Four things that are wrong with The Dark Tower film (and one thing that’s right)

9 Sep

This is one for the fans, as I’m afraid this post is going to be a bit of a moan about the new Dark Tower film. It’s not a bad film, as it happens, although it’s not good either, but the issue I take with it is that it is supposed to be “based on the Dark Tower series of novels by Stephen King”, and that is only very loosely true.

I am a big fan of that series, you see, and it is AMAZING. Epic in scope, exciting, moving, meaningful – one of those books/series that stays with you and becomes part of how you think about the world. I more or less had to see the film, since I’m such a fan of the books, even though I knew from the trailers that I wasn’t happy with the casting of two out of three of the main characters. And I was disappointed, as I expected to be. (But is it disappointment if you expected it? Hmm.) So after a bit of rumination, here are the things I objected to (and one thing I liked):

1.    It’s not about Roland

The main character in the Dark Tower books is Roland Deschain, a gunslinger (a bit like a knight of the Round Table, but with guns). Other people come and go through the stories, including a young boy called Jake, but it is essentially a story about Roland’s personal quest for the Tower.

In the film, the main character is Jake. The story is about how Jake is unhappy at home, how Jake dreams of the gunslinger and his world, and how he meets and eventually saves Roland. Maybe this was a marketing ploy, since dystopian sci-fi/fantasy is so big amongst young adults at the moment, but given that the most book readers are in their 30s or older (the books were published between 1982 and 2004), that was probably a mistake. Plus, an unhappy tween is just not as interesting as an ages-old questing knight steeped in ancient lore and with some incredible skills to boot.

2.    It’s not even about the Tower

Roland is defined by his single-minded pursuit of the Tower. It is his monomania, and he will let nothing and no one get on the way of that. That’s part of what makes Roland’s character interesting: he’s basically very decent, but that’s sometimes overridden by his obsession with reaching the Dark Tower.

In the film, Roland doesn’t give a stuff about the Tower. The idea of reaching it doesn’t seem to have entered his mind, and even when the thing appears to stand in imminent danger of being destroyed, he’s not that bothered. He only cares about killing the Man in Black. (They make a big deal of this in the film, about how Roland is deserting his duty towards the Tower in order to instead kill the Man in Black, apparently unaware that there is no conflict between those objectives, since the Man in Black is the one threatening the Tower. That somewhat undermines the narrative tension.)

Now I realise that this is a reboot (I won’t go into the reasons for that here, though it makes sense on the context of the books) but there is no iteration of reality in which Roland is not in pursuit of the Tower, otherwise the ‘reboot’ thing couldn’t make sense. (I know that this point is very obscure if you haven’t read the books, but I refuse to spoil the ending for you!) If they make a sequel to this film it shouldn’t be called ‘The Dark Tower’, but ‘Jake and his Pal Roland Wander Aimlessly around Midworld’.

3.    There’s no emotional weight

The Dark Tower series is full of flawed, broken people in difficult circumstances, mostly (though not always) trying to do some version of the right thing. Roland’s relationships with his companions are hard-earned and deep. His relationship with Jake is particularly special, as he has no children of his own, which makes it all the more excruciating when his obsession with the Tower leads him to betray the boy. Nobody is safe in the books. You can lose fingers, toes, legs, or your life. Main characters die. One main character dies twice (in different worlds) within one book.

In the film, all the main characters are basically going to be okay. Other, hastily-drawn characters (especially parents) are in danger so that the heroes can suffer manfully, and obviously a few baddies and randoms have to die to prove it’s serious, but you know that for Jake and Roland, there will always be a handy portal or other deus ex machina when they need it. Roland receives injuries that are not only life-threatening but inescapably life-ending, but just gets up and dusts himself down. It’s cartoonish, it doesn’t hurt, and it doesn’t matter.

4.    It’s actually a mash up of The Dark Tower, The Shining and Monsters Inc.

I very much like the Jake of the books, and I like the kid from The Shining too. However, if you combine the two and add on a couple of extra years so he’s a gawky tween, I do not like him much at all. If you’re coming to the film cold, you’ll assume Jake has psychic powers, since it’s a crucial part of the plot. I have no recollection of Jake having psychic powers. I’d have to re-read all the books to swear that he has none at all (and I’ve only re-read the first two so far) but it’s safe to say it’s not a major plot point.

In The Shining, it’s pretty much the whole plot, and the Dark Tower film makers must have liked this so much that they decided to incorporate it. Now it’s true that Stephen King’s literary worlds have lots of connections (and the Dark Tower stands at the centre, naturally, since it is supposed to be the lynchpin of reality) but a sneaky photo of the Overlook hotel doesn’t mean you can just switch characters around at random. Not without incurring my wrath, at any rate.

And then Monsters Inc. Oh dear. If any of you saw King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (and if you didn’t, don’t) you’ll know that the CGI battles are exceptionally silly, making serious scenes laughable. The Dark Tower is a bit that way, too, since the screams of children being converted into a CGI weapon to attack the Tower just made me think of Sully and co. from Monsters Inc collecting screams. And that’s not a good thing in a fantasy film that’s trying to take itself seriously. It’s also irritating, because efforts to destroy the Tower in the books are a good deal more subtle and insidious than shooting it with a big blue light.

5.    But it’s a good advert for the books

Here’s where I am prepared to admit that there was something good about the film (other than the casting of Matthew McConaughey, which I thought was perfect): it makes viewers want to read the books.

I watched a number of reviews when I was formulating my thoughts for this post, partly to see what people thought if they hadn’t read the books, and many of those people commented that it had made them want to read the books. There are things mentioned in the film that are never followed up, things that hint at a much larger mythology. Who on earth are the gunslingers, and why is Roland the last? Why does the Man in Black want to destroy the Tower? And why does Roland hate him so much? The reviewers supposed that these things must have been explained in the books, and they are, apart from the things in the film that are wrong – but let’s not get into geeky nitpicking when we’ve almost reached the end 😉

So I can’t recommend the film, not even as an hors d’oeuvre for the books, since so much of it is so far out of bounds that it will just confuse you. But I can’t recommend the books highly enough. So do yourself a favour and spend your ticket money on the first book, The Gunslingerinstead. It’s your passport to other worlds than these.

I’m happy to admit the poster’s cool, though.

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