The Dark Tower: Exploring the Film Adaptation’s Many Alterations

Easter eggs, nods to the broader Stephen King world, and more: we look again at The Dark Tower movie...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK. It contains spoilers…

There’s an old adage in the film industry that you’ve probably come across if you’ve listened to enough podcasts or watched a few interviews with those in the business, a familiar nugget of received wisdom that most filmmakers will elicit, perhaps with a contemplative shrug, or maybe while wearing a pained grimace of world-wearied experience: nobody sets out to make a muddled movie. In the case of the eagerly-awaited Stephen King adaptation The Dark Tower, there’s no arguing that like virtually all movie projects in existence (and perhaps even more than most), the genesis of this film was undoubtedly rooted in love.

Nikolaj Arcel’s adaptation of The Dark Tower wasn’t without its merits: casting for example was spot-on. Idris Elba’s Roland is faithful to his counterpart from the novels,  a man of few words who shoots with his heart; and few could argue against Matthew McConaughey’s star power for the role of the Man in Black. For the most part, the two performances delivered, although the film’s decision to soften Deschain’s temperament may have left fans of the source material a little puzzled. The Man in Black is made to be more wizard-like as well, a choice that makes the character come off way more campy.

Roland in the novels is a solitary, unsentimental creature, the last of the gunslingers, an ancient and revered order. As such, he is loyal only to the Dark Tower as his creed demands. Emotional attachments simply confuse matters and so Roland abstains from indulging in them to the point that in the first book of the series, The Gunslinger, the “hero” coldly allows his young companion, Jake Chambers, to die so he can continue his pursuit of the Man in Black and prevent him from destroying the Dark Tower.

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Elba’s gunslinger seems solely fuelled by sentiment in the film adaptation, though: his version of the character has foresworn his oath as a gunslinger to protect the Tower and now only seeks McConaughey’s evil sorcerer to avenge his father’s death.

Similarly, the character of Jake serves a parallel function: instead of his tragic death brutally emphasizing Deschain’s singular ambition to safeguard the Tower at all costs, the movie incarnation serves to remind the gunslinger of that very same message but in an inverted fashion. Rather than a cold refusal to help an endangered soul in the name of duty, it is the emotional bond that Jake is able to forge with Deschain throughout the film, partly because the Man in Black goes on to murder his parent too, that allows him to mentally transmit this message to the gunslinger (via his ESP powers) at the most crucial of moments.

The merits of this approach can be debated: Elba’s gunslinger certainly becomes a more relatable protagonist in the classic Hollywood mold although it should be noted that it also makes him and his relationships with others somewhat less interesting. After all, the second book in the series, The Drawing of the Three, in which Deschain finds new companions from New York to join him in Mid-World, continues to make great use of this interesting dynamic. Like Jake, Deschain’s new companions are aware that he will sacrifice them without hesitation to preserve the Tower and this terrible knowledge overshadows every interaction between the characters.

Instead, for much of the movie, Deschain is motivated by a desire which is much more human, which impacts the state of peril that the Tower is in: if the gunslinger of the books will so readily sacrifice those who are loyal to him to protect the Tower, it speaks volumes about the importance of his quest. Because we don’t see Roland’s singular focus on protecting the Tower in the movie, its importance must be emphasized through exposition. More telling, less showing.

Such changes of course, are part and parcel of any adaptation. With The Dark Tower, the narrative sleight of hand used to justify such changes is cleverly done, as the alterations weren’t technically to the source material itself. Since the eight novels conclude in a circular fashion, with Deschain shorn of his memory and placed again at the very beginning of his journey, the movie is able to claim to be the next phase in Roland’s journey. The final line of the last book is actually the same line as the saga’s opening: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” The fact that the planned series of movie adaptations follows Roland through a subsequent (and possibly final, according to King’s tweets) time loop is confirmed by his possession of the Horn of Eld, an artifact that Roland was awarded for reaching the Tower in the books.

In essence then, the movie and its planned follow-ups are a sequel to King’s series, perhaps the final iteration of a quest that has been replayed countless times before. This guileful approach not only provides narrative justification for the film’s departures from the books, but also raises the stakes: now that Deschain has the Horn of Eld this truly could be the “last time around” and would bring a final resolution to what has been described elsewhere on this site recently as a “Crisis of Infinite Kings.”

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Put simply, the adaptation attempts to neatly sidestep the inevitable book versus film debate by becoming something else in its own right and it is from this perspective that the movie becomes easier to warm up to, if still difficult to love. It’s a deconstructive trick that King himself would be proud of, and one wonders if the creators of Castle Rock, the upcoming TV show that promises to interconnect a bevy of King’s work, are watching on with admiration.

Speaking of interconnectivity, readers of both The Dark Tower and King’s wider works must have taken great pleasure in spotting the many references to his works that crop up throughout Roland’s visit to Keystone Earth. From the Man in Black’s copy of “Misery’s Child,” the novel penned by King character Paul Sheldon in Misery, to the Pennywise sign in Mid-World, and the framed photograph of The Shining’s Overlook Hotel in the shrink’s office, The Dark Tower is a treasure trove of King easter eggs.

Perhaps less pleasing to said readers however would be the naming of said world: in the books, Keystone Earth represents our world, the reality in which King writes The Dark Tower books (the characters even have to venture there at one point to save the author from death so he can continue to finish the narrative in a total Never-ending Story moment), which is all good, apart from the fact that tributes to King’s fictional worlds crop up in the same reality as the one the author is supposed to inhabit. It’s a strange little meta-loop that I can’t untangle and perhaps has been purposefully left there for later exploration. 

Sticking with the subject of setting, The Dark Tower’s choice of eras would have been a point of debate for fans of the books, too. Throughout the course of the novels, Deschain makes the journey to New York in several different eras: 1964, 1977, and 1987. Though it is of course the prerogative of any filmmaker to update a story’s setting, I wonder what the logic may have been for doing so in the adaptation of The Dark Tower.

While the bulk of the visits to the Big Apple occur in the series’ second book, The Drawing of the Three, which was written in 1987, Jake’s relationship is fixed to those other visits in terms of time and space, effectively meaning that without losing significant impact, the other visits to New York would need to occur in a modern context, too. This feels like something of a missed opportunity, not only to showcase various eras of New York iconography but because, for all intents and purposes, New York is very much a character within these books.

The New York that Roland visits is a dangerous place, not only because the gunslinger is travelling there as a “skinwalker,” ensconced within the bodies of others (something not explored in the film) but because this incarnation of the city is seedy and perilous at every turn. Heroin addicts rub shoulders with serial killers in a way that a sanitized post-90s, post-Giuliani New York could never hope to match. There’s a reason that 21st century silver screen representations of the Big Apple only seem to be attacked by external forces: terrorists, aliens, or super villains for example, because the threats from within the city such as hoods, pushers, and pimps have largely been eradicated. King’s version of New York revels in that bygone era. The film chooses a different path.

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Perhaps then, the film version of The Dark Tower is best viewed in the way that its creators seem to have positioned it: as a sequel of sorts that doesn’t interfere with the books themselves but rather retells the same story, albeit in a different way. The legacy of King’s saga is undoubtedly intact and you can certainly respect the filmmaker’s intention to fully embrace it while also setting sail in a new direction. 

The Dark Tower movie is a criss-crossing jaunt between a young-adult fiction-style Mid-World and a sanitized, modern New York. It’s not the take on the books that fans particularly wanted, but there’s still quite a lot in there to explore. Personally? I still wish Idris would’ve worn the hat. He is supposed to be a gunslinger, after all.