Spoiler Warning: I do reveal some key plot points in as vague a way as I can. I normally would work to avoid this more, but in this case, I needed to bring these things up.
The last Gunslinger, Roland Deschain, has been locked in an eternal battle with Walter O’Dim, also known as the Man in Black, determined to prevent him from toppling the Dark Tower, which holds the universe together. With the fate of the worlds at stake, good and evil will collide in the ultimate battle as only Roland can defend the Tower from the Man in Black.
The Dark Tower, directed and co-written by Nikolaj Arcel, is an American science fantasy Western based on the novel series of the same name by Stephen King. The film stars Idris Elba as Roland Deschain of Gilead, the last gunslinger, Tom Taylor as Jake Chambers, and Matthew McConaughey as Walter aka The Man in Black. This is a film I have been highly anticipating for the last year. I’d been a Dark Tower fan for a number of years, but in the summer of 2016, when I was only halfway through the series, I resolved to finish it before this film released. In April of this year I completed The Dark Tower, my resolution completed. For a lot of personal build up it amounted to something sadly anti-climactic.
Up until very recently it was my understanding that this film was going to adapt the first novel, The Gunslinger, with elements adapted from the third book The Waste Lands. In my mind, this would work quite well, especially considering the context this movie is supposed to take place in for fans of the books (Mayhap this time will be different). This movie actually condenses precise plot points from across the series, glossing over and omitting a lot of things along the way, and wraps them up. For a film that I could only assume is/was supposed to be the first in a series, this was quite baffling. The Dark Tower novels are full of rich characters and mythology to flesh out, yet this movie seemed only interested in a small percentage of it all. It presents a boiled down version of the series.
A particular change I have trouble with is Roland himself, for all intents and purposes the protagonist of the novels. While he is still a main character, it doesn’t really feel like his story. While it makes sense to make Jake Chambers a vehicle for the audience to learn about Mid-World, he he is essentially the protagonist as well, making it more a story about him than Roland. This change I did not like, since it is supposed to be his companions that get caught up in helping fulfill his quest. Key aspects of Roland’s characterization and motivations are different too. He pursues Walter here not because of his quest for the Tower, but because he desires retribution for the murder of his father. In the books Walter was an enemy, but also a means to an end. Roland’s obsession with reaching the Tower, requiring him to save it to do so, is integral in the novels, yet completely absent here. At points he says he doesn’t even care about the Tower and whether or not it falls.
To give some credit where it is due, casting is an area this film does deserve particular praise. Elba does a good job of bringing Roland to life despite the issues with how the gunslinger is written. I believed I was watching Roland Deschain, whether he was gunning down foes, mentoring Jake, or a fish out of water on Earth. McConaughey was also deliciously evil as The Man in Black. He traverses worlds sowing cruelty, discord, and death and loves every minute of it, just as I would expect from old Walter O’Dim that was. The locations where the Mid-World settings were shot were chosen well too, capturing some of the desolation of that world nicely. I also enjoyed the depiction of the Can-Toi, though their garish outfits were a little missed.
Ultimately, I don’t really know who The Dark Tower is for. It’s disappointing as a fan because it wraps up one of the major plot lines of a seven book series, boiled down to a 95 minute film plot. However, there are a number of meaningful references I understand and appreciate because I am a fan, which someone new could easily overlook. I want to think it tells a more palatable, complete little story to someone with no prior experience, but I’m honestly not sure if my knowledge of the books makes me blind to what could be incomprehensible or confusing to those out of the know. In an age of sometimes tiringly long movies, I think this film could have afforded even an extra half hour to expand on the characters of Roland and Jake, as well as the history and mythos of Mid-World. The universe gets weird in a lot of great ways that the movie never really indulges in. To keep it from being a blur of references new audiences may not understand and will soon forget these things should have been fleshed out more. Seemingly a one-and-done situation, yet open-ended to allow a sequel, I’m bemused at what could come next.