The Dark Tower adaptation was always going to be tricky. Described by author Stephen King as his “magnum opus”, the eight novels and a novella in the series span several timelines, parallel events, and are hardly conducive to a straightforward film adaptation. Several screenwriters and filmmakers, from JJ Abrams to Damon Lindelof and Ron Howard, have attempted to film the series since 2007, but in vain.
The seemingly unfilmable has finally been put on screen by director Nikolaj Arcel and a screenwriting team led by Akiva Goldsman, and their The Dark Tower is an earnest but lifeless effort to put together a multiverse fit for a television series.
Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is a New York City native whose psychic powers (called “the shine”, a nod to King’s The Shining) enable him to see visions of the gunslinger Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the evil sorcerer Walter Paddick (Matthew McConaughey) and the eponymous Dark Tower. Paddick’s motive is to take down the Dark Tower that holds together all creation. To do so, Paddick needs to harness the power of children who have “the shine”. He sends his minions to capture Chambers, who crosses over to the old West-like Mid World where all the action is, and joins hands with Deschain to protect the Tower.
King’s The Dark Tower universe is extremely vast and complicated, and Goldsman’s team combines events, timelines, and characters in a bid to produce a coherent spectacle-based blockbuster movie that is meant to hold its own as a standalone version of The Dark Tower mythos.
What is lost in the process is sufficient exposition for newcomers to The Dark Tower universe. For instance, concepts such as the Mid World, Algul Siento and the gunslinger’s history cannot be packed into two-minute scenes. Fans of The Dark Tower book series will find the movie alienating and exploitative because of the way the story has been pulped into an easily consumable product with an eye on creating a billion-dollar franchise.
As an action-fantasy film in isolation, The Dark Tower is no different from most coming-of-age teen-adult movies of its kind. The action and the special effects, with all their Hollywood finesse, are far from path-breaking. Taylor, Elba and McConaughey are always on point, with their sincere commitment to the material at hand. Elba plays Deschain as a disgruntled lone gunman type singularly devoted to killing Paddick (in the books, Deschain’s motivations keep changing over time), while McConaughey effortlessly slips into the role of an all-powerful demonic character.
But good acting alone cannot save a film that is wrong at the conceptual level. If the three Lord of the Rings novels require films of the same number and Game of Thrones needs more seasons than there are books, how can a 90-minute film recreate the power of King’s nine-book series comprising of over a million words?