Film * Nikolaj Arcel * Excuse Me, I Need to Lie Down * 2017
What a huge fucking bummer. Just… goddammit. Okay. Okay. Okay, I have actual words. Hold on, give me another second….
[walks to window]
[screams into the infinite unknown]
[apologizes to alarmed neighbors]
[sits back down]
Okay that didn’t work at all. I guess I just need to work this out here. First of all, I think it’s important that I preface the following by stating that The Dark Tower and its six sequels have been hugely important to me. I’ve gone full evangelical with this series, I’ve made converts, I’ve gone on at length on this very site. So when I (finally) sat down to watch this movie, I brought some baggage with me. It’s impossible not to do so, considering. I know the books backwards and forwards as I’ve read them entirely too many times. So this movie already had some work to do. That said, I did my very best to accept the movie on its own terms. I get it, I understand, I know how adaptations work. You can’t just literally film the books and expect it to work for a general audience. Maybe especially these books. And I was totally fine with surprising choices and drastic changes. The movie is its own thing and its existence doesn’t invalidate the books in any way. I’m just so very disappointed in what they came up with.
First of all, a couple of good things before I explain very precisely why this whole thing is so awful. The Dark Tower is a beautiful movie. It’s absolutely sold me on the natural splendor of South Africa. With a couple of quibbles, Mid-World looks amazing. The set and costume design are fantastic, Roland looks perfect. As far as that’s concerned, the casting is also great. I mean, there’s only three main characters to work with, but they absolutely nailed it. Idris Elba is Roland. The kid they found to play Jake is great too, and he works really well against Elba. Their chemistry felt right. I even like Matthew McConaughey as Walter. He brings a menace to the role that fits, although I wish there was just a touch more jocularity to the character. Walter is often amused with his own cruelty. Anyway, he still looked the part. Even the Low Men were awesome. I’m down with the entire aesthetic of this film, this is the one aspect of the books they captured.
It’s too bad about literally everything else. I just… I don’t understand! There’s like a hundred ways to do this without stripping everything worthwhile out of the story! Gah! It’s like they skimmed the books, pulled out ten or twelve random details, and sprinkled them throughout a boilerplate revenge story. Here’s the thing about that: I want to enjoy my fanboy squealing over those details, but I couldn’t because they didn’t make any fucking sense in context of whatever narrative they were trying to tell. Christ, the movie begins with a Tet Corporation logo with a little turtle and that should be fucking awesome and I could barely appreciate it because I’m sitting here thinking “why isn’t this movie starting with a man in black fleeing across a desert and a gunslinger following?” This shit’s not complicated. When your source material serves up one of the most iconic opening sentences of all time, you start with that fucking sentence! I guess they eventually dropped it in there, half an hour after it would have had any real impact, just one of a bunch of random details they included without having any understanding of why.
What makes this so utterly frustrating is that “unfilmable” adaptations have been pulled off before. There’s a goddamn blueprint. In just fantasy alone, I can point to Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones and Harry Potter. All three of those take liberties with the source material. They change stuff around and cut things and add other stuff and whatever! That’s not what bothers me about this. No, those other movies succeed because those behind the adaptation understand the spirit of the source. They fucking get it. Those books are all perennially popular for a reason, it’s the job of the filmmakers and screenwriters to harness that essence and make it work for a movie. The worst way to do that is to just strip random details and sprinkle them over an entirely new narrative. But that’s what The Dark Tower does, and as a result it’s a boring failure. Dammit.
Oh, and a friendly reminder that I’m going to openly talk about plot points of not only the movie, but the books below.
Probably the most obvious thing this movie gets wrong is the characterization. The Dark Tower, as a series, works well with so few characters because those characters are so well realized. Roland is one of Stephen King’s greatest characters because he’s been writing about him for forty years. You know what the best way to understand Roland’s character is without having to go through all the bother of actually understanding the novels? Read some of the introductions to the Dark Tower novels. King straight up tells you how Roland works. He’s a slow-thinking, aristocratic, diplomat with a deeply romantic nature who shoots real good. The film gets the easiest thing to get right utterly wrong, and it makes no fucking sense. Roland is all about the Tower. That’s his whole deal! As Eddie puts it, Roland’s a Tower junkie. The Man in Black is and always was a means to that end. He’s just another cobble in the road to the Dark Tower. This is explicitly stated time and time again, and I simply cannot understand how the filmmakers looked at that and went “yeah but what if revenge.”
Oh, and they say his name wrong. He’s an aristocrat. He’s the heir of Arthur, for crying out loud. You draw that name out all fancy. “Childe Rolaaand to the Dark Tower Came.” Minor issue all things considered, but still.
So they fuck Roland’s basic nature all up (“I’m not a gunslinger anymore” my rosy red ass). Jake is a little closer to the mark, but at the same time they take unnecessary liberties with his backstory. Remember how Elmer Chambers is a go-go 80’s executive and his mom is a vapid Valium addict? And how he bails on them because his life is otherwise empty and meaningless? And how maybe that’s important to his character but whatever, we need him to have a totally relatable relationship with his loving mother and the mean old stepdad? The fuck am I even looking at here. And then Jake doesn’t die. He doesn’t die? How? What!? JAKE’S DEATH IS THE WHOLE FUCKING POINT. That’s the emotional center of his entire arc, and this movie looked at that and went “yeah but what if sci-fi portals.”
To be fair, those sci-fi portals show up – kind of – in the books, towards the end of the series. And that’s a big problem. This movie has a lean 90 minute runtime, which I totally appreciate, but they’re trying to cram in seven big ass novels’ worth of story in there. Of course that’s not going to work. Of course! That’s obvious on its face! Tell a person who’s never even heard of The Dark Tower that oh, by the way, this one movie is like seven books, and they’ll look at you like you said something stupid. Because you did, because that’s stupid. I don’t even understand what the thought process was here. I assume they made this because they wanted a fresh new franchise to exploit, but this movie is pretty clearly wrapped up by the end. They introduce this weird, elaborate concept – the Dark Tower is the linchpin to all realities and all universes, Walter would like to blow it up with little kid brain magic – and then they solve it immediately. I’m trying to put myself in the shoes of an objective observer, and I’m not seeing where this goes from here. And that’s super confusing.
I mean, you start with the beginning because it’s the beginning, right? Yeah, I know the books begin in media res, shut up. I also understand that the first book is a weird, esoteric thing that’s not for everyone. Which is why you truncate it for the film and probably mash it up with The Drawing of the Three. You introduce all the mystery of Roland and Mid-World and then ground that with the audience with his trips to New York to draw two extremely compelling characters. Right? Is this hard? You end with a hint at Roland’s coming madness and the notion that Jake isn’t actually dead. That’s a hook, and these books are beloved for a reason. It’s like the filmmakers were terrified they’d never get another chance so they just crammed as much as they could from the seven books without considering how they were being used, and hey look self-fulfilling prophecy. Good job, jerks. I guess maybe Tull gives this an R rating? It should probably have that anyway. Ugh. There are ways to make that first book a compelling movie! And then they looked at all that and went “yeah but what if all the books.”
Adaptations are hard, I get it. I listed those three extremely popular fantasy adaptations above because they’re obvious examples of getting it right. You have to appeal to people who have no interest in reading dorky books for dorks. You jazz it up with dope action scenes, right? This movie had a couple of those moments. That scene in the village (???) where Walter’s goblin raiders (????) invaded and ran off with Jake? And then everything slows down to show how totally rad Roland is, and he makes that crazy shot? That was brilliant. That was a perfect encapsulation of how spooky Roland is with a gun. The Dixie Pig shootout was also fucking cool to look at. Yet I’m still watching that going: why is Roland here? This is just set dressing. There is no narrative reason for him to be here, and with zero context this makes no sense. It’s just another reference, which is doubly confusing because the only people who are going to even get that reference are too busy being mad that you’ve misused the reference! The only reason the Dixie Pig is cool is because that’s where Jake finally goes Full Gunslinger after like five books of growth. And then they looked at all of that and went “yeah but what if Roland just shot a bunch of dudes.”
When it comes down to it, the movie fails because it doesn’t earn anything. There’s no narrative reason given for Jake showing up in Mid-World, other than he has the Shinnin’. Roland’s entire backstory is summed up in a trite flashback of his dad biting it. That’s it, that’s his motivation. None of that is terribly compelling. They show off this cool-looking world, but they try and explain every modicum of mystery immediately, which is the exact opposite of what makes the books so fascinating and what gives them such a long life. Even within the context of the novels, I know a lot of people are disappointed with the concluding three books, and that’s in large part because things get explained. Explanations are usually boring and disappointing. You gotta let that mystery and atmosphere and esoteric weirdness marinade for a while. You can still make a snappy action film and keep what makes The Dark Tower special intact. I believe that. It’s too bad that those behind this atrocity didn’t.