Adapting to the screen a piece of fiction that constructs a fully realized alternate reality is never easy, but the sprawling Stephen King series The Dark Tower posed a uniquely difficult task. After all, it’s an eight-volume saga, dense with symbolism, interwoven storylines, and references to other King novels. It serves to reason that little from the series could have been retained in a 95-minute film, apart from the most basic of plot points and character details. Because of this, it makes more sense to focus on what is included rather than what is excluded.
The four credited screenwriters on the film, which include director Nikolaj Arcel, have made an ambitious and largely successful attempt at using the entire series’ basic premise and characters to create a concise narrative, eschewing the more traditional approach of adapting each installment separately as its own individual movie. The result is a hard-hitting sci-fi action thriller that King himself has described as “all killer and no filler.” Although it ends abruptly, the film is otherwise very well-structured and skillfully paced; it provides viewers who are new to the world of The Dark Tower with a streamlined introduction to the series, while also functioning as a standalone work.
The screenwriters retained the series’ main character, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), a gunslinger from the parallel reality of Mid-World, as well as a young boy from New York City named Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), who was Deschain’s travelling companion in the series’ first novel. Jake is drawn to Roland’s world after he has vivid dreams about the Dark Tower, a structure that protects the universe from evil, and about Roland’s nemesis, an all-powerful sorcerer known as the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), who is obsessed with destroying the Tower. Meanwhile, Deschain will stop at nothing to defeat the Man in Black, who caused the death of his father.
While this simplified, composite story line often fails to convey the enormity of the book series’ narrative progression, the portrayal of Mid-World as an alternate dimension that coexists with Earth is used to great effect in the film, with New York City and Mid-World combining to create a hallucinatory vision of The Dark Tower’s universe in which the surreal and the mundane intertwine. This striking mashup of settings is only one of the elements that the movie incorporates from the novels, with moments inspired by the films of Sergio Leone and numerous references to other Stephen King novels also factoring into the mix.
This unique combination of visual and thematic elements makes for a cinematic experience that excels in its own right, while also hinting at things to come in later variations on the series (a TV series based primarily on the series’ fourth novel, Wizard and Glass, is due in 2018). These hints suggest that Arcel’s film might be only the beginning in a new iteration of The Dark Tower universe that will run parallel to the one found in King’s novels, although it is also satisfying enough to stand alone as an audacious reimagining of an even more audacious work of fiction.