At 4:19 pm on a hot August afternoon, I climbed into my father’s old VW to drive to Bangor, Maine. I was so nervous that my stomach was in knots. For the last seventeen years of my life, I’ve been traveling with Roland Deschain and his ka-tet, sharing their khef and ka. Now, for the first time, Roland was coming to the big screen.
Pulling out of my dirt driveway and onto the empty Surry road, I looked up. Circling above the car were two crows. For the next three miles, those crows soared ahead of the car like a supernatural cavalcade. “Oh my God!” I said to my husband. “It’s Roland and the man in black!” Only when we reached the Ellsworth turnoff did those crows veer into the pinewoods, but they’d told me all I needed to know. It would be all right. We were on the Beam, and the Tower awaited us...
In his introduction to my Dark Tower Concordance, Stephen King did me a great honor: he named me Roland Deschain’s Boswell. But with every honor comes tremendous responsibility. As Roland’s biographer and as the steward of his ka-tet, I have been duty-bound to stand and be true. I have traveled with our gunslinger into so many worlds and onto so many levels of the Tower: first as sai King’s Research Assistant, then as a Consultant and co-writer for Marvel’s Dark Tower series, and most recently as a Consultant for the Dark Tower film. One of the most profound lessons I’ve learned while leaping from world to world and from medium to medium is that moving from words to images is not just an act of translation but of transformation. In order to condense a huge universe into a small space, you have to reach into the center of that universe and grab its heart. For me, this is what the Dark Tower film has done.
As Constant Readers know, before The Dark Tower movie was made, many other valiant filmmakers had set off to join Roland on his quest. In 2007, J.J. Abrams famously optioned the series for nineteen dollars, and soon after, two other studios took up the banner of Gilead. Yet in each case, they were forced to cry off. Why? Because, as the man in black tells Roland at the end of The Gunslinger, “size defeats us.” And when it comes to size, it doesn’t get much bigger than the Dark Tower universe.
Roland’s quest is one of mythic proportions. Weaving together Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and Arthurian Romance with King’s own personal brand of apocalyptic fiction, the 5,000 page saga loops through time and space and worlds. Characters die in one book, only to be found again in another, but on alternate versions of Earth. To make matters even more daunting, the Dark Tower is the heart of King’s creative universe, and contains all the other worlds and characters of his making.
So how can a filmmaker capture the essence of this vast mythology that has grown and morphed over eight novels and forty years? Should he begin with The Gunslinger, which is the first slim volume of the series and which--as Stephen King himself has said--is quite different from the later books? Or should he move chronologically through Roland’s life? Then again, should he begin with the über-tale of Mid-World’s ancient past? In the case of the scriptwriters Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Nikolaj Arcel, and Anders Thomas Jensen, they decided to take a risk. Rather than transferring one of King’s novels onto film, they chose to create a sequel to the books--one steeped in the mythology of Mid-World--whose structure reflects that of King’s magnum opus.
As Dark Tower junkies know, Roland’s journey to the Tower is a time loop, a quest that is both endlessly repeating and endlessly varied. He is searching for the Tower, but his ultimate purpose is the redemption of his soul. The Dark Tower movie records one of those journeys, and it is both similar to and different from what we have experienced before. Longtime fans will see so many characters and places that they both love and fear: the Dutch Hill Mansion, the Great Old Ones’ mechanical portals that connect the multiple Americas and the multiple worlds (no magic doors here), and they will be plunged into a Mid-World where the gunslinger-knights have been defeated and where the wreckage of war litters the Mohaine Desert. Thanks to the superb skill of Director Nik Arcel, Roland’s world is gritty, dark, and brooding.
Just as the Dark Tower novels encompass all of King’s other fiction, The Dark Tower movie pays homage to the greater King cannon. Throughout the film there are Easter Eggs that refer to King’s other novels. And when we stumble across a tribe of Mid-World’s inhabitants, they remind us a little of the folken of Calla Bryn Sturgis, the Manni of Manni Redpath, and the denizens of River Crossing, but this multiracial group surviving in a ruined wasteland also make us think of Stephen King’s other apocalyptic fiction.
As I watched the film unfold, I realized that the term “sequel” wasn’t quite big enough to explain what the screenwriters and director had done. They had created a new version of Jake’s story; neither the tale I knew from The Gunslinger nor that recounted in The Waste Lands, but a bit of both, projected through the lens of the final book of the series, The Dark Tower. In this version of the saga, Jake is neither the son of a chain-smoking tv executive, as he is in The Gunslinger and The Waste Lands, nor is he the alternate-Earth Jake that we meet close to the end of the final book of the series. Instead he is an obsessive young artist--a quick nod to the character of Patrick Danville--living in New York City with his mom and his rotten step-dad. And like the Jake of the novels, this Jake is slowly but surely going mad...
Echoing the structure of the first Dark Tower novel, The Dark Tower movie is tight and fast paced. It is lean in ways that Roland--a man of few words who despises wastefulness--would appreciate. Also like The Gunslinger, it focuses on the bond between Jake and Roland, but the scope of that relationship--which encompasses rejection, abandonment, loss, despair, and hope--is also reminiscent of The Waste Lands.
For me, the relationship between Jake and Roland was one of the film’s many strengths, as were the actors who played the parts. From the first moment he appeared on the screen, Tom Taylor was Jake. And Idris Elba? He played the part of Roland with gravitas and dignity. From the beginning I thought he was good, but as soon as he began to fight--and I witnessed not just his preternatural reflexes but also his honed gunslinger senses--I was convinced. He became my Roland, and any difference in appearance from the character in the books was superfluous.
Amazingly, over the course of the film we see the entire progression of Roland’s character arc, a development that takes much longer in the series. Interestingly, it was my husband Mark, who is not a DT junkie, who commented on this first. Beginning as a cold, vengeful loner, Roland becomes something much greater--a knight who remembers his true quest, and a gunslinger who remembers the faces of his fathers.
And what about Matthew McConaughey? He acted the part of the man in black with a cool and cruel humor worthy of both Walter O’Dim and Randall Flagg. Twisted and manipulative but with a suave charm, he is a sorcerer who knows how to play upon his victims’ deepest fears and profoundest humiliations.
In the days since the screening, what has haunted me the most has been the power and accessibility of The Dark Tower’s mythology. Although I am a veteran traveler and my husband Mark is a neophyte, we were both completely drawn into the world depicted on the screen. One of our favorite film moments came soon after Jake joined Roland in the Mohaine Desert. Sitting by the fire, Jake drew a circle in the dirt, one divided by six lines. At the center of the circle, at the nexus point where all lines met, he placed a stick. He’s been dreaming of this symbol. Does Roland know what it means? Roland most certainly does. What Jake has drawn is a map of the universe. Inside the circle are all the worlds, linked by the central Tower. Lifting a large spider, Roland sets it creeping around the circle’s circumference. Beyond the edge of the universe, he says, there are monsters, just waiting to get in.../p>
Sitting in that dark theater, Mark and I were plunged into Mid-World as surely as if we had walked through one of the Great Old Ones’ doors. After viewing the film, Stephen King assured Nik Arcel that he had remembered the faces of his fathers. I most heartily agree.
Thankee-sai. I hope you enjoy the film as much as I did! Cama-a-cam-mal, Pria-toi, Gan delah: White over Red, thus Gan Wills Ever.