The Dark Tower Rises

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“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

Those are the first words of Stephen King’s epic, thirty-years-in-the-making ‘Dark Tower’ series – a sprawling adventure story that found King borrowing from iconic myths (including the King Arthur legend, The Lord of the Rings and spaghetti westerns) to build an epic of his own. The seven-part series provided a thrilling and emotional journey that wasn’t afraid to get aggressively weird at times – exactly the type of tale the fourteen-year-old me grooved to in my formative years.

News broke earlier this week that after years of fits-and-starts of trying to get this enterprise adapted to the screen – a deal was finally in place. King, himself, announced the update via Twitter – revealing that Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey had been cast as Roland and The Man in Black, respectively. The two actors immediately confirmed it in a cheeky series of follow-up posts. Finally, the studio Sony Pictures wrapped it all up in a tidy bow with news that production would begin in April and the film would be released on February 17, 2017. That production timeline gives slight pause for concern as it seems a little abbreviated for such a potential tent pole picture BUT I think they are going modest with this first installment in a smart bid to gauge audience engagement. As I mentioned, this series runs down some strange alleys so ponying up for a seven-picture deal would be a huge gamble for any studio. For every Harry Potter success story, there’s a dozen Spiderwick Chronicles and Golden Compass leading to bad directions.

As a huge fan of the source novels but one who didn’t quite groove to where King closed his tale – I’m going to say that I actually look forward to an unconventional adaptation. As written, the entire series is unfilmable. No question!!! It just grows too large and unwieldy at times and would require a massive commitment of resources and audience attention to bring this thing to the screen unaltered. That seems a road paved with misery, headed for disaster – and likely one that would never be finished.

I’ve never been one of those readers who demands complete fidelity in the film adaptation anyway. As long as you get the spirit of the book on-screen, I’m happy with it. I mean – I already read the book – I don’t need it dictated to me.

See – I’m the type of person who enjoys spending time in that universe, so if a filmmaker wants to take a property and create something genuinely inspired by it – then I’m interested to see where it goes. Stephen King’s Dark Tower series (with its many tangents and flashbacks and sideways story-telling approaches) lends itself to crafting something on the order of a Star Wars. At the heart is the age-old myth of good vs. evil. Been there, done that which is why you can go to town creating all manner of crazy incident around the heroes. This series seems primed for telling a whole bunch of different stories. Hell, King did that himself – using his imagined world to deliver children’s fables, horror stories, rollicking adventures, heady sci-fi trips and heart-yearning tales of romance as his whims dictated through crafting this tale.

Stephen King opens ‘The Gunslinger’ – the first volume in his seven part Dark Tower series – with that initial sentence which is so compelling in its simplicity. That’s the whole story right there – or at the very least – the through-line. It’s after that where things get decidedly more complicated; running tangents that dove from the fanciful Mid-World to our “real world” at various stops in time (including the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s, the grungy New York City of the late-70s and early 80’s, and a date with destiny in Maine 1999 – the exact time and place where Stephen King would facedown his own real-life terror in a catastrophic hit & run by van that almost saw our beloved author ushered from this mortal coil before he could finish his epic tale).

King initially wrote that first sentence sometime around 1970 – even before his first novel Carrie was published. He published the first book in 1981 and then began releasing successive installments in a frequency one can only describe as middling. That was – until the van approached. Take a look at the publication schedule:

The Gunslinger (1981)
The Drawing of the Three (1987)
The Waste Lands (1991)
Wizard and Glass (1997)
Wolves of the Calla (2003)
Song of Susannah (2004)
The Dark Tower (2004)

Something went wrong between Wizard and Glass in 1997 and Wolves of the Calla in 2003. The beam slipped. I blame Harry Potter.

Late in Wolves of the Calla, Roland and his band make plans to defend an outpost farming town against the mysterious marauders who return ever few years to steal their children. This group discovers a hidden cache of unusual weapons – the same armaments wielded by their assailants. Roland pours through various crates and finds laser sword devices which resemble Star Wars light sabers as well as strange buzzing balls which hover on their own power and can accelerate and turn on a dime as they seek their quarry. Roland discovers that these curious instruments are called ‘Golden Snitches’. Into this bizarre melting pot of Star Wars and Harry Potter comes the ‘Wolves’ disguises, which makes the robotic assailants resemble Doctor Doom from the Fantastic Four comics. It’s a twist right out of left-field and a harbinger of more bizarre things to come. Up until that point, I was ready to follow wherever King led us but this crossover felt bizarre and lazy.

The Harry Potter reference is telling. Like King, Potter scribe J.K. Rowling announced in advance that her series would run seven novels. As the series continued to pick up steam, Rowling kept the quality and continuity of each successive release in lock step. I have no doubt that if writing a short story can seem daunting, recording a seven part series and creating a brave, new world from scratch must be an undiscovered circle of Hell. Somehow, Rowling was able to keep it all together and although each subsequent novel grew more inventive, she was able to keep one constant thread unifying the entire series. Harry Potter grows with the series, aging one year per book. He is the center and Rowling understood well that to maintain order, the center must hold.

I think King looked at Rowling’s universe, saw a reflection of his own ambitious gambit and realized that when that van hit him in 1999, he’d lost his way. I don’t begrudge the guy. I get a paper cut and I’m out of commission. King was shattered by that accident – his legs a mosaic of splintered bone. He was inches from Death. Getting to live another day is one thing. Living to write another day is something else.

While the latter novels were competent in their execution (his trademark style “where character is king” was still there), his fanciful tale was suddenly haunted by real life horror. Where his Mid-World had often intersected with the ‘real world’, it was always the ‘real world’ of his fictional universe – meaning it was never out-of-place for Roland to come across ‘The Stand’s’ Randall Flagg in some twisted Superflu scarred version of Kansas. In the latter books, starting with Song of Susannah, King made the uncomfortable decision of writing our ‘real world’ into his fictional world. Beginning with the discovery of a tattered copy of Salem’s Lot, Roland and his group crossed into 1999 Maine seeking an audience with their creator, Stephen King. The moment he wrote himself into the story, he lost me.

Where did it go wrong? Between the publication of Hearts in Atlantis and Dreamcatcher, King suffered his own real world horror when he found himself on the receiving end of a runaway van, steered by a man with a long, sad history of driving difficulty. Initial media reports pegged King close to death – a fact the author backed up in numerous interviews since (most notably in the liner notes for Dreamcatcher).

Along with the network of fractures and fissures that spider-webbed his legs, there was great fear in the early days that he had suffered a neural catastrophe as well. So it was a few months later, as I rounded the halfway point of Dreamcatcher, that I realized with mounting horror that the work was a pale pastiche of King’s greatest hits. Like an AC-DC cover band, this author knew the lyrics, but lacked the rhythm. Had King suffered an injury more grievous than his rehabilitation hinted at?

The questions that Dreamcatcher planted in my mind were answered by the last three Dark Tower books. Stephen King started the series. A ghost writer finished it. Surely those last three books were the product of some trickster, some devilish phantasm looking to close out the tale with a decidedly unhappy ending.

That’s how I felt when I closed out the series – a little bitter and angry at a rushed conclusion. I savored that story when it was doled out in little morsels over a few decades. When we were suddenly invited to feast on the final three installments practically in one sitting, I choked a little.

Time has been better. I see what King was trying to do in tying it all together in the end. I also know he was saying something about time and mortality – about lives lived to their best, including his own. He made some crazy literary leaps and never really stuck the landing, but he certainly swung for the fences and held true to the story HE wanted to tell – at least, at the time.

That said – while this series is ripe for the picking and could bear fruit in any number of film adaptations – there’s no way on Earth it can be filmed exactly as written. So, this is one series where I applaud the filmmakers’ decision to start in media res – beginning in the middle and finding their way from there. They’ve already cast the primary roles perfectly. No – Idris Elba is not the Clint Eastwood type we all imagined when King first published The Gunslinger – but he is an excellent actor with a huge, commanding and thoughtful presence. And McConaughey brings the right level of eerie intensity to give the gunslinger, Roland, a spectacular creep worth chasing.

I look forward to seeing this once leaning Tower stand tall again.

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