It seems like the predominant question for any major and/or popular work of literary achievement is “When is the movie coming out?”
A book can’t spend even a day on the New York Times Bestseller list before the movie rights have been snapped up and a revolving door of cast and crew are signing up for the newest Oscar-hopeful/franchise-starter/what-have-you. And comic books? Literally the second a new character pops up in the funny pages the hungry maw of fan culture has already digested and regurgitated the creation, devoting Tumblrs and blogs to fancasting and speculating how Marvel Studios or Warner Bros. can fold this new addition to the universe into the ongoing film franchises.
Lord knows I’m as guilty of this as anyone, ever since my days as a little Harry Potter geek eagerly eating up every crumb of casting rumor and trying to predict which new British character actor would end up with the robes and the wands and the, you know, the whatnot.
We’ll talk about the long-term problems of treating all artifacts of culture as so much gristle for an endlessly churning multimedia grind in a bit, but before that let’s just talk about the nature of adaptation. It occurs to me that sometimes fans can be so preoccupied with the question of can a movie be made about this book/comic/video game/play/musical/zoetrope/etc. that we don’t always stop to consider whether or not something should make that transition.
It’s like we’re an entire Internet stuff-filled with Seth Brundles, and no one bothers to check to make sure that there’s no fly in the machine.
I’ve always wondered if there are certain properties that simply cannot make the move from one medium to another, and some major recent movement on a project long in development hell has really brought this question to the forefront. So let’s you and me rap a little bit about the question of adaptation and whether or not some things are better off left where they started.
So let’s talk about The Dark Tower.
Inspired by a heady mix of Lord of the Rings, Sergio Leone westerns, sky-high ambition, the poetry of Robert Browning and, let’s be honest, sky-high drug use, Stephen King began essaying the journey of Roland Deschain, The Gunslinger, at the tender age of 19. Over the seven(ish) volumes that constitute the main Dark Tower saga, King’s hero trespasses across all manner of realities and monsters in his quest to reach the Tower, which is said to exist at the nexus point of all realities, holding overlapping dimensions together.
To read these books is to witness a modern American master evolve through the distinctive states of his career. The first book (The Gunslinger) displays King’s early, possibly overreaching ambition, his love for esoteric, semi-poetic prose, and a mean spirited ruthlessness that the older King would disavow.
The middle books (The Drawing of the Three, The Wastelands, Wizard and Glass) find a writer in his groove, putting forth confident, muscular prose. Even as the page counts grew and grew, you blaze right through these books, punch-drunk on the ease with which King hops from genre to genre, world to world, packing each book with immediately loveable heroes, loathsome villains, and riveting set pieces ranging from close quarters gun battles to a riddle contest with the deranged AI of a locomotive powering through a nuclear wasteland.
(Fun fact: these books are fucking weird)
Wizard and Glass was published in 1997 and King let the Tower grow fallow for a few years. Readers who had been traveling with Roland since The Gunslinger’s publication 1982 began to wonder if King would ever return to Deschain and the small family of companions (known as the ka-tet) to his quest.
Then Stephen King got run over.
After extracting himself from that jackass’s grille, King (by his own admission) became concerned about his magnum opus joining the ever-growing legion of work left incomplete by their writers’ deaths, and he hustled to write the concluding volumes of the series. These books (Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, The Dark Tower) capture late-period King. Bloated, beautiful, full of gorgeous prose and head-slapping narrative decisions, the final half of The Dark Tower series can be rip-your-hair out infuriating and cry-your-eyes-out transcendent in equal measure, sometimes alternating between the two states from page to page.
King pissed off giant portions of his audience with the revelation of what awaited at the top floor of the Dark Tower, and in the time since he has made it abundantly clear that he doesn’t really care whether readers liked it or not. His ending is his ending, and anyone who didn’t like it could take a long walk off a short pier.
(Sidenote: This sort of attitude annoyed me when I was younger [I’m paying for this book/movie/show! Doesn’t that count for anything?!?!] but as an older and somewhat less stupid person, I’ve come to adore King’s “My art is my art, take it or get bent” attitude. In an age where many creatives make creative decisions based around focus-tested mass appeal, it’s hard not to admire someone who walks their own road, regardless of reaction.)
In the years since the Tower was summited, the universe has continued to expand via comics, short stories, and ongoing references in other King books (almost every Stephen King book has some kind of connection to the Dark Tower series. This includes characters, worlds, corporations, and the occasional mad deity). And ever since King finished the series, rumors have swirled about a possible movie adaptation of the series.
Throw a rock in Hollywood and there’s a solid chance you will hit someone who has been affiliated with a theoretical Dark Tower movie. JJ Abrams had the rights for a while, and there was talk of the Lost creative team taking on the series after that show went off the air with a wet fart. Then the rights lapsed and were picked up by Ron Howard, who began talking about an ambitious approach to the series: Howard proposed doing a movie trilogy to tell the core story, while using occasional TV miniseries to bridge gaps in the story and capture some of the massive sprawl of King’s epic.
With his unerring eye for talent, Howard recruited the writer of Batman & Robin and Winter’s Tale to help him develop this take on The Dark Tower. This talk went on for years until finally everyone attached drifted away and the movie was dead again.
Recently, though, The Dark Tower movie has come roaring back to life. Nikolaj Arcel has come aboard to co-write and direct the film, and he attached Idris Elba as Roland and Matthew McConaughey as The Man in Black, Roland’s world-hopping nemesis. The film is scheduled to begin production in a matter of weeks, with a scheduled release of January 2017. That’s an insanely fast turnaround, and it suggests that Warner Bros. is really, truly committed to putting at least some of this series on film, finally, for real.
We have never been closer to actually seeing The Dark Tower realized in live action.
And now that a movie is a real, genuine possibility, now that it is no longer the province of what if, of why not, of theory and speculation and wild-eye hypothesizing, now that it seems like a very likely likelihood that The Dark Tower will be a movie, one key question occurs to me as a fan:
Do I actually want a Dark Tower movie?
Leaving aside the Akiva Goldsman-might-be-the-actual-devil out of the equation (apparently his script has been rewritten entirely, leaving only the basic structure Goldsman developed. So long as none of his dialogue, themes, worldview, opinions, or descriptions remain, we should be OK), the team they’ve assembled here is, if nothing else, intriguing. I’m not familiar with Arcel’s work, but his European work has garnered plenty of acclaim. Idris Elba has been a movie star in wait for a long time, and there is little doubt that he will absolutely crush it as Roland Deschain (also his casting made racists throw a hissy fit, which is awesome. I wish more studio casting departments put “How do we piss off mouth-breathing, waste-of-skin racists/sexists?” at the top of their priorities). And as the merrily monstrous Man in Black, Matthew McConaughey seems primed to bring an entirely new riff on the dark wizard archetype we’ve seen explored ad nauseum ever since Saruman and Voldemort became household names.
And it’s not like I’m opposed to changes to the source material. The Stephen King adaptations that strive to capture his text word-for-word almost always end up anemic at best, laughable at worst (looking your way, Mick), and the weird structure of The Dark Tower suggests, nay demands, that story elements be cut, moved, clarified, changed, etc.
But even with this strong creative team, even with an acceptance of adaptation, I still can’t shake the feeling that no film will properly capture what made me stick with those books for four-thousand-plus pages.
Here’s why: to read The Dark Tower series is to come as close as possible to walking in the mind of Stephen King. By constructing a reality that is separate from our own (and that encompasses all possible reality) King allowed himself free reign to go wherever his brain went, and The Dark Tower series represents a constantly evolving grab-bag of fascinations, fetishes, obsessions, phobias, and concerns. You can see the writer evolve page by page and book by book, the series moving from King’s early preoccupation with masculinity and paternity, towards mid-King’s hang-ups involving addiction and the fractured psyche, and concluding with late era/current King and his views on mortality, legacy, and the mysteries of creation.
King famously does not plan his stories out in advance, preferring instead to discover the tale as he writes it. This approach can pay off beauteously (11/22/63), or it can make you so angry that you maybe punt the thing across the room (nearly broke my toe on IT. A pubescent sewer gangbang?!?!) but to watch King walk that tightrope for OVER TWENTY YEARS, chasing threads down blind alleys, returning to certain motifs over and over again, discovering new discordances and harmonies as he progressed, that is the thing that sets The Dark Tower apart from others of its fantasy ilk. That it is so singular, so flawed, so human in all the ways both profound and profane, that is why The Dark Tower is so important, even if the books didn’t include fights against a giant robot bear.
(Sidenote: I cannot impress upon you enough how goddamn weird these books are.)
And a movie (series) could never, ever capture that. Not unless a studio is willing to spend half a billion dollars on a bizarre art exercise guaranteed to lose almost every dime. A Dark Tower that has been streamlined of dead-ends and bad choices is, weird as it is to say, just not The Dark Tower. While I have no doubt that a talented screenwriter and director could craft a coherent, entertaining trilogy out of the core storyline, the soul of this series is intrinsically tied to the novelistic form, to the freedom that this afforded King to do whatever the hell he wanted. To succeed, and to fail, on his own terms.
Cards on the table, there’s pretty much nothing that will keep me from seeing a Dark Tower movie if and/or when it comes out. It would take apocalyptic word-of-mouth from fellow tower-lovers to dissuade me, and even then there would be a morbid curiosity to see just how wrong they got it (that’s why I ended up seeing M. Night’s Airbender film. Then I promptly drove an ice pick through my eye socket to get that shit OUT OF MY BRAIN [my brain healed just fine, so long as you ignore the green stuff that leaks out sometimes]).
But I increasingly worry about the state of our culture when fandom is more invested in an endlessly-perpetuating machine of media than in a good story being told correctly. A book series hits big and the process immediately begins: “Will they make a movie out of it?” “Will the movie make enough to merit a sequel?” “If it doesn’t will it be well-liked enough to merit a TV show, or will it be so bad that they have to reboot?” “TV is probably the best place for it. HBO? AMC? Netflix?” “Now that it’s a TV show will it get a comic adaptation to reflect the cast?” “When does the video game come out?” “The toys?” “The expanded universe material?” “The tie-in cereal?”
We have to stop treating our popular media as a series of down payments on a bill that will never, ever be fulfilled. We have to get to a place where we just enjoy art and culture as art, as culture, and let the studio money-lust be background noise. So much of the current conversation isn’t about appreciating a thing, it’s about hunger for the next thing, and the next, and the next.
For my part, I’m going to make the effort to disengage from Dark Tower movie news. If it happens, cool. If the movie works, cool. But whether or not a film is made, The Dark Tower already exists as a perfectly imperfect whole. No movie is going to detract from that, and I’m going to make the effort to make sure that no speculation detracts from it either.