I was fortunate enough to see The Dark Tower on Tuesday evening at the Bangor Mall Cinemas 10, an event sponsored by Zone Radio. The audience was filled with people who won tickets from the station. In addition to getting a chance to see the film early, attendees also won some King-related merchandise as door prizes, including Dark Tower novel sets, audio books and signed ARCs of the final three volumes in the series. Dark Tower t-shirts were flung into the audience, too.
Before the lights went down, Stephen King showed up to give a quick introduction to the Dark Tower and the movie. He said the film has plenty of “gun-fu,” which is absolutely true. Then we were treated to a trailer-free movie-going experience, which I greatly appreciated.
Whenever I’m involved in discussions about the better movies based on King’s novels and novellas, I usually bring up Dolores Claiborne as an overlooked, under-appreciated adaptation. The film is different from the source material in many ways, but I feel that it captured the essence of the novel extremely well. Characters are lost and added, events, viewpoints and perspectives are changed, but the essence of the novel shines through.
That’s what you should expect from The Dark Tower, too. There are many elements that you will recognize from King’s series, but they are assembled in a new way. This is, after all, another turn of the wheel, if you know what that means. You will recognize any number of incidents from the books, but they may have different resolutions or be presented in different ways.
The fundamental story involves Roland’s dogged pursuit of the Man in Black, who defeated the gunslingers at their final battle, many years ago. His last victim was Stephen Deschain (Dennis Haysbert), who died in front of his son. For some reason, Roland (Idris Elba) is able to resist Walter’s “magicks,” as he calls them, but Roland is also apparently unable to kill Walter (Matthew McConaughey), despite many valiant efforts to do so.
Roland no longer cares about saving the Tower. The war is over, the gunslingers lost, and soon there will be darkness everywhere. He simply wants to get his revenge on Walter before then, depriving him of the chance to rule over the chaos that will follow the Tower’s collapse, when the monsters the Tower holds at bay rush in. Roland doesn’t even consider himself a gunslinger any more—he hasn’t recited the creed in years—although he still carries the guns and his shooting talents are undiminished.
Roland is flailing about trying to find a clue to Walter’s whereabouts when Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) arrives in Mid-World, carrying a sheaf of drawings that depict Roland and the Tower. Roland has no use for the boy, suspecting that he’s another of Walter’s traps. “I came a long way to find you,” Jake complains. “Have a nice trip back,” Roland responds.
However, Jake’s mention of the Man in Black catches Roland’s interest. Jake even has a drawing of the place where Walter can be found. Roland takes Jake on a journey through dangerous terrain to consult the strongest seer in a Manni village. He believes she can interpret Jake’s visions and drawings and show him the way to Walter. She tells him the journey will take months, unless they use a portal. Jake knows all about portals—that’s how he ended up in Mid-World in the first place.
Jake is a special boy. He has what Flagg needs to bring down the Tower: an extremely strong psychic ability called the “shine.” It’s a power Jake has never tapped into before, and it is something of an Achilles’ heel, because whenever he uses it, the signature lets Flagg and his seekers know where he is.
The journey to reach Walter requires a detour through Keystone Earth, Jake’s Manhattan to be specific. Here, Jake is mostly in charge, because he knows how things work. Roland is a fish out of water, and Jake tells him to keep his mouth closed or else they’ll get in trouble. Roland needs drugs, ammunition and information; Jake knows how to get all three. However, Walter and his minions are closing in, and Jake is in jeopardy.
Jake’s adventures with Roland in Mid-World are essentially a blend of elements from The Gunslinger and The Waste Lands, with new components added in (the trip to the Manni village, for example). His entry into Mid-World is more direct and less, um, lethal, shall we say, than in the novels. He is more like the Jake in the revised version of The Gunslinger: more assertive, more outspoken, stronger. Roland sees the potential in him early on, but he is still using him as a means to an end. Until, that is, Jake learns something in Keystone Earth that resonates with Roland. He softens toward the boy, and it is a tribute to Idris Elba that he can so clearly but subtly demonstrate that change in demeanor. That brief smile is a delight.
Of course there are gun-fights and other battles. Jake proves his mettle early in the film when he eludes some bad dudes who probably aren’t human. The gunfights are things of beauty to behold, especially when it comes to the way Roland can reload on the fly and shoot things that he can’t see but is attuned to. You’ve probably seen the famous blind shot in the trailer—it’s even more breath-taking in the film.
Of course, there would be no movie without the Man in Black, who is overseeing operations at Devar-Toi. He rules with an iron fist, and has devastating power over anyone who gets in his way. All it takes is a word. He’s also capricious. One of my favorite moments is the way he alters a little girl he passes while he’s en route to doing something else. We never see how that pays off, but we can imagine it—and it’s terrible. He swaggers. He exudes the utmost in confidence. He seems to be enjoying what he’s doing, and he doesn’t even mind that Roland is getting closer (as seen through a familiar little orb), because he’s certain the gunslinger can’t stop him. He taunts and provokes Roland. He is confidence supreme, and McConaughey breathes life into him.
There’s a lot of weight on Tom Taylor’s shoulders in this movie, too. He has to stand up next to (and stand up to) Idris Elba, who is a force of nature—and he succeeds. I had seen Taylor recently in the miniseries Doctor Foster (on Netflix), where he also had to do some heavy emotional lifting, so I was confident he had the acting chops this role requires. His character feels utterly credible. His reaction to Mid-World upon first arrival is genuine: Two moons? Sandstorms that appear to be alive? How cool is that! The only thing that concerns me for the future is that in recent publicity photos he seems to have had a major growth spurt and he is rapidly approaching Elba in height. They may have to do some Lord of the Rings-style optical tricks with him in subsequent movies.
The movie has big action scenes, intimate character scenes, and the occasional dab of humor, mostly delivered by Taylor’s Jake, although some of Roland’s reactions to New York City are amusing, too. There are a number of familiar characters drawn from throughout the series, plus a healthy dose of new ones. It’s thrilling on the big screen—Elba is terrific in the fight scenes. To me, he is Roland Deschain. I never for a moment doubt him. He inhabits Roland with energy, darkness, strength and, ultimately, humanity. I’m sure other actors could have played the part, but I for one am very glad Elba did.
The audience in Bangor reacted well to the film throughout, and there was spontaneous applause at the end. I talked to a few people afterward who had never read the books, and they enjoyed the movie as much as those of us who have. A lot has been made of the brisk/brief running time: to be honest I didn’t notice. It seemed the right length for what it had to accomplish.
Many pages could be spent, many words spilled, pointing out the myriad ways the movie is different from the novels.The place where the Breakers do their work, for example, is not the idyllic, pastoral Study in Damli House. In the movie, psychic energy is drained from the Breakers using ancient tech in a horrifying painful manner. Roland does get poisoned, requiring antibiotics from our world, but the source of his poisoning is different. Jake is lured away from Roland by a siren, but the nature of the caller is quite different. Jake’s home life before he crosses over to Mid-World has been rewritten: His father was a fireman, killed on the job, and now he has an asshole step-father who is using Jake’s apparent mental instability (his visions and nightmares) as an excuse to get rid of him. Jake’s mother dotes on him, but she has a hard time standing up to her new husband. There is no Greta Shaw acting as surrogate parent. These are just a few examples.
If you are a stickler for literal translations from book to screen, you will find a lot to complain about. However, if you close your eyes for a moment and remember the face of your father, then you will feel the truth of the novels in this adaptation. I plan to see it again, very soon. Probably tonight, at 19:19. Join me in Mid-World, won’t you?
PS – keep an eye out in the closing credits for a familiar name, someone who acted as a consultant. And no, it wasn’t me. We also believe we may have heard something at the end of the credits…
PPS – I don’t know why I was as delighted by the modem sound at the portal in the house on Dutch Hill, but I was!
PPS – Did I spy, with my little eye, the Horn of Eld? I think I did, but I’m not sure.
Also, there are Easter eggs aplenty. Some are more subtle than others.