O Discordia! Writer Stephen King sent the Man in Black and the Gunslinger across the desert in 1978, and countless Constant Readers followed. The series of books in which its hero searches for the titular Tower consists of eight core novels, but also touches on King’s entire shared multiverse of stories from to ‘Salem’s Lot to The Talisman. It’s a shame that THE DARK TOWER adaptation couldn’t see fit to include much of this content in this brief outing.
The young Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is obsessed with dreams of a Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) abducting children and forcing them to destroy the Tower. When Jake’s mother is about to send him upstate for psychiatric help, he runs away and is drawn to a portal that leads him to Mid-World, a post-apocalyptic parallel world. Meeting up with the last gunslinger Roland (Idris Elba), they team up to put an end to the Man in Black’s machinations.
A generous reading of THE DARK TOWER is that it lacks context. Taking loose fragments from The Gunslinger, Roland’s trip to New York in The Wastelands, and character chunks from series-closer The Dark Tower, existing fans will recognise some of the countless Easter eggs placed in plain sight. Yet the large writing team – consisting of Akiva Goldsmith, Jeff Pinkne, Anders Thomas Jensen, and director Nikolaj Arcel – have a very thin interpretation of the narrative. A less generous take is to say that they completely misunderstood the source material.
In fact the relatively brief film seems more concerned with these inter-textual references than anything from The Dark Tower series itself. There are more winking references to The Shining, a tangentially related book, than anything concrete from King’s magnum opus. Sure, there are Taheen and random appearances from Pimli (Fran Kranz) and Sayre (Jackie Earl Hayley), and brief visual cues to Maerlyn’s Rainbow, yet none of the substantive story remains. In their place are new additions to the mythology that don’t fit with what has come before, or the film’s potential place in the canon. It’s a bit of a mess.
The two leads try valiantly to overcome the weak scraps they are fed from the script, with McConaughey no more than a collection of ill-defined powers punctuated by a series of droll one-liners. Elba captures the taciturn Gunslinger as best as he can, especially in an all too brief visit to our ‘Keystone Earth.’ However, when Roland’s entire motivation is changed from seeking the Tower to simple murderous vengeance, it completely undermines the Arthurian tragedy of his arc.
THE DARK TOWER hasn’t just forgotten the face of its father, but the basic tenants of storytelling. What’s left is a generic action film, stranding fans and the uninitiated alike in the wastelands. Lacking the scale and focused budget to truly do King’s work any justice, the film comes to an abrupt conclusion, leaving the door open for future adventures, but without any incentive for us to follow them into the portal.