My first introduction to Stephen King’s The Dark Tower came in 1987, as a freshman in high school. With The Gunslinger, I was dragged into a world that had moved on, full of slow mutants and barren landscapes, and the promise of a mystical tower at the center of it all that serves as the crux to all existence, and may or may not have a god in its residence. My 17-year journey with the epic story of Roland and his ka-tet was life defining, as the stories came out — sometimes with excruciatingly long breaks between — as I myself was growing into a man, and beginning my own journey into life itself. So, when I say that I’m a Dark Tower fan, I mean it. And it is because of this now-30-year love for the story that I sit here stunned at the feeble, and dare I say insipid, attempt at a film “adaptation” of King’s self-described Magnum Opus.
You’ve Forgotten The Face Of Your Father
The Dark Tower film is not the book series. It’s important to get that out of the way first. This is conceived and built around the idea of the film being a sequel to the events on the seven books that make up the epic tale (and countless tie-ins, comics, short stories, and the like). So, when we meet Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) living his life in New York, with his crazy visions of a “man in black” and of a tall tower, there is no context. Jake has “the shine” (one of many references to previous King stories at play here) and can see things across worlds, including what’s going on in Mid-World.
Walter O’Dim (Matthew McConaughey) leads a group of creatures dressed in human skin, called taheen, who collect kids with the shine and use them to fuel attacks on the Dark Tower. When Jake is discovered by Walter and his lot, they go after him, as he may have the purest shine of them all, and could be the final attack to finally bring the tower down. Jake, on the other hand, is exploring his visions in New York, and stumbles upon a house from one of his dreams. That house is a gateway, and Jake find himself transported to Mid-World, in the Mohaine desert, when he meets up with Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the last gunslinger, who is seeking Walter to kill him as revenge for killing Roland’s father (Dennis Haysbert). Roland gets sucked into Walter’s hunt for Jake, and with both our world (Keystone Earth) and Mid-World hanging in the balance, Roland must finally confront “the man in black” once and for all to get his revenge — and to save the tower, but only as a consequence of killing Walter.
The Man In Black Fled Across The Desert
If you’ve read the books, you know by that description how “off” all of this is. There are certain notes that hit the marks, but the whole production feels like a retelling of the King story, as told by a guy on meth. The high points are there, just fuzzy, and the narrative is all jumbled and discombobulated, as the drug-addled mind can’t seem to clearly remember the facts as they were.
The problems with the story sit firmly at the feet of screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, who has the “brown touch” when dealing with established properties. Goldsman was the screenwriter of Batman and Robin, arguably the worst comic book movie of all time, and was also the leader of the “story room” that destroyed the Transformers franchise. His strange desire to forego established mythology to add his own imprint absolutely ruins these iconic franchises, and The Dark Tower follows suit. Goldsman isn’t the only credited screenwriter, as Jeff Pinker, Anders Thomas Jensen, and director Nikolaj Arcel also get screenwriting credit.
That’s not to say that all is lost here. Tom Taylor does a fine job as Jake, and Idris Elba is a serviceable Roland. I don’t want to get into the casting choice here, just know that I don’t agree with it. Luckily, Elba deflects all that with his screen presence. McConaughey works as Walter, but without the context of all that the character, in his many forms and names, has done in the pantheon of Stephen King stories, a lot of his on-screen power is lost. For those who haven’t read the books, Walter also goes by the name Randall Flagg, who was the antagonist in The Stand. This is but one instance of the character’s dark footprints all over King’s career works; just know that there are many others.
Everyone Who Walks With You Dies
As a filmmaker, Nikolaj Arcel also does a decent job with the visuals, and the action scenes are all well done. Seeing some iconic locations of Mid-World come to life was nice, and The Dark Tower does what it can to highlight King’s collected stories into one cohesive world. It’s almost a mini-game to be played while watching, as there are a great many Stephen King references scattered throughout. But none of this can save the weak, nonsensical script that glosses over so much to tell a story of revenge, which is far, far away from the motivations of the characters in the books, sequel or not.
When all is said and done, The Dark Tower is the drunken Cliffs Notes version of a deep, beloved, and now-legendary book series. Audiences who have never read the books will come away with a taste — good or bad — of what the story is about, but long-time fans will be deeply disappointed and some will be enraged at how this epic story is treated on-screen. Some decent acting elevates what could have been an 90-minute crap-fest, though some will still feel like their beloved books series has been thoroughly ruined. Those of us that have dreamed for decades of seeing this world brought to life on the big screen will continue to wait, as this world is not the world we asked for. Luckily, there are other worlds than these.
The Dark Tower is rated PG-13 and is in theaters on August 4th.
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