Originally published on Creators.co on August 8th, 2017
The Dark Tower directed by A Royal Affair director Nikolaj Arcel and penned by A Beautiful Mind writer Akiva Goldsman (but who could forget his other masterpiece, Batman And Robin?) has finally reached theaters after almost a decade of troubled development. Studio changes, filmmakers coming and going, different drafts, and several casting changes this first adaptation of Stephen King’s (often called) magus opus has had quite a journey in the adaptation process. The book series includes eight novels and this film serves as a sort of pseudo-sequel/adaptation of various parts of the eight books.
If that sounds confusing that’s because it is. It attempts to introduce audiences to a new world that is a mix between fantasy and western (with elements of Sci-Fi and horror) but it has crammed it into a 95-minute package. If that sounds like there isn’t enough time to flesh things out that’s because there isn’t. The Dark Tower does about everything wrong when it comes to adapting. While it is not the outwardly bad film it has been described as, this is not a good adaptation. The root of the problem is the 95-minute-long time which severely damages the world building, character development, and pacing. To explore how this is an issue we need to take a look at a few fantasy films that do these things better.
How Other Fantasy Films Built Their Worlds
Lord of the Rings is the go-to example when it comes to epic fantasy on the big screen (the original book(s) inspired Stephan King in writing The Dark Tower) and with good reason, it is a great set of movies. How do Peter Jackson’s adaptations establish the world of Middle Earth? Lord of the Rings opens with a massive prologue that lays out history, some rules, geography and central conflict of the Ring of Power. The movie then goes onto expanding those elements as the runtime continues with more discussion on the ring, antagonists, quests, and different races. Gandalf learns information, Frodo learns, and as a result, the audience learns. Not everything is given a clear explanation but the core of what Lord of the Rings is about getting across to the casual viewer and leaves plenty for the hardcore viewer to dive into. This is breaking down the world building of Lord of the Rings to its simplest form.
The Harry Potter films also achieved something similar with building the Wizarding World. While it lacks the prologue of Lord of the Rings, we follow our main character, Harry, as he learns about the world and then the conflict (some of that conflict is set up the early minutes of the movie). The rest of the runtime is devoted to Harry learning about the Wizarding World and his place in it. The subsequent films would later expand on the world further. The first Lord of the Rings film ran 179 minutes (extended edition 228 minutes), whilst the first Harry Potter film ran 152 minutes (extended edition 159 minutes). Does The Dark Tower need to be either of those lengths? Not necessarily, but 95 minutes poses a problem.
The 95 Minute Problem
The Dark Tower centers on Jake, a child that has visions of the Mid-World and the conflict between the Gunslinger and the Man in Black and the Dark Tower. Following a newcomer into any new world that the audience is being introduced too is a safe play because it allows questions and exposition. The newcomer doesn’t know much and neither does the audience. He can ask the questions we might have and the exposition comes across in a more natural way. Even though this movie is set up from the point of view of a newcomer, he doesn’t ask the questions the audience needs because they simply don’t have time, the plot keeps moving at a frantic pace. That hurts the movie in a few ways, the mythology is surface level and turns the audience against Jake. Jake as a character isn’t that interesting, to begin with, and he doesn’t help to better understand our view of Mid-World either. All of this makes you wish the movie just centered on the Gunslinger instead.
So now that Jake doesn’t have time to explore the new world the 95-minute problem comes back in. The conflict is set up, the world has been introduced (with some basic rules), and now like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter we expect for those things to be expanded upon and fleshed out, but that never happens. There are many unexplained questions, like who is the Man in Black? What is his motivation? Why can Roland resist his magic? Do other people have magic? How does one track “the shine”? Why did Jake defeat the house demon so quickly? Actually, a better question, what is a house demon and how did it get there? Who is the Crimson King? If you haven’t read the books good freaking luck figuring that all out! Any question a causal viewer has for films like Lord of the Rings, chances are there is an explanation in the film that you can point to. Not everything needs a detailed explanation, however, some is required for this type of film. The mythology becomes hollow without any fleshing out.
With only 95 minutes to spare, there is no time to answer your questions and it lacks the visual storytelling of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road to flesh things out while still maintaining its frantic pace. Nor does The Dark Tower have any of Stanley Kubrick’s poetic visuals to make the unexplained in The Shininginteresting. So, while I was interested in the mythology that the movie was laying out I felt cheated and longing for more because there are interesting foundations to this movie and they don’t go anywhere. In that sense, this movie might be the greatest (and most expensive) book commercial I’ve ever seen because it renewed my interest in continuing to dive into the book series to get everything I felt I didn’t get watching the movie. The movie instead devolved into a pretty generic fantasy action movie.
Another problem with the 95-minute runtime is the rushed finale. The movie hints towards a struggle between the Gunslinger and the Man in Black. The Gunslinger wants to face him and fight him. Putting aside that the Gunslinger’s desires to fight the Man in Black don’t get the proper buildup to have a satisfying payoff, the actual fight is remarkably quick. For the ultimate confrontation, this doesn’t have the emotional intensity or length to make for an interesting climax. Then all other plot lines are wrapped in mere minutes. It is very unclear (to non-book readers) where the series goes from here.
He Has Forgotten The Face Of His Father
The Dark Tower has other issues that aren’t related to the 95-minute runtime but I would consider those minor by comparison. The 95-minute runtime is the greatest issue that this movie faces. It lacks the time to flesh the world out making it feel hollow, it doesn’t develop characters to make them interesting and lacks any sort of dynamic visual storytelling. It is not entry level enough for a new viewer but not hardcore enough for a massive fan of the books. Not to mention this also squanders two fantastically casted leads, Idris Elba (The Gunslinger) and Matthew McConaughey (The Man in Black).
As I’ve stated earlier, I didn’t hate this movie. It had some fun moments. This is precisely why I sound so harsh in this article. I could feel myself getting invested, interested in the foundations this movie was establishing. But, the movie wasn’t deep enough to pay off. This didn’t have to be as good as other great fantasy epics (like Lord of the Rings), but it clearly had the potential. This movie didn’t need to be exactly like the books, and I am, on principle, against this notion. It needs to function as a movie. I’m currently reading Stephan King’s The Dark Tower, and I am only on book two. My disappointment with this movie is not because of a love of the books, it is because the movie presents a rich world that is depicted in the books, but that is as far as it goes. Nothing else becomes of this landscape. This movie seems to have forgotten the face of its father and the 95-minute runtime is just the root cause. Perhaps Sony should pursue a TV show in order to flesh out the world in a similar fashion to Game of Thrones instead of continuing the film franchise that has missed the very same opportunity.