Considering ‘The Dark Tower’ in context.
Stephen King hasn’t necessarily had the best luck with adaptations. That contentious question, however, boils down to a more complex version of the “quantity vs. quality” debate. Is the critically-acclaimed The Shining enough to solidify King’s place in the film world despite him despising it? Is his directorial disaster Maximum Overdrive enough of a terrifying and tragic legacy for his hands-on approach? And what of the adaptations somewhere in between? Here in 2017, we have reached the hottest Stephen King year in a while, since a two year period that saw the release of Cujo, The Dead Zone, Christine, Children of the Corn, Firestarter, Cat’s Eye, and Silver Bullet, King’s works are seeing Netflix shows and big-budget releases. In this environment, ripe for the hit-and-miss nature that follows anyone as prolific as King, this is where we find The Dark Tower.
The series, like its tower, sits in the middle of King’s universe. It is its unassailable core — its fragile monolith. So any adaptive approach to the seven book series was going to be…messy. And it was always, always going to warrant a primer for those uninitiated to the multiverse. However, The Dark Tower actually works as a standalone movie – even if the hurdles it must jump to reach this goal make its more interesting parts stumble.
The Dark Tower should never have been an action blockbuster. It’s a sprawling epic of spaghetti western, fantasy, and the mixture of intertextuality and nostalgia that is King’s calling card. However, now that it’s here, it’s not a terrible way of getting his message across, especially compared to how some of his other works have hit the screen. By placing the film as both prologue and epilogue, the beginning and end of a narrative loop that is the series (remember The King in Yellow in True Detective? He’s the Crimson King here), it stands almost outside of the texts as its own entry. It is one that plays with and embraces the spirit of the text’s elements, but one that doesn’t try to map a one-to-one logic to any of the stories because doing so would be impossible.
This allows it to be a light yet complete tale that acts as its own primer, one that hints at the mysteries and mythologies of the books, yet ties with a too-neat bow. Sure, there’re terrible parts (it’s Stephen King, and even as a fan, it’s no secret that there are always terrible parts) but its goal is complex and full of compromise. It’s a strategy that will tantalize younger viewers with hints of its true scope, teasing them with the vastness of the novels. King himself likes the adaptation, of which he allegedly had a great deal of input and “veto approval of almost every aspect of the film” in return for the rights to the series, according to Variety. That same piece says that after seeing the film, King wrote the director Nikolaj Arcel to tell him that he had “remembered the faces of your fathers.” In Dark Tower terms, that’s high praise.
The first successful adaptation of any King story, according to King himself, was Stand By Me. That film stayed close to the novella source, adeptly focusing on the youthful relationships at its heart to deepen the slight story. Then you have things like The Shining, which King hated because director Stanley Kubrick changed the whole soul of the story (alcoholism is bad, not ghosts), or The Lawnmower Man, which frankly isn’t a King adaptation at all except in name. King successfully sued the latter and never forgave the former, raging against the film since its release. These stray too far from King while others (think Maximum Overdrive) are too close. The mechanics of modern movie-making often hamstrings studios when adapting, focusing on pleasing a pre-sold fan audiences whose demands for a property’s film to be “done right” drive off more casual viewers in the best case and steer the film into impenetrability in the worst. Look most recently at troubles faced by Warcraft’s focus on heady lore over more parsable action. The Dark Tower actually faces the opposite problem, focusing too hard on generic, uninspired gunfighting and dimly-lit monsters than the wealth of interesting fantasy at its disposal.
Rather than focusing on bland fidelity or complete cynical capitalism, what Dr. Paul Heyer calls “media sense” must rise above all else. Adaptation, under this philosophy, uses the ethereal “essence” of a beloved source, in order to make a story suited to its medium. The Dark Tower is halfway there. It may have the spirit of King’s books, but not their full strengths – especially in its chosen medium. In this way, it’s neither the worst nor best adaptation of his work, just a strangely aimed, surprisingly ambitious one. It, as a result of a tumultuous production, will be a study for students of filmmaking. It, as a result of trying to make a movie out of a book series that spans an author’s entire bibliography, is an intriguing misfire that may serve to invite the uninitiated into the world of The Dark Tower and amuse those that are well-versed.