[95 minutes. PG-13. Director: Nikolaj Arcel]
Adaptation is a funny thing.
Regardless of what route you take, you will take heat from fans of the source material.
Someone – online or elsewhere – will accuse you of “ruining the book(s) forever” (even though that’s total bullshit).
One example in particular that galled me – Christ, 17 years ago – occurred on a Yahoo! Club for author (and professional crank) Bret Easton Ellis. The forum was sparsely-populated, yet the conversation was always active. The long-gestating film version of American Psycho had finally seen release, and the consensus among the Club members was divided. I thought it was an excellent adaptation, but one of the other members took a different track, arguing that the excised extremes of sex and violence – which comprised the novel’s crude backbone – rendered it an unfaithful telling.
Making a 95-minute version of The Dark Tower is as counterintuitive as cracking a fortune cookie with a sledgehammer. It has no reason to work. King devoted seven novels of varying girth to this epic tale, and to capture its essence in such an abbreviated amount of time is madness.
Yet…if you’re looking for that essence, it works. Somehow.
“Good enough for Government work,” as the saying goes.
People who dig on the Harry Potter novels or Lord of the Rings are often vehemently unflagging in their enthusiasm: certain diehard fans will absolve a sacred series of any transgression, while some will raise issues that nonetheless don’t detract from the enjoyment of said series. In most cases, people who begin a book series finish it, and come to view the individual volumes as a cohesive whole, to the point where it’s just plain Harry Potter, not Harry Potter and Whatever Subtitle.
I’m in a unique position with The Dark Tower series because I’m not particularly fond of all its parts. The self-indulgence and running-on-fumes storytelling evident in Song of Susannah (book 6) and The Dark Tower (book 7) turned me off, and transformed something that had begun with great promise (not to mention storytelling economy – The Gunslinger (book 1) came in at well under 300 pages) into a disappointment by its end. With a devoted fanbase that would finish the series regardless, King’s kitchen-sink, “fuck it” mentality left a bitter aftertaste.
Based on this, I was willing to give Nikolaj Arcel’s film adaptation the benefit of the doubt, and embrace the streamlined approach to the tale.
This could be a reflection of my own ongoing fatigue with Hollywood’s current daze of “blockbuster brain,” epitomized by this year’s shiny – yet awfully empty – Guardians of the Galaxy sequel. (And how long will Avengers: Infinity War be? Six hours with three bathroom-break intermissions? But I digress.) With studios operating under the notions of dwindling box-office receipts and dried-up physical-media sales, the last option, outside of 3D and IMAX, is, well, making movies longer.
Because more minutes equals more entertainment, amirite?
Yes, The Dark Tower does signify a mass condensing of King’s prose. Taking bits and pieces from up to the fifth book (The Wolves of the Calla – my personal favorite), it simplifies the plot, doesn’t take enough time to establish the quirks and rules of its interdimensional logic, and relegates some characters (such as Jackie Earle Haley’s Sayre) to cameo status.
But I didn’t mind too much.
The tale of Roland Deschain – aka Roland of Gilead, the last in a long line of Gunslingers – and his quest to defend the fabled Dark Tower (which keeps life across all dimensions in balance) from ageless sorcerer Walter (Matthew McConaughey), is engaging, old-fashioned fantasy-adventure stuff, told with a keen attention to aural and visual detail. The story begins, however, with Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a boy “blessed” with psychic visions of the titular Tower. When he discovers an interdimensional portal in a crumbling New York City mansion, he enters another world, where he quickly meets Roland and becomes an unlikely sidekick on his quest to defeat Walter, whose ultimate goal is to bring the Tower down, thus raining chaos on humanity.
The performers convey an eclecticism that’s fitting to King’s text: as Roland, Idris Elba possesses the imposing physical frame and a Spaghetti-Western stoicism, but is also tender and vulnerable – it’s a brilliant bit of casting. McConaughey is also good, resisting the urge to mug or fall back on his looks; Walter plays to his smugness in a perfectly apt way – with an incantation or a wave of a hand, he murders people without hesitation, sometimes cracking an impish one-liner after. There’s a spectral quality to Walter that adds an element of unpredictability to the proceedings, and Arcel makes fine use of simple camera pans to spring surprising reveals. As Jake, Taylor is a standout presence – never veering into precocious or obnoxious territory, he’s wise and astute and a more-than-worthy sidekick to the grizzled Roland.
In addition to Earle Haley lurking in the margins, I also appreciated the inclusion of genre faces Abbey Lee (The Neon Demon) and Fran Kranz (The Cabin in the Woods) as the grunts working behind the scenes at Walter’s lair.
Arcel handles the action with efficiency, and even the quieter character moments never feel sentimental or indulgent. Ditto his reverent winks to characters, monsters, and places from throughout King’s oeuvre. As adaptations go, Tower doesn’t lean on exposition like, say, Tim Burton’s dreary adaptation of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. We are given enough detail to keep the plot cohesive, enough character development to keep us invested, and enough action to keep us anticipating what will happen next.
The Dark Tower is not a masterpiece; it’s just enough.
3 out of 5 stars
(Photo of Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey via Desktop Wallpapers.)
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(Aka Jonathan Weidler), he only plays favorites when it comes to review sites like Crash Palace Productions and loudgreenbird.com. He co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes, and can also be found on Twitter and Letterboxd.