The Dark Tower (2017) Review (as written by a Tower junkie)

Finally, after years of waiting, we have the first adaptation of Stephen King’s magnum opus. But how well does it succeed for this Tower junkie?

Let me make one thing clear about the new Dark Tower movie: it’s not the books. It’s certainly not the first volume, The Gunslinger. And if I’m honest, I never really thought it was going to be.

Compared to so many other fantasy epics out there, The Dark Tower was always going to be harder to adapt than most. It’s not just because of the larger scale, or the fact that the author himself shows up once or twice in the story. There’s also the way it’s told.

With The Gunslinger, we’re introduced to Mid-World directly through the gunslinger’s own eyes. It’s a bit of a strange world already, but that perspective adds some distance between that world and us as the audience. Mid-World is almost abstract in that first volume.

It’s not really that surprising that The Gunslinger is seen by some fans as one of the weaker volumes of the series. It’s not terrible, far from it. There’s a great spaghetti western feel to that opening volume. But things definitely picked up in a major way with The Drawing of the Three. As I’ve written before, that was the volume that actually changed my life.

What’s interesting about the new movie is that it avoids telling either of those stories, at least directly. The Dark Tower uses particularly strong elements from The Gunslinger, it has to be said. But it also uses a lot of characters and places from later volumes, too.

This film essentially lets you know right from the very beginning of how different it is compared to the first volume by presenting Jake Chambers as the key perspective. This isn’t that surprising, really. Since he’s actually from our world, Jake makes a natural choice for giving the audience a key point of view on this strange universe. So it’s a change that makes sense.

Mythology: how much is too much?

In fact, the whole film is like that. There are a lot of changes from the original source material in terms of the story, but there’s a lot of key mythology that still feels the same.

Actually, that brings me to one key criticism I have for this movie. It isn’t that it changes the mythology of the original novels, but rather, that it arguably uses far, far too much of it for a ninety-minute movie. This movie features portals, the Breakers, “Low Men”, and a lot more. At the very start, it explains exactly what the Dark Tower is via a very unsubtle caption. By comparison, the novels didn’t fully explain what the Dark Tower was – or even why Roland was trying to get to it – until the third volume!

I’m not saying we should’ve had to wait for the third film to get the full explanation, but there were a lot of moments where the exposition got a bit heavy handed. I really wish this film had been given just another half hour, just to flesh things out a little better.

The ideas that King had in the novels, they weren’t original ones. Psychic kids, fantasy worlds, monsters from beyond, these had definitely been done before. However, along with a rather interesting mix of these ideas, King was also able to flesh them out and give them so much depth. That’s what made both the world and the story so appealing. Which is easy to do in a novel, but not in a movie, especially in a relatively short movie. So a lot of these concepts that I’ve adored in the novels have the risk of coming across as generic in the film adaptation as a result.

Trying to cram in too much mythology in one go were problems that were shared by the Stallone Judge Dredd movie and the Paul McGann Doctor Who movie, which were also both adaptations and fresh introductions to stories that were important to me. Once again, I’m given another example of how “less is more”.

However, that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy The Dark Tower at all. Far from it, really. In fact, now that I’ve got my key criticism out of the way, I’ll go into what I did enjoy about the film.

Great performances

First, there are the main characters. For the Gunslinger and the Man in Black, this movie gets them exactly right.

Roland is absolutely spot-on. He’s not given too much dialogue, which is what you expect from his character. But even better, he’s given moments of humour. I don’t mean that he’s suddenly joking and pulling witty one-liners before shooting up some bastards. That would definitely be the wrong way to do it.

But there are nice moments with Roland in our world where he really clashes, and the humour comes from those scenes. This was something that worked with the character in the novels, particularly when he was in New York with Eddie Dean. (One of my favourite smartasses of all time.) So it’s nice that the film at least doesn’t take him too seriously, even while Roland takes himself seriously, at least.

Elba’s performance is also great. When I was reading the novels again a few months back, I was picturing what his version of Roland would be like. I could actually see Elba saying these lines I was reading and how he would say them. And he didn’t disappoint. Seeing him in the film was exactly what I had imagined.

If there’s one performance that overshadows even Elba’s, however, it’s definitely Matthew McConaughey as the Man in Black. In the original volume, he’s less interested in killing Roland than he is pushing him to breaking point, and comes across as more of a force of nature or a mystery than a man. In later volumes, he’s much more clearly out to kill him by any means necessary.

What I really liked about the film’s interpretation is that there’s a really nice balance between the two. McConaughey comes across as pure evil as Walter, and he has fun with it without taking away how sinister or deadly his character is. Again, how the character is written for the film also helps. One of my favourite moments includes the words, “Hello, there!” It’s a perfectly evil scene that gets this sheer force of evil exactly right.

I’m not gonna lie: I really enjoyed the climax of the film. It’s really cool to watch, and storywise, it’s pretty satisfying. I’m wondering if it will divide the fans though. To be honest, I’m wondering that about the whole of the film.

The Dark Tower is far from the worst possible adaptation of its source material, but its frankly far from the best, too. It gets a lot right, and it gets a lot wrong. Overall, I liked it and took it for what it was.

I do think it could’ve been made more accessible for a general audience, however. I can’t help but think that this is going to be a film that will appeal more to the fans of the existing source material than for newcomers, and for a blockbuster film, you definitely need to be able to appeal to a wide audience.

It hasn’t been very receptive to critics so far, but time will tell whether it makes enough to earn a sequel, at least. If a sequel is made, let’s hope that it builds on the strengths and drastically irons out the weaknesses of this opening installment.

Toronto #19

I’ve got a confession to make: I’m in a real Stephen King mood lately. Kind of fitting as I’m now on the nineteenth Toronto post. (For those of you who are unaware, 19 is a major number in The Dark Tower series.) As I noted last week, it’s partially to do with revisiting his Tower novels, but there’s also another key reason: he’s so damn good at what he does.

Last week, I had finished re-reading Black House, a particular favourite of mine. Well, one of my many particular favourites, anyway. Afterwards, I began reading the sixth Dark Tower volume ‘Song of Susannah’. Today, I finished it before making a slight start on re-reading Hearts in Atlantis. And, once I’m done with my third Tower read, I’m itching to re-read some of my other favourites, including The Stand and IT. Huge epics to read, despite the fact that I have many other King books to check out. (Not to mention that I still need to finish off George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. But then again, so does he, so I’m not too fussed about that.)

Throwing myself into these books has reminded me of something. Not just of how great a writer Stephen King is, but more importantly, how reading his books really made me want to become a writer, way back in high school when I read the second Dark Tower volume, ‘The Drawing of the Three’. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed reading his first volume, but it was the second volume that truly grabbed me, and in some ways changed my life, although I didn’t know it at the time.

(For more on my thoughts on how much I love these books, see here for a thought piece I did a couple of years back, the first (and currently only) post in my “Writers That Make Me Think, ‘Damn, I Wish I Could Write Like That'” series.)

Of course, that was considerably over a decade ago, and in the case of the writing department, I’ve finished fuck all. I’ve had plenty of ideas, but a lack of confidence as well as frustration has lead to a lack of actual development.

Very recently, there are two key things I’ve realized about myself. Firstly, I’m someone who prefers clear, visual results when it comes to my work. More than that, I like consistent levels of clear, visual results. I think this is one of the reasons why I went into accounting as opposed to, say, an English Literature degree, or something that could’ve helped me to focus on my creative writing.

Oh don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret going into my AAT studies. To be frank, I’m not sure I’ll ever have what it takes to make it as a writer, and even if I did, I certainly wouldn’t earn enough solely through it. At least with my AAT studies, or at least my experience in finance, I’ve got a decent day job to help me through with that if I did want to take writing more seriously.

The second, and this is going to sound ridiculous, but it’s true, is that I hate being wrong. To an extent, that’s true of all of us, but I actually physically loathe it. There’s hardly anything that I’ve hated in this world so much as being wrong. To help me cope with this problem, I’ve usually taken the easy way out by avoiding the possibility altogether. This has taken in the forms of, in chronological order:

  • Selective mutism (because seriously, how can you get a question wrong, or even ask a dumb question, if you don’t say anything at all?)
  • Putting in so much effort into learning that it becomes actually impossible to fail. Of course, that plan, ironically and unsurprisingly, inevitably failed. Which of course lead to:
  • Not making any effort whatsoever. After all, how can you fail at all if you don’t even try? (This attitude was best summed up by George Lass in the opening scene of the brilliant television series Dead Like Me, and it really does perfectly sum up how I was back then. See below a clip of both the speech and a great story about how death came into the world.)

I’ve mentioned before how, through a combination of that last attitude plus long term unemployment (although in hindsight, it really did come down to having that attitude, more than anything), I went through a bout of depression, which I won’t go into here. All I can say is that my fear of being wrong has held me back over the years, or rather, allowed me to hold myself back.

Fortunately, many things have helped with almost overcoming this problem. First, there was getting back into studying and actually passing my studies. Then, a few years later, there was getting into improvised comedy. Trust me, nothing helps you face being forced to be wrong like fucking up in front an audience that usually consists of your friends and family.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there was deciding to move to Canada for a couple of years on my own and hoping for the best. I’ve recently realized that it’s now already just over a year since my application for a work permit was approved. It’s hard to believe that, after actually putting in the effort and taking one of the biggest steps in my life, I’m actually here, 1 year later. I think, as a result, it’s beginning to make other daunting decisions seem easier.

Take Stephen King’s non-fiction book On Writing, for example. You would’ve thought that, as an aspiring writer who was hugely inspired by the great sage and eminent author himself, that I would’ve read a book where he actually gives tips on actually writing much, much sooner. But I never did buy it, and I think I’m only just beginning to realize why.

Like I said, I hate being wrong. Reading a book by one of my heroes and having the risk of knowing that my method has been completely wrong? Hell no! No way I want to face that! Better to just ignore that book altogether and try it on my own. Or, you know, just put the writing to one side and don’t worry about it.

But rediscovering what made me want to write in the first place has proved to be too much to ignore that impulse to write anymore. And right now, I’m definitely not as afraid of finding out where I’m going wrong as I used to be. Which is why I finally purchased an eBook copy of On Writing today.

I had also planned on buying a decent journal to write down thoughts, ideas, or just the first fucking thing that comes into my head about anything. Another key thing I remember from improv was when my tutor told me that one of the problems I have, when it comes to making shit up on the spot (which is essentially what improv is) isn’t a lack of ideas, but having too many of them at once and not being able to pick one on the spot.

If I can have something to jot those down and find a way of organizing them – or simply just vomit them on the page – then it’s possible that it could really help. However, as of right now, I don’t really have that much money, so better to wait until payday before getting a journal that’s decent enough to write my thoughts in.

So that’s this week’s blog post. Not really much to do with life right now in Toronto, I know, but it did cover some of the things which lead me here, so I guess it’s kind of relevant. I’ll let you know how the writing goes in my next post.

In the meantime, I’m just going to make a film recommendation that’s been on my mind. There’s a movie from a few years back called Stuck in Love. The trailer makes it look a lot like Crazy, Stupid, Love, (which I also enjoyed,) and I’m not gonna lie, in some ways, it is a lot like that. But one thing I like about it is how it’s focused on a family of writers, with one of the characters being a big Stephen King fanboy. For fans of not just good romantic comedies but also writing and Stephen King, it’s definitely worth a watch.