Recently, the international trailer for The Dark Tower hit online, prompting a bevy of analysis and discussions about the impending release of a film still very much shrouded in mystery, anticipation and a heap of trepidation. The filmic adaptation of Stephen King’s magnum opus – which serves as a lynchpin for practically the entirety of his shared fictional universe – has slogged through developmental hell for decades, finally coming to fruition as a modestly budgeted end-of-summer film that is being marketed as something between an action movie and a fantasy/sci-fi hybrid. Many fans of the series have expressed their concerns regarding the footage shown in the trailers, as very little of what has been revealed looks familiar. To a legion of King devotees who have waited decades to see this particular universe brought to life, this is incredibly disconcerting.
The director – Nikolaj Arcel – is a relative unknown, especially when contrasted to the previous directors attached to this project, including Ron Howard and the man who resurrected Star Wars, J. J. Abrams. Both men publicly outlined their respective strategies to tackle the Dark Tower universe in a manner that would be respectful to the source material, with Abrams wanting to do a full slew of films and Howard wanting to do both theatrical entries and a TV series to bridge the gaps between installments. While neither was necessarily a perfect approach to tackling what is an incredibly dense and nuanced work, what we apparently have now is the very thing fans have always feared: A quick and cheap cash-in via an ultra-condensed version of The Dark Tower mythology that will probably confuse the uninitiated and aggravate the fanbase.
In other words, something that was made to cater to both segments of the populace but will ultimately serve neither.
Before I continue, I want to make it clear that I’m still very eager to see this film. Both the director and King himself have stated that they see this movie as the equivalent of a sequel to the books – something that will make sense to those who have read them. I’m also open-minded enough to embrace the fact that whatever this film is, it won’t be the Dark Tower film I’ve envisioned since reading the first book as a kid. I would also be remiss not to mention that both Elba and McConaughey are fantastic actors – absolutely top shelf – so my hope is that, at the very least, this film will be an interesting addendum to a series of novels that I adore. I sincerely believe that The Dark Tower could be a great film on its own merits, removed from the burden of being a direct adaptation of the source material and instead function as a genuine sequel, especially given the inclusion of The Horn of Eld, an artifact that lends serious credence to the theory.
That understood, I do think that anyone truly vested in translating this universe to the screen should have taken a hard and protracted gander at the success of Game of Thrones, HBO’s phenomenally popular series adapted from the works of George R. R. Martin. Like King’s Dark Tower franchise, Game of Thrones is a dense, complex work filled to the brim with a variety of characters, parallel and intersecting plotlines, and shifting factions. The very notion of taking such a complex work and condensing it down into a two-hour movie is, at this point in the show’s run, unimaginable, and it is clear just how much character development, plotting and details would have to be winnowed down or otherwise tossed out to adapt even one of the GOT novels into a theatrical film.
The Dark Tower saga would lend itself beautifully to the cable series format, with each novel potentially being represented by a lengthy string of episodes that would fully encapsulate the rich tapestry of characters, settings, and sights afforded by King’s work. This isn’t about artistic merit or the capability of the director but rather a simple equation; an understanding that you can’t fit hundreds of thousands of words worth of storytelling into a two-hour construct and not expect to lose some pretty important details in the process. If King’s series of novels is a lake, the movie would be the equivalent of a 16-oz. water bottle – a container so fundamentally inappropriate for the task that it becomes difficult to imagine why they even bothered.
Compounding this disappointment is that studios clearly have come far enough to know better, yet persist in attempting these cash-ins instead of selecting the proper format and proceeding without the benefit of a long-term perspective. Consider for example the upcoming theatrical release of IT, which has garnered tremendous excitement. Based on another of King’s novels, IT is a massive tome and so the producers and director wisely decided to slice the story in half, essentially making two films to adequately address the content rather than dilute the impact of the narrative. And while there is most certainly franchise potential in The Dark Tower, the very fact that this film isn’t called The Gunslinger – which is the first novel in the series – suggests what we are getting is either very condensed or heavily altered.
Truthfully, we won’t know what we’re getting for a few more weeks but regardless of what the final product is – a grand continuum to the franchise or a muddled, incoherent cash grab – those of us who wanted a literal translation clearly won’t be getting it, even when the model to successfully accomplish such a tight adaptation has been around for six years, generating millions of dollars in revenue for all parties involved.
That said, I’ll be in the theater come August 4 with the sincerest hope of being proven wrong.