There must be some sort of a curse, cast upon the works of Stephen King; while the novels and the stories that the man has created have thrilled and scared the living wits out of millions of readers across the globe, the majority of attempts to transfer those scaries and monsters and universes onto the silver screen turned into major flops. But the singular successes among the weeds still motivate filmmakers to try, again and again – only in 2017, a total of 5 Stephen King feature adaptations and 3 TV series will be released! The entire list of screen and TV adaptations of King’s works is almost as long as his list of works (several of his works were adapted more than once), but given it’s length, only a few of the titles stand out as successful – most of them made before the 1990’s, namely Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976), The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980) and Misery (Rob Reiner, 1990); there were some feature titles that achieved cult status but wavered on the quality scale (including the cult classics Cujo and Children of the Corn).
The 2017 Stephen King season opened quite late: The Dark Tower is actually the first Stephen King feature adaptation to get screened this year. It is based on a much beloved novel series of the same name, so you can imagine how high the expectations (and also fears of another failed attempt) were before the film hit the screens early this month. The film was directed by Danish director Nikolaj Arcel, while the screenplay adaptation of the novel was entrusted to a team, lead by Akiva Goldsman, an Academy Award-winning screenwriter who tasted (and sublimely conquered) the darker, fantastic waters also with his work on cult TV series, Fringe (2008-2013). Not a bad sowing; but, alas, without a good harvest!
The story (spoilers from this point on, so beware, also for the novels!) of the novel series at the end turned out to be cyclical, with the main character ending in exact same place where he began, but Goldsman and the rest opted for this film not to represent any of the existing novels, but to stand as the beginning of a new loop in the altverse. So, unlike in the novel series, the story does not start in the desert. Instead, we find ourselves in the head of the eleven-year-old Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) who has been experiencing chilling nightmares about a tower, a Man in Black who seeks to destroy it and a mysterious Gunslinger who stands in his way. Everyone around him seems to believe that the kid is going mad, especially so when horrifying elements from Jake’s dreams start to appear in reality, affecting his behaviour even more. Things quickly escalate when a couple of nightmare creatures, disguised as psychiatric facility workers, try to take Jake away from his mother and his stepfather; he escapes and – with the help of his visions – finds his way to an abandoned house that turns out to be a portal to the world he’s been dreaming out: the Mid-World.
Soon after his arrival, Jake encounters the man he was looking for: the Gunslinger, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba). Jake learns that Roland is on a quest for vengeance, trying to find Walter Padick, the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), to revenge the murder of his father. Jake and Roland together travel across Mid-World, seeking for answers to Jake’s strange visions, learning that Walter and his minions have been abducting psychic children from different worlds, with a goal to use their powers to destroy the Dark Tower, a structure in the center of the universe that is holding evil at bay – and Jake might not only be one of the children, but has a ‘shine’ so powerful that he might just be the one that Walter has been looking for all along.
The premise itself is somewhat in line with the reality of novel series; or rather, it uses elements of the series to build a brand new storyline. Right from the get-go, there are some surprising Easter eggs to be found for the fans of the King, like the brief appearance of the twins from The Shining. But even the elements and characters from the series cannot abate the fact that the narrative suffers from a pace that is too fast and very jumpy, until it peaks in the last 15 minutes of whatever. Sounds rough? Not rough enough for this feature which has been polished almost into oblivion, with human drama brushed off and dealt with just by-the-way. With the exception of some appearances, the monster/evil count is at the level that is painfully PG, when compared to the source material. The character of Gunslinger is somewhat saved by a solid performance by Idris Elba, but that sadly cannot be said for McConaughey’s Walter, which is polished to the point of glacial, and not in a good way. I mean, the villain of the story should be more than just slick, with random spewings/acts of evil (that we don’t get to see, because remember? Polished.) The dialogue has some moments that are not entirely terrible, but it would take much, much more to salvage the wreck that this film turned out to be.
Final verdict? If you’re a Stephen King fan, step away from this vehicle. It will hurt you, even in the deepest, darkest corners of your soul. If you are a viewer who wants to give it a go, go on ahead. You might find the first three quarters of the film passable, even with the gaping holes in the narrative, but do not be surprised to find yourself completely aggravated at the final sequence, which is not only annoyingly rushed, but also wrapped in an especially polished little bow – are we really, truly sure that this is supposed to be based on something Stephen King wrote?
Written by Sanja Struna
All photos © 2017 Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.