There are other worlds than these, pilgrim, and The Dark Tower movie tries to be the best of both, bringing Stephen King’s epic dark fantasy novel series to the broadest possible audience. But lots is lost in translation, and neither fans nor newbies to the material will find much to make them happy.
Theresa DeLucci has only read the first two novels and Pritpaul Bains has read them all—so how differently did they both hate this movie?
Spoiler warning: several major plot elements of King’s earlier Dark Tower books are discussed in passing, but nothing major from the final books.
Theresa: I’ve read several of King’s novels and collections but had The Dark Tower series on my TBR pile for years. I’m a big fan of Weird West and Westerns in general but I didn’t want to commit to such a big series at the time. I really adored The Gunslinger and the second novel, The Drawing of the Three. Lobstrosities! So while I wasn’t overly familiar with the source material, I had a base understanding and have tons of friends who say that at least the first four books are excellent.
Pritpaul: King has been the biggest influence on both my reading and writing since I was 10 years old, when I snuck a copy of Misery out of my local library. But I held off on The Dark Tower series until a few years ago, in part because of my reluctance to associate King with the fantasy genre. When I cracked open The Gunslinger for the first time, I quickly realized my folly. (If you’d like a refresher on the source material, check out a recent reread on our sister site.) My love affair with Mid-World, Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake, and Oy peaked right around the time that buzz around the development of the movie began to grow, around 2015, and when I learned of the casting of Elba and McConaughey, my initial skepticism gave way to anticipation.
Theresa: Of course I was excited to see Idris Elba as Roland Deschain; the man deserves his own franchise. I am also an unabashed Matthew McConaughey fan, especially when he gets a chance to chew scenery (see: Reign of Fire.) And I did enjoy director Nikolaj Arcel’s Oscar-nominated, Mads Mikkelsen-starring sexy period drama, A Royal Affair. But the ever-shifting release date of The Dark Tower did not inspire confidence, to say the least.
Pritpaul: And the trailer raised some pretty immediate red flags with me, too. Between Roland’s arrival in New York and what appeared to be the presence of the Manni and the Taheen, that the movie seemed to be amalgamating bits and pieces of story across all eight books in an attempt to streamline the plot for viewing audiences was… concerning. And don’t even get me started on the PG-13 rating.
Theresa: So it’s fair to say we both went in with low expectations, right?
Pritpaul: Yes. And they were rewarded right off the bat when the movie opened with Jake’s vision of Mid-World instead of Roland in Mid-World.
Theresa: Right! “The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed” is one of the all-time great opening lines. So why are we in New York? It took far too long for Roland to be introduced. You have Idris Elba! Why be stingy?
Pritpaul: This was Stephen King watered down to a YA movie, but Hollywood usually gives kids more credit with fantasy worlds than they did here. Positing Jake as the protagonist, rather than Roland, irked me on a fundamental level. Tom Taylor isn’t a bad actor, he was just a bad choice to anchor this movie because frankly, his world is just regular old earth, not Mid-World, so by default it’s less wondrous. And in this particular series, especially with a runtime of 95 minutes, any time spent not immersed in Mid-World feels like a waste—a missed opportunity to organically introduce viewers to the systems and rules of King’s universe, rather than force-feeding them the rushed, patronizing infodumps that ruin the flow of the movie later on.
Theresa: I loved the simplicity of The Gunslinger because it was about a man torn between his quest to get to the tower and destroy the Man in Black, who had corrupted his family, his entire society, at odds with Roland’s struggle to retain a spark of humanity, embodied in his care for Jake. Was that really not easy enough to understand? Why the Last Action Hero-ness of it all?
Pritpaul: For a movie that mined plot points from across all eight books, I was especially frustrated by how much was missing—especially information that would help viewers actually care about the universe and characters in such a way that they would be invested in future installments. Roland’s character and motivation in the movie are entirely different from the book-verse. In the book, he’s consumed by his quest for the Tower at the expense of all else, but the events that shape his character along the way are stripped out of the film.
Gone is the massacre at Tull. Gone is the dangerous beauty of Mid-World. Gone is the sacrifice of Jake. Gone is Cort’s tough love. Gone is any kind of history for Roland, Steven, Marten, and Gabrielle. Gone is any real attempt to convey the weight of Roland’s quest and backstory. Instead, the movie posits him as driven by vengeance for his father, and not really giving a shit about the Tower at all. In fact, Jake is the one who guilts Roland into defending the Tower from all the way over on Keystone Earth—an argument that apparently required less than a minute in which Roland changes the entire course of his life.
We meet Steven Deschain for about 30 seconds, and that half-minute is expected to do literally all of the following work for the movie: (A) Establish Roland’s reasons for wanting revenge. (B) Establish weight behind the relationship between Steven, Roland, and Walter. (C) Establish Walter’s power. (D) Invest viewers in Roland’s desire for revenge. (E) Establish the power and stature of gunslingers in Mid-World. That’s a lot of weight to give 30 seconds of footage, and it predictably failed. I’m all for story simplification, but this was just plain old dumbing down. That may be my biased book-brain speaking, though; Theresa, did you feel the movie had enough gravitas to pull you in?
Theresa: This is where we talk about how Matthew McConaughey failed as a villain. First off, it’s hard to sound scary when your name is Walter, but okay. But, really, McConaughey was less a dark wizard than… Gob Bluth with bad FX. McConaughey had more charisma when he was a stripper in Magic Mike than he does in this movie. Also, I recoiled every time he said “mah magicksss.” I never felt he was anything more than just an annoyance. So, no, no gravitas.
Pritpaul: The FX didn’t do Walter any favors. And his henchmen were all nameless redshirts, lowmen and vampires, with a token nod to the Taheen. His delivery was flat and entire plot points from Wizard and Glass—like a collection of glasses from Maerlyn’s Rainbow that he CASUALLY RETRIEVES FROM A GODDAMNED CABINET—were just thrown in like they were no big deal. Not to mention how convenient it was to locate portals between worlds in the movie-verse. Roland spends months in the books tracking down portals, but here, they seem to be on every corner in New York and oh! Here’s one in Mid-World in this random village that for some reason appears to be a mash-up of River Crossing and the Manni. Great.
Theresa: And as corny and nonsensical as the Mid-World stuff was, The Dark Tower’s time on Earth wasn’t much better. I did think Jake’s mom had the most humanity out of anyone in the movie and I liked her scenes in isolation from the rest. And as much as I hated Jake being the main character, I thought the actor that played him was good. There were also some cute moments, like Roland eating his first hot dog, but Roland was such a dull cipher, the movie missed a great opportunity to really push some (tooter)fish out of water humor. I’m not even mad at Idris Elba; he just wasn’t given any character to work with.
Pritpaul: And there were moments of fun in the gun battles that helped establish Roland’s expertise, but nothing that managed to sustain itself through a complete action sequence. Just a couple of cool shots for a few seconds here or there. I guess it’s a blessing the movie was only 93 minutes long. 93 minutes!
Theresa: The ending filled me with rage because it was so goddamned corny. Jake’s basically got no family left, so understandably he’s somewhat eager to accept Roland’s invitation to join him back in the world of… whatever the hell is in his world. Is it evil-free now? No lobstrosities or demons? But when Roland says “Let’s go… gunslinger,” I expected a high-five, freeze-frame, and star wipe to the end credits. It was that much like an 80s sitcom. No, Jake, you are not a goddamned gunslinger. You barely touched a gun and real gunslingers had years of training and a careful code that Roland basically threw out the window when he offered such an honorific so flippantly. Now I must go punch things. With mah magicksss.
Pritpaul: What troubles me most is that there was a legitimate opportunity to be had here, had it not been shoehorned into a YA shell. Turn this into a hard R, slow burn horror-western. Take the baseline structure of The Gunslinger. Keep Roland as the protagonist, as he should have been all along. Capitalize on the beauty of the desert landscape—take your cinematic cues from the sandy color palettes of Fury Road instead of settling for whatever the hell the generic, bland aesthetic of this movie turned out to be. Let the viewers learn about the universe through Tull and its denizens, through Jake’s arrival, through the slow mutants. Let the viewers learn about Roland through the fallout of Tull, through Cort and Marten and Roland’s parents, through Jake’s sacrifice. Make a movie that credits its audience with some intelligence.
Roland claims, “Pleasant dreams die; the unpleasant ones live forever.” I sincerely hope this is not the last we see of The Dark Tower on the silver screen. It would be a shame for such an iconic series to begin and end in so wretched a fashion. But if any upcoming shows or movie options being picked up are contingent on the success of this film, well… there will be water if God wills it. About the great matters, we have no say.
Theresa: The Dark Tower disappointed me in the same way Robert Jordan fans must’ve felt when they saw that bizarre 2 a.m. Billy Zane Wheel of Time rights-grab nonsense. Just… there are other movies than these, pilgrim. Let’s go watch them… gunslinger.
Pritpaul and Theresa high-five before a freeze-frame and a star wipe to end credits. The Dark Tower is in theaters now. But probably not for long.