‘The Dark Tower’ has been through various filmmakers' hands and studios in the past decade alone; in 2007, a film adaptation was going to be directed by J.J. Abrams and written by Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof of ‘Lost’, and a few years after that, Ron Howard was going to take the helm. Finally, director Nikolaj Arcel ended up with it.
So what exactly is the big deal surrounding this film?
A series of eight books (and counting), ‘The Dark Tower’ follows a “gunslinger” and his quest toward a tower, the nature of which is both physical and metaphorical. Written by bestselling author Stephen King between 1982 and 2012, the series incorporates themes from a slew of genres, including western, dark fantasy, science fiction, and horror.
Roland Deschain is the last living member of a knightly order known as gunslingers and the last of the line of “Arthur Eld”, his world's analogue of King Arthur. Politically organized along the lines of a feudal society, it shares technological and social characteristics with the American Old West but is also magical. Many of these magical aspects have vanished from Mid-World but traces remain, as do relics from a technologically advanced society. Roland's quest is to find a fabled building said to be the nexus of all universes, the Dark Tower. The tower is under assault by the Crimson King, a Satanic figure bent on destroying this nexus by undermining the Beams, magical forces that support it.
Along his journey, Roland follows the way of ka, a variant of destiny. Accompanying him is a group of people from various parallel worlds, bound together by ka, a ka-tet, consisting of Jake Chambers, Eddie Dean, Susannah Dean, and Oy. Among his many enemies on the way are The Man In Black, Mordred and the aforementioned Crimson King.
The series was chiefly inspired by the poem ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’ by Robert Browning, whose full text was included in the final volume's appendix. In the preface to the revised 2003 edition of The Gunslinger, King also identifies ‘The Lord of the Rings’, Arthurian Legend, and ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ as inspirations. He identifies Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name character as one of the major inspirations for the protagonist, Roland Deschain. King's style of location names in the series, such as Mid-World, and his development of a unique language abstract to our own (High Speech), are also influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien's work.
In addition to the eight novels of the series proper that comprise 4,250 pages, the worlds of The Dark Tower are in part composed of locations, characters, events and other various elements from many of King's novels and short stories. Some of the books that are tied to this series or that this series references are ‘It’, ‘The Stand’, ‘'Salem's Lot’, ‘Insomnia’, ‘Cell’ and ‘Hearts in Atlantis’. King has described the series as his magnum opus.
The film is the second time the novels have been adapted for another media. A lengthy comic book prequel to The Dark Tower series and an adaption of King's novel ‘The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger’ was published by Marvel Comics from 2007 to 2012. Overall, the project was plotted by Robin Furth (King’s research assistant) and scripted by comic writing legend Peter David, with illustration by Jae Lee and Richard Isanove. Stephen King served as Creative and Executive Director of the project.
Marvel Comics have also published three supplemental books to date that expand upon characters and locations first introduced in the novels. ‘The Dark Tower: Gunslingers' Guidebook’ was released in 2007, ‘The Dark Tower: End-World Almanac’ in 2008, and ‘The Dark Tower: Guide to Gilead’ in 2009. All three books were written by Anthony Flamini, with Furth serving as creative consultant. ‘End-World Almanac’ and ‘Guide to Gilead’ feature illustrations by David Yardin.
Are the comics any good? An emphatic “yes”. Not only are they lovely to look at, but they flesh out the backgrounds of characters and Mid-World culture, geography, and history more thoroughly than King ever did in his novel series.
Are the novels any good? In the opinion of a great fan of King’s early works like ‘Carrie’, ‘Salem’s Lot’, ‘It’, ‘The Stand’, and ‘Misery’... kind of (record scratch). Some on-the-nose racial stuff and a cute animal sidekick aside, the first few are great at establishing the Old-West-meets-medieval Gilead and trippy Mid-World and contain some beautiful imagery. By the fourth book, the dreamy post-apocalyptic Western theme of the first few novels gives way to a journey through literacy in general... novel-writing, discovering your own creator, things like that. The last few are just plain terrible, particularly the self-indulgent meta-wank Stephen King injects into the story and the entire climax (King’s endings tend to go off the rails).
Ingeniously, the film isn’t a direct adaptation of the books - instead, it is a sequel/reboot that picks up where the final novel left Roland. This allows the people behind the film to tweak various aspects of the story.
Still, the movie adaptation, ‘The Dark Tower’, is ripe with potential, combining elements from several novels in the eight-volume series, as well as elements from ‘The Shining’ and ‘Doctor Sleep’, while taking place in both modern-day New York City and in Mid-World, Roland's Old West-style parallel universe. Ingeniously, the film isn’t a direct adaptation of the books - instead, it is a sequel/reboot that picks up where the final novel left Roland (no spoilers). This allows the people behind the film to tweak various aspects of the story and potentially improve on King’s original narrative.
It’s a pretty cool approach to the source material but it gets even more interesting when you consider that this is the launch of a film and a television franchise.
Set within the same continuity, the TV series is scheduled to be released in 2018. The series has been confirmed to fill in the backstory to the film, being based on King's ‘The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass’, ‘The Dark Tower: The Wind Through the Keyhole’ and elements of ‘The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger’, starring younger actors playing young Roland and young Walter. Glen Mazzara (‘The Walking Dead’) will be the series' showrunner.
The core conflict of the story (the forces of good and evil fighting each other with the fate of humanity hanging in the balance) is plenty familiar to audiences worldwide. But King's version of this battle doesn't unfold without jumping back and forth in time, introducing characters before removing them unexpectedly, and so on; it zigs where other franchises zag, which is admirable to experience as a reader, but becomes an obstacle in the adaptation process.
The TV series, however, is likely to adapt the aforementioned Marvel prequel comic material. Told chronologically and taking place largely in Gilead and Mid-World, it should be a more straightforward ‘Game of Thrones’-style fantasy series than the material covered by ‘The Dark Tower’ film.
And because Roland is telling his story in the “present”, for lack of a better word, Idris Elba will indeed appear in the TV series as the orating gunslinger. Tom Taylor, who plays Jake Chambers in the film, has also signed on. According to Entertainment Weekly, it's possible that Matthew McConaughey could also appear on the show, although the Man in Black's penchant for taking on different names and appearances might require someone else to play the part.
In any event, whether through future film sequels or a TV spin-off or even more novels and comics, there's still a good story or two to tell in the universe of Stephen King’s ‘The Dark Tower’.