Viewers unfamiliar Stephen King’s lengthy Dark Tower book series will wonder exactly what the hell is going on in The Dark Tower. Readers and fans of the material will wonder why the hell the film – a jumbled Cliff’s Notes adaptation of King’s work – exists at all. The film ostensibly retells King’s epic, the tale of a Gunslinger – in King’s universe, a forgotten group of knights imagined as old-west lawmen – determined to save existence from the destruction of The Man in Black, an agent of chaos and evil that appears throughout King’s bibliography. Ostensibly, because what appears on screen in this film is as reductive as that brief description: a paint-by-numbers adaptation cribbed from the dust jackets on King’s books.
Matthew McConaughey, sporting a fresh coat of distracting hair dye, plays The Man in Black (also known as Walter, an alias the film fails to explain or consistently reference), a sorcerer with a dark hole where his motivations should be. Idris Elba plays the gunslinger, Roland, who desperately traverses a crumbling multiverse seeking vengeance on Walter. He is joined along the way by Jake, a New York City teen cursed with visions of the apocalyptic struggle between Walter and Roland, who eventually crosses into their world through a portal in a decaying Brooklyn mansion.
Keeping with the film’s tendency to drastically oversimplify the specifics of King’s work, The Dark Tower renders the mechanics of interworld travel comprehensible by hammering King’s abstract conception of a vast multiverse with deteriorating barriers into something much more literal – and much less interesting. Walter, heading a conglomerate that aims to end existence by destroying the Dark Tower at its center, uses a series of portals to travel from place to place. The portals look like stolen props from the most generic science fiction film, and bear almost no connection to the organic fissures that act as gateways in King’s universe – gateways that significantly impact the characters that use them, and represent important development in the series’ plot.
The portals in the film are at least trackable, though in the sense that the audience can easily follow the way Walter and Roland conveniently travel throughout The Dark Tower. This is a sincere commendation for a film that grabs what it pleases from King’s original epic while casting aside connective and contextual elements of the story that would take too much time to explain. The source material is reassembled here into a flavorless cocktail overflowing with references, but ultimately unrelated to King’s series in any significant sense beyond a reflection that the film’s director, Nikolaj Arcel, skimmed the books. Familiar moments and characters appear, but they are superficially recognizable husks, signifiers that there is a Dark Tower in some universe that is telling a full story, but it isn’t this one.
The Man in Black lacks an ounce of the narrative context necessary to compliment his seemingly limitless powers (what he preciously calls his “magics”) with any sense of true menace. The film never attempts to highlight his motivation or establish him as a player in some larger game (a Saruman to a Sauron, in Lord of the Rings parlance). The villain’s henchman status is a key fact King uses to explain his motivation, but for what it’s worth, The Man in Black is presented with as much generality in King’s books as evil itself – he simply always has been and always will be, present in some form to corrupt man and usher in the end of days. However, this generic characterization works in the tens of thousands of pages of King’s writing that allow the character enough space to accrue a terrifying resume of deadly tricks. As the film hurriedly assembles enough elements of King canon to build a Frankenstein’s monster from the author’s raw materials, the details of Walter’s role are left behind. Cogent characterization is the first of many casualties in this adaptation.
In the film’s surprisingly slight running time, Walter has only enough time to display some magical abilities (portrayed in the film as the “magics” of an evil, more foppish version of Neo from The Matrix) and drone through some expository dialog about his apocalyptic plans. For reasons that are left unestablished by the film, The Dark Tower can be brought down by the power of a child’s mind – as much is made clear by introductory text that creates more questions than answers. Why can the tower be crumbed by a child’s mind? Why does Walter want it crumbled? Arcel moves the film briskly past these germane details, hoping to rely instead on McConaughey’s sheer star wattage to lend a sense of gravity to the film’s flimsy plot.
The director’s plan is as misguided as Walter’s own: to ruin The Tower using Jake’s mind. It is revealed that Jake’s visions are a symptom of his “shine,” an ability that surfaces in the book but never by that nomenclature, seemingly adopted by The Dark Tower to reference The Shining. His powers – and Walter’s intention to weaponize them – beget what is apparently another chapter in the historic conflict between Walter and Roland. In flashbacks, The Dark Tower shows Walter killing Roland’s father, but the specifics of that conflict are never revealed. In a bit of conveniently shared history, Jake lost his own father, a hero firefighter, in a deadly blaze – a drastic change from Jake’s history in the book, one the film attempts using to quickly build an emotional bond between Roland and Jake, two orphans aligned by fate against a common enemy.
This particular use of artistic license summarizes the film’s pillaging of King’s work. It subtracts from Jake’s character, but adds very little beyond a level of narrative convenience, allowing the film to breeze past substantial portions of King’s story. More clearly, the failure of the The Dark Tower to adapt King’s work should not be processed in defense of the book series, but as a failure to create it’s own coherent story first and foremost. The changes to Jake’s character will upset some book readers, but they are more revealing as a symptom of The Dark Tower’s worst tendencies: to be overly reliant on audience familiarity, yet uncommitted to truly adapting King’s work. The result is a film unable to exist in a vacuum, but unworthy of the source material it draws from.
The fatal flaw of The Dark Tower, the reluctance to give King’s work the screen time such a sprawling narrative requires, is most evident in a cheesy bonding moment between Roland and Jake, after Jake suffers even more family trauma at the hands of Walter. Roland shares with Jake his own personal losses, and successfully steadies the boy with a recitation of The Gunslinger’s Creed. The words, a series of affirmations about Gunslinger ethos, are somewhat corny in the books, but downright silly on screen – nearly as silly as the notion of a boy, just fifteen years old, quickly and entirely overcoming the loss of his family by reciting a poem and talking about dead dads with his new (and hardly warm) friend.
This is exactly what happens, though, as the characters rapidly move past Jake’s cataclysmic loss and barge forth into the film’s tidy climax. At the end of The Dark Tower, when Roland invites Jake to leave New York and join him on future adventures, the gunslinger tells the boy (more or less) that there is no longer anything for him on earth. Jake unflinchingly agrees, having seemingly processed his grief and readied himself for whatever trouble the Gunslinger may find, and whatever sequels the studio can churn out. Arcel seems to expect audiences to be distracted from these unearned character beats by a cavalcade of offhand references taken from the series’ seven books.
Walter’s army in the film, a horde of rat-like people who wear fake skin as they kidnap children, recall the antagonists in The Wolves of the Calla (book five). Roland is injured in The Dark Tower, and battles an infection that demands he visit New York City for treatment – a callback to The Drawing of the Three (book two). Jake’s entry to Roland’s world is actually taken from the series’ third book, and the film entirely ignores his storyline from books one and two. These choices feel more appropriate for trailers than a feature film, and undoubtedly had audiences clapping in Comic Con halls, but as the film unfolds, they serve only to poison the well. Each of the disparate bits from King’s work crammed into the film’s unfortunate amalgam is now exhausted – at least until the reboot. The Gunslinger’s Creed extolls the virtue of conviction (“I do not kill with my gun… I kill with my heart”), but that lesson seems to have been missed by creators of this adaptation; The Dark Tower is reductive and cynical, with no apparent heart to speak of.