On and after the release of the film, The Dark Tower, many discussions were had at /r/TheDarkTower and other places where Constant Readers gather to talk about all things DT. People said things like:
“It wasn’t that bad.” or
“It was like the books in name only, or it featured characters from the books only commonly named.” or
“Next cycle/ Sequel to the books/ it’s OK that they took liberties.”
I want to answer this last one, because it’s not OK. Taking liberties is one thing, but I hope to show here that the liberties taken were aimed at simplifying the story and making it more palatable for an ignorant audience. I’m going to do so by looking at the three main characters.
I get that they might have wanted to do something different, tell the story of Roland and Walter from the next cycle, but after watching the movie, I have some problems with that. Let’s take the filmmakers at face value. Why is it that many, if not every, choice that they make can be seen most easily as transparent attempts to make the story and characters more two dimensional and therefore more accessible?
Jake is probably the best example. Book Jake is a private school kid with two living parents and a housekeeper. His private school teaches him to ask to go to the bathroom by saying that he needs to take a moment so as not to be vulgar. He’s a WASP, at least publicly. At home, he cherishes his relationship with his housekeeper as he feels he can be his real self with her. She affectionately calls him Bama. His first trip to Midworld happens when he dies on Earth. He gets killed by the aptly named Jack Mort, a killer who has interactions with other characters later on. Jake wakes up in Midworld at the Way Station, meets the Gunslinger, rolls with him until the mines where they meet and run from the Slow Mutants, then Roland has to make a decision where he can save Jake or finally catch the Man in Black. Jake sees that Roland must achieve his quest goal and tells him, in the most chilling line of dialog in the entire series, “Go then, there are other worlds than these.”
Later, we find out Jake is alive in a different timeline on Keystone Earth. He did not die in the accident arranged by Mort, but he starts having visions. No, moviegoer, the visions are of his life in Midworld. He begins having this dual experience and it really fucks with him. He experiences his “death” in Midworld and then has visions of the house in Dutch Hill. This is like two books later, and Roland and some other characters in Midworld play a part in bringing him over. The Dutch Hill house demon depicted in the film was pretty accurate except that it didn’t have a recognizable face. The control panel, portal, and Jake’s seemingly effortless dispatching of the demon are all departures from the books, an easy to recognize shorthand for the incredibly complicated mythos about Doors between various worlds. I almost get why they do it like this in the film. Seriously, they talk about it a lot, especially in the later books, but I don’t feel that there’s a coherent “system” that can explain it. IIRC, at one point in the books they literally don’t know what’s going to happen when they use a doorway and there’s a rather large chance that they’ll end up in some In-Betweeny kind of Nowhere space, dead for all purposes. To sum up, the portal system is complicated as fuck in the books, but the movie just simplifies the whole thing to move the plot along.
I’ve only just scratched the surface about Jake, and I may have gotten a few things wrong, but look at how he differs from movie Jake. Movie Jake is a cookie cutter “troubled kid” character, complete with Dead Dad, Step Dad That He Doesn’t Really Trust, and Visions That Are Easily Dismissed because he’s a Troubled Kid. We as the audience don’t need to know much beyond, “his dad died.” We know his visions are “real” and we root for him for this reason.
His character traits are bland and uninspired. There’s nothing new here. They don’t tell us new things about the nature of a grieving child, here it’s just used as a convenient device to advance the plot. Fighting the kid over his sketchbook, which leads to the Psycho Kids Camp people, feels contrived.
The Man in Black
The Man in Black’s relationship with Roland goes back to Roland’s childhood, when he was the court magician in Gilead, going by the name Marten Broadcloak. He bones Roland’s mom and makes sure Roland finds out. This prompts Roland to take his Gunslinger Trial at the age of 14, which is very early. He attempts to murder Roland’s father through treachery, but fails. Finally, he slips the net after Roland’s father orders his capture.
The Man in Black appears in many of King’s works, including Eyes of The Dragon, The Stand, The Gunslinger, and other books. In The Gunslinger, He brings a man back from death, not by waving a hand, but by doing a ritual and covering him in spit (gross). In The Stand, he’s regarded as more of a Messiah than a commander. He has the ability to compel action by ordering it. When characters do outmaneuver him, it’s due to their ability to find holes in his mind control by doing things he didn’t explicitly prohibit. In one of these cases, the “good guy” character jumps out the window rather than answering his question, because he didn’t say she couldn’t do so, but only kept her from attacking him. In this way, he’s shown to have some foresight, but it’s not perfect. When he does experience these losses, he’s shown to react severely with his followers, at times handing down ruthless punishments.
That said, I have to say movie Man in Black kind of resembles The Stand’s Man in Black, there known as Randall Flagg or simply, “the walkin’ dude,” among other names. Somehow, I didn’t like the way it played onscreen. Often, the cruelty appeared nonsensical. He stoops over a dying man, taunts him about the afterlife not being a thing, then tells him to burn, effectively putting him out of his misery. He cruelly punishes an underling by burning her face, after having an earlier conversation about selecting the right face, implying that the face isn’t really hers. This kind of undermines the cruelty of it, except that it’s a pretty face and now it’s burnt. The best example of Man in Black as cruel master is when he orders a pair to kill one another after talking to them about their failing to capture Jake. This scene put me in mind of Kilgrave from Jessica Jones and it really worked because we understood that those two were going to fight to the death whether they wanted to or not – and how terrible is that – but more than that, we understood how important this kid was to McConaughey’s character.
The Man in Black character certainly is unnecessarily cruel and vain as he’s shown in the film, but I can’t help but feel there could’ve been a better way to show these traits. Here, it seems that he’s just evil cuz evil, and that’s not very compelling. I would have done fewer, or only one, instance of malice properly set up as that would have more impact. If done right, you may surprise viewers at how unhinged he truly is. Instead, we get a flat, one note character. Why does he have such a hardon for Roland? Why does Roland resist his “magics”? Why do the townspeople go from being suspicious, to helping Roland and Jake, to fighting and dying for them, all while Roland admits that he’s not a Gunslinger? Why is Susan Delgado a Named Character in this film?
I’ve avoided talking about Roland until now for a few reasons. First, I want to make it clear that my distaste of this film does in no way stem from the casting of Idris Elba. He’s great, and he gives real presence and depth to a pretty thinly written character.
For example, let’s look at the film version of the backstory between Roland and Walter, particularly how Walter kills Roland’s father. The scene in the woods (very foggy woods that could have easily been a soundstage), with the two Deschain men (and no other supporting cast), and the showdown with the Man in Black (no fight choreo, hardly any dialog, almost no CGI) seems like something out of Cheap Filmmaking 101. Nothing wrong with getting value for budget, in fact I love to see films look better than their budget would suggest. But here it looks calculatedly cheap. Maybe this is because I know what the conflict between the Man in Black and the Deschains really entails, and I think it wouldn’t take that much more time or money to tell that story, or at least hint at it, and leave the details to be explored in a future movie. Here they lay their cards on the table for once and for all, “This is how Steven Deschain died.” Doing it this way, they’re painted into a corner. Again, it’s not that they’re deviating from the books, but how they deviate. They do it in a trite, safe, cheaply made little scene that doesn’t involve any complicated story threads that might confuse the rubes.
In short, the film made the safest, most obvious, least interesting choices that it could, almost to the letter. Where their choices were not safe or obvious, they seemed to go nowhere. Deviations are all explained away by saying, “It’s a sequel, next turn of the Wheel, etc.” These character and story choices were then executed competently, but at a somewhat fast pace, often rushing into the next setpiece before we fully understand what’s happening. I imagine there’s a longer cut of this film that develops the characters more, letting later dramatic moments feel much more earned.
After this, I don’t have much hope for this property being adapted well, at least not for the foreseeable future. How long does it take for the collective pop culture audience to forget an adaptation? How long between Spiderman 3 and Amazing Spiderman 1? I like to make fun of the youth of today, for the extraordinary short shelf life of popular things. Take the recent fidget spinner craze. Kids had never heard of these things, then they heard of them and everyone wanted one. Then, just as quick, the cool kids decided that they weren’t cool anymore and started making fun of them and the kids that are still enjoying them. It’s not like this kind of thing hasn’t been going on for a while, but it seems to be happening much faster these days. I think it’s because of internet culture, everything being so connected. It’s a weird time to be young, for sure, but that’s a topic for another time. Anyway, with the cultural turnaround time so fast, maybe it’ll only be a few years before we get a reboot. Maybe that TV show will take some notes from this disaster, and be something Constant Readers and casuals alike can enjoy.