of these changes and exemptions from the book, the first question in everyone’s mind is probably going to be, “Why bother calling this The Dark Tower then?” The filmmakers and Stephen King addressed this by saying this is a sequel to the book series, which actually makes a bit of sense on paper. The books end with Roland reaching the Tower, but finding out that he’s been here before as he is transported back to the beginning of the series, but now with the Horn of Eld, which signifies that he is close to finishing his mission. With such a Sisyphean ending, seeing a sequel to the books would at least be kind of interesting if done right. However, they never really establish that this is a sequel, indicating that they used that more as an excuse to “justifiably” deviate from the source material, and make this dumbed down and lazy adaptation possible.
To put it very nicely, The Dark Tower takes the rich mythology of Stephen King’s outstanding source material and puts it into a blender to serve to us without any context or explanation. Not only will the rushed nature as well as the major and detrimental changes completely alienate and anger the hardcore fans, but it’s also going to leave anyone who doesn’t know anything about this world confused and bored. Ideas are presented but never explained, interesting characters are reduced to smaller roles, side characters are turned into bland protagonists, the villains are all mashed up into one character, and it all comes out as one big mess because it’s such a short, neutered and incompetent film. For those who are actually interested in Dark Tower lore, you’re best off getting your hands on the books and should avoid this film at all costs. If you’re a huge fan of the source material, just enjoy the books and avoid this film at all costs. Maybe in ten years, someone will have the common sense to adapt this epic into a series on HBO, but until then…this is the best we can get.
(Featured Image: The Dark Tower, Columbia Pictures)