Whether you’ve read the novels or not, you’ve surely noticed all these blurbs about the long-in-development filmic adaptation of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. You might recall that the plan was to not only make a movie trilogy out of the books, but to also fit two season-long TV mini-series in between the flicks’ yearly release dates. You probably thought such an endeavor was far too ambitious to ever be pulled off and you’d have probably been right--the last official announcement said the project had been shelved after its budget grew too high.
Well, that was the last development, anyway. While promoting Tower Heist to MTV recently, mega-producer Brian Grazer stated confidently that the colossally-ambitious adaptation that he, Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman have been cooking up is still on track (albeit with a trimmed budget.) He even said that the TV portions of this meta series will be on HBO, for sure. However this deal plays out, you’d think that three men on Hollywood’s unquestionable A-list would have an easier time getting the green light for for their take on a multi-million-selling book series with the King brand--especially in a time when book-borne fantasy sagas are so hot.
It likely comes down to how, for as hard as it is to adapt one offbeat novel, it must be vastly more difficult to adapt seven of them…
The Dark Tower is about Roland Deschain, the last of an order of knightly gunslingers from Mid-World, an alternate reality which blends the old West with medieval times. He’s on a quest to reach the fabled and feared Dark Tower, the nexus point of a multiverse that’s been steadily decaying for decades due to the machinations of the villainous Crimson King and his servants. Roland’s seeking of the tower is an utter obsession and he’ll travel across all manner of terrain, from plague-ridden wastelands to 1960s New York City, and battle every manner of demon, skinwalker and cybernetic bear to climb its stairs. So zealous is his focus that, even when destiny (called “Ka” in Mid-World) draws a posse of allies from our world to join him, there’s a constant unease over whether Roland will be quick to forsake them if they ever got kept him from his goal.
Javier Bardem's casting is rather brilliant in relation to that last part, because Roland's almost like a good Anton Chigurh with only a shade or two less intensity. His most defining features are his piercing, unwavering "bombardier's eyes."
King has said that Lord of the Rings obviously had a significant influence on his series, and perhaps the Dark Tower isn’t so much a modern equivalent for Tolkien’s saga as it is a post-modern evolution, or mutation, of the heroic fantasy epic. Really, it’s more of an “anti-epic” for how it frames all of this questing business through the lens of King's style of American horror, and for how it's plot doesn’t adhere to the kind of “monomyth” structure we’ve been conditioned to expect by Dr. Joseph Campbell and his followers.
Here are a few particular points that'll likely have to be re-worked considerable for a film version...
- The primary villain, the Crimson King, isn’t introduced, or even alluded to, until the latter volumes.
- The first three books--the Gunslinger, the Drawing of the Three and the Wastelands--are paced rather deliberately and have more of a sparse, urban horror quality, while the fourth book, Wizard & Glass, suddenly becomes an outright fantasy swashbuckler that literally has enough plot for two novels.
- Time-travel and “multiversity” factors significantly into the series, and large portions of the Wastelands and Song of Susannah (the sixth book) have Roland’s band changing the events of previous books, “double-killing” bad guys they’ve already slayed at different points in the timeline and then just moving on in spite of the resultant paradoxes.
- Read the books to find out yourselves, but King is actually a character in the books and one of Roland's tasks involves his posse saving him from the van that ran him over (in real life.)
King wrote this opus over the course of 22 years, with gaps of up to six years between volumes, and he’s admitted to writing it without any sort of outline. This actually gives the plot a visceral feel at times, and even an eerie one at others, as it honestly starts seeming like it's taking on a life of its own towards the end. The last 200 pages of the final book, the Dark Tower, get especially "meta" when the characters enter a realm that somehow exists "beyond fate." The rules of fiction no longer apply, important characters meet fates the defy storytelling structure and readers are actually baited with a choice to pick which conclusion they desire.
That ending is why I'll contend that this series has the challenging qualities of real literature, even as it has all the fun "pulpy" stuff, because that final choice puts the reader in a situation where they're feeling the exact kind of stubborn, obsessive curiosity that defines Roland.
So no, this isn’t quite Lord of the Rings with revolvers and dusters instead of swords and capes. While Mid-World doesn't have history or lore that's as fleshed out as Middle Earth's, what's crazy is that these books actually serve as a nexus for basically every novel King has ever written, from the Stand to It to Hearts in Atlantis. They all seriously fit together into a hodgepodge multiverse akin to that of Marvel Comics'. And that comparison actually ties this discussion off nicely.
For decades, Lord of the Rings and Marvel's "shared universe" were deemed “unfilmable” in spite of their massive gloval popularity. Either visual effects couldn’t adequately render their fantastic locales, or wide audiences didn't seem ready to accept so many "out there" ideas co-existing on screen at once. If there are no longer any limits to what VFX can depict and if audiences are more accustomed to serialization on the big screen, then the Dark Tower may represent a new threshold for unfilmable. It isn’t like Harry Potter where each installment neatly covers another school year at Hogwart’s; it's a glorious tangle of threads, looping in onto itself in utterly unpredictable fashion.
If Grazer and his cohorts do manage to actualize this grand scheme of movies and TV season, and if they manage to keep it even roughly representative of the books' off-kilter angle on epic heroics, it'll be something audiences honestly never seen on screen before.