Stephen King’s The Dark Tower has long been considered among those sci-fi/fantasy series that is both uniquely engrossing and completely unadaptable. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire comes to mind, as does Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, but of course the former of these now has a wildly successful adaption. So how does The Dark Tower hold up as the latest attempt to wrangle a sprawling epic into something consumable?
I’m struggling to find a word more accurate than ‘competently’, because as a film, The Dark Tower is just that — competent, in that it has some common features that films share such as a script, and lighting, and actors. And even then none of those elements are anything more than a flatline, absolutely basic ‘competent’.
But The Dark Tower is not a competent adaptation.
This film is an adaptation of its source material in the same way the renaissance fairs are an accurate representation of medieval Europe. Everyone looks and sounds kind of how you would expect, but the substance just isn’t there, and the truth has been lost somewhere amongst the clichés and mass appeal. I won’t ramble on about how intriguing, adventurous, and feverishly creative King’s The Dark Tower series is, because that is beyond the point, and because none of those qualities are present in the film. But I will say that good adaptations should at least preserve the soul of a work when converting it to a new medium. And that somehow, despite the enormous amount of soul in King’s The Dark Tower, perhaps rivalling the size eponymous tower itself, all of it was lost in this adaptation.
We meet Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a troubled young boy plagued by vivid dreams of another world — specifically, of a man in black (Matthew McConaughey), a gargantuan tower, and a camp of psychic kids forced to try to break it down. Jake’s anguished mother attempts to ship him off to therapy camp (which is gasp run by rat people. Or aliens. Or both?), but Jake escapes and find himself in Midworld. It is here that he meets the infamous gunslinger, Roland Deschlain (Idris Elba), and they team up to prevent the tower’s destruction.
Performance wise, The Dark Tower is hit and miss. Tom Taylor, who with the most screentime must essentially carry this film, does a commendable job. Taylor is surprisingly watchable as your typical misunderstood, curious kid experiencing his first big adventure. Idris Elba delivers a believably gruff gunslinger, with some of the best comedy in the film borne out of his stoic inability to understand the customs of Earth (oh because, of course Jake and Roland return to our world, for reasons). But the shades of Clint Eastwood (upon which Roland’s character is actually based) and the casual ease of the quintessential cowboy’s conviction and coolness are no deeper than shadows, and Elba sadly looks more like a well-funded cosplayer than an actual war-weathered gunslinger. Matthew McConaughey is similarly wasted potential, ambling through scenes with the minimum effort required to appear as a living human, let alone this film’s primary villain. With oddly dated costuming and a very low-energy performance, McConaughey is more a smarmy creep than an evil, interdimensional, child-kidnapping sorcerer. What should have been stellar casting in this film is again lost to a very forgettable level of mediocrity. And the rest of the performances were even less memorable, partially because half of the cast seemed the have a case of the mumbles, and thus I actually did not understand what they were saying.
The film’s story is unchallenging and easily digestible. The script relies perhaps a little too heavily on call backs, both to the film’s earlier moments and to some famous quotes from King’s novels (for example, character defining speech is given in full not twice but three times). In fact, most small nods to the novels feel ham-fisted and largely irrelevant to the rest of the film, as if there was some sort of quota of easter eggs to be reached. There are only so many times I can be told not to forget the face of my father before it becomes apparent that the creators decided including this line from the novels was the best way to appease fans. Everything else is surface level and underdeveloped — and perhaps the runtime of 95 minutes may explain this — but like so much of this film, nothing in the story particularly stands out.
A small redeemer was some of the action. After all, King’s novels were a twist on the classic Westerns, and so we come to The Dark Tower expecting at least a good shoot ‘em up. Even so, Roland’s pistol fires a little too much like a machine gun, and his enemies’ machine guns fire a little too much like pistols. The Man in Black’s powers are fun, if a little comical (he frequently kills people by telling them to ‘Stop breathing’ and frankly I found this hilariously juvenile every single time), though their gravitas was damped by the very convenient proviso that Roland is the only person immune to them. Sadly however, the action is sparse and the final showdown anti-climatic in its simplicity.
Is The Dark Tower a case for the argument that ‘not all good books can be made into good films’? No, I don’t think so, because this film deviates so wildly from the novels that it is hardly a Dark Tower adaptation at all. And in that case, all that is left is a strictly mediocre, by-the-numbers, and literally ‘competent’ film. What I did enjoy, I will say, is the popcorn I ate during this film. So that’s something.
The Dark Tower is in cinemas.