But he grew old—
This knight so bold—
And o’er his heart a shadow—
Fell as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.
Word has been passed down from on high: Mike Flanagan, whose directorial career on Netflix has been a string of hits (The Midnight Club, The Haunting of Hill House, the best-horror-TV-shows-of-all-time contender Midnight Mass), has acquired the rights to produce a TV and film series based on Stephen King’s series of epic novels, The Dark Tower. It has set the internet and entertainment news on fire. It’s a match made in whatever heaven would be in King’s macabre universe.
But can he succeed?
I am someone who first read King’s novel The Gunslinger in a beaten old paperback edition when it was still more a collection of short stories threaded together than what it now is: The first of a seven-part epic which he has, infuriatingly, rewritten to lean into the weirdness that emerged organically in the later entries. Those of us who came to the series before it was finished and then had to wait a couple decades for King to bring it home understand that to love The Dark Tower is to regard a thing that, like the eponymous lynchpin of creation at the narrative’s center, cannot be seen in its totality from just one viewpoint. To get the true experience, you need to read two fully different versions of the starting trilogy of books in a series that now encapsulates eight books and a short story, with its tendrils spread throughout nearly all of King’s entire body of work. There are oblique connections from this series to It and Salem’s Lot and The Stand, and even to King’s collaborative duology with Peter Straub, The Talisman and Black House.
Any fan of The Dark Tower would love to see it adapted. To briefly fail to explain the story: All of creation is at risk because a force of evil (that King originally didn’t name until the third or fourth book) called the Crimson King is trying to destroy the Dark Tower, a focal point for the energies that buttress the world (or something). The errant gunslinger Roland, scion of a fallen kingdom, must stop him. The books follow him as he plods ruthlessly through a post-apocalyptic wilderness and collects a group of comrades from our world to help him in his fight. It’s inspired by the Italian Westerns that made Clint Eastwood an international star, by Robert Browning’s poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” and, while I don’t think King has ever said so, there are some pretty striking similarities in subject matter to Alejandro Jodorowski’s El Topo. All of it is in service to a story where, much of the time, the right and proper thing is for the heroes to pull out six-guns and gun down robots, demons, and vampires with righteous fury.
Yet The Dark Tower has stubbornly resisted successful adaptation. The saga of the little-celebrated 2017 film starring Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey was a very long one: At various points in the decade prior to its release, J.J. Abrams and Ron Howard were attached to direct, and neither headed up the final project. Howard laid out a pretty ambitious slate of features that was to span film and TV, which Flanagan also seems to be promising: Reports indicate he got the sale from King by proposing a number of seasons of television followed by a couple feature-length films.
What we got in 2017 instead was a deeply lackluster effort. The movie plays as a severe truncation of the events of the books, completely cutting out entire characters and settings in the interest of ending a seven-book dark fantasy western epic within the bounds of a single 95-minute film. Stuff about Elba and McConaughey’s performances was fun, but it feels as if the studio really and truly looked at the thing, said “Why on Earth are we making this? Just push it out,” and then delivered the bare minimum project identifiable as the intellectual property in question.
Worse was King’s complicity in the matter, in light of how much shit he gave, for instance, Stanley Kubrick for adapting The Shining with major changes to the source material. In contrast, King was all in on promoting The Dark Tower, going so far as to tweet out an image implying a major approach the story was supposed to take and which, I should stress, it absolutely did not:
Spoilers for a book series that wrapped more than a decade ago: Roland’s story is one of woe and hardship, filled with loved ones who do not make it to the final showdown with him. King is a horror writer, and you should go into any of his works knowing that his characters are all mortal (the human ones anyway). That said, The Dark Tower is a downer of a story in basically every way as it unfolds slowly and erratically over seven books. At the last, we do come to the tower with Roland, only to find the story beginning again (it’s very hard to explain). There’s one crucial difference, which is that horn. He discarded it in the tale we just read, and the fact that he hasn’t done so as the tale begins anew is a strong implication that Roland will forsake his ruthless nature and win the tower again, hopefully alongside the ones who couldn’t be there with him.
Meaning that King was implying this was going to be the movie: A retelling that is a reboot that is implied by his original work. The horn instead appears, like, twice in incidental shots in the final movie.
Obviously the studio got cold feet, ran out of money or time to keep its vice-grip on the rights, or suffered some other setback. The various reasons any of these things might have occurred all boil down to one fact, a fact that makes me extremely cautious in my optimism about Flanagan breaking the curse here: The Dark Tower is too fucking weird to adapt, and your average studio suit ain’t gonna go for it.
This is a story that begins with gunning down a bunch of religious nutjobs in a backwater town and goes straight to gunning down mutants and having sex with demons in just the first book. This is a world where a robotics company makes a giant robot bear to bar the heroes’ progress, where you must defeat a malignant sentient train in a game of riddles in order to survive, where everything is going fine until you’ve beamed into the mind of a serial killer and need to hijack his body to restock on guns and ammo because your other partner needs fire support so he can gun down New York mobsters, and get you antibiotics for your missing fingers that you lost because a giant lobster ate them. Houses are haunted, beaches have portals through time, and there are, I repeat, robot bears. One entire book is a flashback to Roland’s first adventure, in which one of the chief antagonists is a woman whose moniker is slang for part of the female anatomy.
All of this nigh-unexplainable spectacle is happening in service to a very ancient style of narrative: The epic hero whose doom is writ in the stars, who learns how he might win his quest only after the opportunity has slipped through his fingers. A sentiment that, once your budget is north of $100 million, nobody wants to hear about.
The Dark Tower is King at his Most King. That is not something most regular people can handle, let alone the precious, sheltered sort of folks who come to head up major Hollywood studios. I’ve got no doubt that Flanagan, who is very good at making very good television with ghoulish spectacle and solid performances from his wonderful casts, will understand the assignment perfectly. I just don’t know if there’s an industry that will let him complete the work.
Kenneth Lowe fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.
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