Is The Dark Tower Any Good? Depends How Much You've Read
Filmmakers have been trying to adapt Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series for more than a decade. But with time-jumping metanarratives and compulsive genre-switching, the eight novels proved tough to wrangle into one film-able narrative. Director Nikolaj Arcel’s version of King’s events finally hits theaters today. Written by no fewer than four writers (not including King), the movie arrives with a lean 95-minute runtime and the kind of Rotten Tomatoes score (21% and barely climbing) that studios fear.
But is it possible the critics aren’t being fair? Is it possible Arcel made a movie so faithful to King’s work that just won’t connect with all audiences? Or, conversely, did he make one that attempted to please crowds but lost sight of the story? Did he shoot with his eye, not with his mind? WIRED editors Sarah Fallon and Angela Watercutter are here to sort it out. Fallon has read the books; Watercutter hasn’t. Neither has forgotten the face of her father. Come with us through the portal. (Warning: Spoilers follow.)
Angela Watercutter: First thing first, I didn’t love The Dark Tower. Sarah, as I mentioned yesterday, I can watch Idris Elba (Roland Deschain/The Gunslinger) watching paint dry, but despite his magics I couldn’t emotionally connect with this movie. Even Matthew McConaughey channeling his best time-is-a-flat-circle vibes couldn’t sell his Man in Black dialogue.
But that’s just me. I’ve read some King, and seen quite a few movies and TV shows based on his stories, and while watching The Dark Tower something dawned on me: the less fanatical an adaptation of King’s work, the better it fares. He’s a genius who conjures wonderful premises, but his more cerebral ideas are difficult to translate onto a screen. His horror (The Shining, Carrie, It) and drama (Misery, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, The Body, which inspired Stand by Me) can make the jump, but the more complex (or just plain weird) stuff—Maximum Overdrive, Sleepwalkers—rarely looks right onscreen.
Sarah Fallon: I was wondering how you would react to it, and I think viewers coming to it fresh will be perplexed— Wait, what? There’s some evil guy using some kind of kid-brain-amplifier to knock down some big tower that holds the world(s) together and a psychic kid who knows it’s happening and creatures wearing human skinsuits? It doesn’t roll off the tongue, and the movie doesn’t give you much time to get used to the notions before driving the action along. (And I agree with you on which writings make the jump and which don’t.) Still, those gun battles. You liked?
Watercutter: The gun battles were my favorite part, especially in the scenes after the Gunslinger goes to New York and gets all the ammo he can handle. I will forever be awed by his ability to rapid-reload. There are names for those chamber-filling tricks he does, yes?
Fallon: Well, I call the first one he does, where he flicks the bullets into the chamber (the kid is named Jake Chambers, get it?) with his thumb The Lifesaver.
Watercutter: I’m no Stephen King, but I will co-sign that moniker. Sorry. Back to the movie. Overall, how did you feel about it as a reader/fan?
Fallon: I was afraid that the film would fail the superfans. I could see from IMDb that Susannah and Eddie weren’t there, and Oy didn’t seem to have a role. But I was completely delighted. Lots of gestures and references to the things we fans love—the filmmakers (so many filmmakers!) left some delicious breadcrumbs for us. Mystifying to people who haven’t read the series, but fun for fans looking for Easter eggs. Lots and lots of loops and references to other books in the King universe. The depiction of the Mid-World universe was pretty thin, but the depiction of the state of the universe as imagined by King himself was rich. Read Dr. Sleep if you want more background on the “shine” that Jake evinces. I mean, yes, The Shining too, but Dr. Sleep gives a horrifically chilling vision of what bad guys do with kids like that. And shades of From a Buick 8, and The Mist, and Hearts in Atlantis, and (OK, now I’m kind of showing off), Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut. Just this notion that the world we live in is laced with low men and surrounded by sticky dino-creatures… What did you think of Tom Taylor as Jake Chambers?
Watercutter: I liked him a lot. I always have to tip my hat to kids who act in King adaptations because he often writes young people with the emotional maturity of adults. Kids who are aware. And, like the actors on Stranger Things, they always have to punch slightly above their weight. Honestly, though, I wish Taylor had more to do. In the beginning (a term that’s nebulous here, since I felt like this movie started in the second act), he really got to dig in and play a teenager burdened by knowing too much while also having everyone—including his family—think he’s troubled. After that, he kind of felt like an observer—at least until the final scenes.
Fallon: Oooh, ooh, I wanted to say, speaking of how the movie starts. You know, I walked into the theater wanting to see the Man in Black fleeing across the desert with the Gunslinger following, and the opening scene is so damn weird and not that. Oddly lit zombie kids wearing mind-control Fitbits being brain-zapped. My mind just went “Whelp, this is not The Dark Tower, but some other thing,” and then I could just go along for the ride. (Yes, I know this is a sequel to the books, but that’s not the way I would have expected the movie to start in any case.)
Watercutter: “Mind-control Fitbits” is perfect. And you’re right, that scene felt like a different movie compared to what came after. Once you were along for the ride, how did it make you feel? Did you connect with the characters the way you connected with them in the books?
Fallon: The thing I like best about Stephen King books is the relationships he sketches between people, and the relationship between Chambers and the non-Gunslinger adults in his life is nicely drawn and well-played, I thought. Completely absent from the books, but sets up some emotional drama well enough. And some of the best scenes in the books are when Roland comes into our world and interacts with the food and medicine and whatnot here. Those moments where Taylor gets to introduce him to what goes on here on Keystone Earth are very funny. But what Walter Padick (the Man in Black) is doing to the kids, honestly, it’s scary in this movie, but if you’ve read Dr. Sleep and if you have shine-y fresh kids of your own, it’s truly horrifying. So I really connected to Jake—maybe more than in the books.
Watercutter: Yeah, I found the moments of levity very necessary. (I can’t stop thinking about what I would say if I was on a bus in New York and Idris Elba told me I’d forgotten the face of my father.) And, speaking of Walter Padick (“His name is Walter?” was another LOL-er), I feel like there were some things he said that were unintentionally funny.
Fallon: Ooh, like what?
Watercutter: Well, “Have a great apocalypse,” for one. (Though maybe he was playing that for laughs?) The other that got snickers in the screening I saw was “Looks like I got myself a stalker,” which Walter said when he saw all of Jake’s drawings of him and the Dark Tower. OK, maybe both of those were supposed to be funny, but I’m not sure—and I think it was those bits of tonal inconsistency that kept throwing me. Did you have that? Or were you maybe more prepared for the shifts?
Fallon: I’m going to regret this if Matthew McConaughey ever shows up at my house and wants me to make him a snack or something, but I didn’t like his laugh lines that much. There’s something sort of Die Hard-ish about “Have a great apocalypse,” that I didn’t think landed. (And I do think it was intended to be funny.) The scene where he’s in the kitchen cooking though, that was dark and great. The other thing that threw me was the way the portals were depicted. Too science fiction-y for this world. I wanted something a little more like the doors in Narnia in The Last Battle.
Watercutter: And see, I probably never would have picked up on that. I thought the portals were a little odd, but in a world where Matthew McConaughey goes to a stranger’s apartment and makes chicken, what’s the threshold for “odd”? Anyway, I think you’re right that the laugh lines didn’t always land. Moreover, though, I think a lot of this movie didn’t land. Watching it, I couldn’t get over the fact that it felt like a bunch of good ideas thrown in a salad spinner—a lot of cool things whirled around, but it ultimately wasn’t palatable.
Fallon: For me, it was a sort of Stephen King metanarrative pared down to its very basics, decorated with fancy bullet work. And it’s a metanarrative that does resonate: There are dark forces in the world, forces that you may intuit but not fully be able to recognize for what they are, that seek to harvest the spirit of the innocents. I mean, that’s melodramatic, of course. But if you tilt your head and look at the film out of the side of your eyes instead of staring straight at it, that’s what I see.
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