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[Debate] – Stephen King’s The Dark Tower Series: Books Vs Trailer

 

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Posted June 11, 2017 by

 
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I’ve been a Stephen King fan from a very early age, having first discovered the author after seeing Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining on cable one night and being completely blown away by it. Shortly thereafter, I had my mom pick up a copy of the book in paperback and it became the second “adult” novel I ever read, right behind The Amityville Horror, which I was also thoroughly fascinated with, for whatever reason.

Of course, it didn’t take long for me to discover that the book and movie were completely different animals, as it were. While, like most book lovers, I do tend to favor the books over the movies, as a huge movie fan as well, I am able to separate the two as their own respective things, more often than not. As such, though I do think The Shining, the book, is better than the movie, I’ve never forgotten that, if it weren’t for the movie, I might not have ever read the book in the first place.

The truth is, I subscribe to the school of criticism that says, once an artist releases a work- be it a book, movie, song, piece of artwork, whatever- it’s no longer theirs, at least in a sense. What I mean by this is that, from that moment on, it belongs to the public. They can interpret the art as they wish, even if what they see in it wasn’t what the author intended in the slightest. It’s quite simply out of their hands.

Sure, if they so choose, the artist can publicly tell everyone what their intentions were, and maybe it lines up with other people’s interpretations, maybe not. Or, as with someone like David Lynch, they can simply let the work speak for itself and let people interpret it as they choose, without shining much, if any, light on what their intentions might have been.

King has never been shy about admitting that he hated The Shining movie, to the extent that he even sought to remake it himself via a TV miniseries in 1997, which longtime associate Mick Garris directed. King wrote the teleplay. Alas, though far more faithful to the source material, the TV version paled in comparison to the Kubrick version. Go figure.

This brings me to the Dark Tower movie. Long considered by fans and King himself to be the author’s magnum opus, it began life as a series of short stories first written from 1978 to 1981, that King later combined into a novel in 1982, then later revised in 2003 to better pull together everything that came after. To date, there are 8 novels in the series, plus a stand-alone short story (“The Little Sisters of Eluria”).

What’s more, as fans know, much like that fabled rug in The Big Lebowski, it really ties the room together- as in it serves as a sort of connective tissue to a lot of King’s other works- which were already fairly connected via the fictional towns of Castle Rock, Derry and Jerusalem’s Lot- making for a sort of self-contained fictional universe. (King even goes so far as to imply that said universe also is connected to other fictional universes, such as Narnia and the Harry Potter-verse, for good measure!)

Needless to say, it’s a lot to take in, and has long been seen as a daunting prospect, in terms of any sort of adaptation. Then a funny thing happened in pop culture. Suddenly, thanks to the likes of the comics-based Marvel-verse and DC-verse, the prospect of attempting something like that wasn’t as far-fetched as it once might have seemed.

Factor in the leaps and bounds by which the quality of TV projects have grown over the years, making possible such ambitious undertakings as the Game of Thrones series, as well as the created-for-TV universe of something like American Horror Story and you can see where doing something similar for King’s Dark Tower series was no longer the impossibility it once seemed.

Initially- and many would say, wisely- it was seen as an ongoing TV series; perhaps the only way any sort of adaptation could really do it justice. However, after several aborted attempts to make that happen failed- notably involving producer/directors J.J. Abrams and Ron Howard, and the involvement of many different studios- prospects were looking bleak, as if this were a nut that was never going to be cracked, despite the best intentions of many.

Finally, in 2016, everything came together, with writer/director Nikolaj Arcel- no stranger to epics, having worked on the original adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first in a series of three movies based on the famed books- tackling the ambitious project as a film. Ron Howard and King himself remain onboard as producers.

The idea was to kick things off with a stand-alone movie, which will later be sequelized via a TV series, assuming the film is a success, which is by no means assured. Reportedly, the initial TV series will be primarily based on the fourth novel in the Dark Tower saga, Wizard and Glass.

Arcel has claimed that the movie is actually a “sequel” to the events of the book series, and actually takes place after the stories within the books themselves. This is an interesting, if a bit odd, tack to take, given how that series “ends”- and I use that term VERY loosely, as I’m sure fans will catch my meaning. (I will forgo spoiling it for those unfamiliar, for obvious reasons.)

Be all that as it may, eyebrows further raised when it was announced that the iconic main role of Roland would be portrayed by Idris Elba, best-known for his stellar work on HBO’s much-beloved The Wire and the UK series Luther. While certainly a fine actor, his casting was decidedly problematic for those of us familiar with the book series, as the character is not only distinctively portrayed as a white man, but, more importantly, his race is a very key factor and plot point that serves as incredibly crucial element of the character development within the series.

Without going too much into detail, over the course of the books, Roland assembles a group of people to help aid him in his quest to save the titular Dark Tower, from a multitude of different time periods. Among them is a young black woman named Odetta that is an active member of the Civil Rights Movement in the 60’s, who suffers from a dissociative personality disorder, with one of her personalities, Detta, being decidedly racist and mistrusting of Roland- or any of the other predominantly white members of her unasked-for crew of people, for that matter.

This distrust, and repercussions of it, were amongst the best elements of the books, particularly early on in the series. Naturally, by making Roland himself black, we lose that thread of the book series entirely, which is a real shame. Especially as it grounded what could often be an overwhelmingly epic fantasy story in a very human story of someone learning to come to terms with their own prejudices and made for a fascinating exploration of race relations in general. In casting Elba in the role, we obviously lose all of that entirely.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with color-blind casting. If Hollywood wants to make a black Spiderman or a Mexican Superman, I say go for it. If anything, it could add a new wrinkle to the often-lily-white typical superhero that could only make things more interesting, IMHO. But in this case, it actually subtracts what could have been a great opportunity to explore precisely the sorts of things that big-budget Hollywood films tend to shy away from- namely the often-tricky state of race relations in the world.

As such, the casting manages to be both forward-thinking (by casting a black actor in a role intended to be played by a white one) and oddly reductive (by forgoing the opportunity to explore a tricky subject in a interesting way) at the same time. Leave it to Hollywood to find a way to do something cool, while completely blowing the opportunity to do something hard.

Granted, as far as I can tell, the movie doesn’t even feature the Odetta character, so that opportunity to explore such things isn’t present anyway, making this all a bit of a moot point, but it was disappointing to learn all the same.

However, as noted, the potential TV series will cover Wizard and Glass, which features the Odetta character (at least in a sense- again, way too much to get into here) front and center, so it would appear that the show, at least, will cover the book material, so even if it’s not a factor in the movie, it certainly would be in the show- unless the show intends to completely change all of that as well. Who can say at this point?

(Side note: another possibility is that the show will completely forgo all of the “team” stuff and instead focus exclusively on the “flashback”-oriented plotline, which features a younger Roland. As an actor being sought to play the young Roland is reportedly already in progress, it is possible the show may jettison everything but the flashbacks, once again making this a bit of a moot point.)

So, forgoing all of this, which is disappointing, to be sure, but maybe not a deal-breaker, what of the movie itself? We got our first look at it, at long last, via a recently-released trailer. Taking into account everything it doesn’t have- and that’s a much longer list than related above, to be sure- what about the stuff it does?

When I first saw the trailer, I didn’t know about the whole “sequel” thing, and from the looks of it, it seemed to be a fairly straightforward adaptation of the third book in the series, “The Wastelands.” As such, we get a whole lot of Jake (Tom Taylor), a little boy that also forms part of the aforementioned team- only looking a good bit older in the trailer than he is in the books.

This is highly problematic, as part of what makes Jake’s story arc in the books so heart-wrenching is that he is so young. At the age he looks here, he’ll practically be a young man by the time we get to other key events, which will rob them of their impact. What’s more, whereas in the books, Roland keeps Jake at arms’ length, because he knows his fate may be in jeopardy with everything that’s going on and, as such, he doesn’t want to get too attached to him; here, they seem to get along swimmingly, with Roland even giving Jake a crash-course in gunslinging

Now, re-watching it, with the knowledge that it is a sequel, it actually makes it a lot more confusing for book readers. Is this a completely new ball of wax, with almost entirely new characters, completely unrelated to the series? Is the Jake in the movie even meant to be the one in the books? The only truly familiar things in it are, of course, Roland, the gunslinger, and The Man in Black, played by Matthew McConaughey, and their quest to destroy one another, which remains intact.

We do catch a few glimpses of the Dark Tower itself, and hear Roland talk of how his job is to protect it, lest it fall and destroy everything in his world it was protecting. It also affects Jake’s world as well, which looks to be New York. It looks as if we spend time both in Roland’s world (aka “Mid-World”) and “our” world, with a portal opening to allow Roland to travel between the two.

Further, it looks as if Jake goes to Roland’s world at one point, as well. In keeping with the books, there are nods to King’s other work, notable a glimpse of The Overlook Hotel from The Shining and a reference to IT. There’s also a clever nod to the legendary Sergio Leone’s “Man with No Name” trilogy- an obvious inspiration for King’s epic story- via the music by Ennio Morricone. I didn’t mind any of this, really.

However, as a “sequel,” it sure doesn’t feel like one. Instead, it feels more like a beginning point that a continuing one. Yes, granted, it’s just a trailer and there’s a lot we don’t know yet. But still, I was more than a little confused about how whatever is going on in the movie is tied into the books, especially as some of it looks to be from the books, like the Jake storyline.

Is it meant to effectively “reboot” the material, and start the saga all over again, only from a completely different point in time, with perhaps the next movie dealing with recruiting the rest of the team (again), effectively back-tracking the storyline before moving forward again? Who can say?

There is certainly a looping quality to the series, where events re-occur more than once, with different outcomes, so that wouldn’t be completely unprecedented. But one thing I don’t get is why they would do so in the first place, when they could simply start with book two and maybe back-track to the first book in the TV show instead? Why start it all over, in a different way, when the original story is there and good to go?

I get that a lot of people will be new to the material, but that’s sort of the point: why not introduce them to all the main characters at the point in the story at which they really are introduced, rather than messing around with a “sequel”? I just don’t get the reasoning behind doing something completely different. Why even bother to do it in the first place, if it’s not even a “real” adaptation?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m willing to give the movie a chance. I hope that what I’m seeing in the trailer is only part of the story, and there’s a lot I don’t know yet which actually will tie it into the books in a clever way that I’m not seeing yet. But what I am seeing is what looks to be a subpar fantasy-action film that isn’t anything like what I was hoping for when I pictured the movie version of the books. Hopefully, I will be proven wrong in that assessment.

Until then, like I said before, I completely get that the books are the books and the movie is the movie, and that it’s simply one person’s interpretation of the material at hand. My concern is that, if it doesn’t fly, that will be that for the potential of the books being realized as a movie/TV series. After all, if the movie tanks, it isn’t likely the show will ever happen in the first place, right?

Here’s hoping I’m wrong, and the movie is better than it looks, or that it will succeed in spite of being only a mediocre movie, allowing the TV series to right some of the movie’s wrongs. But for now, all I can do is remain cautiously optimistic, even while there’s not a whole lot to be optimistic about as of yet.

I’d be interested to hear what non-book readers thought about it, and if, lacking all that back knowledge, it makes a difference. In taking it at face value and trying to subtract all of the books-related stuff, it still just looked like a so-so action movie to me at best, with maybe the occasional cool flourishes, i.e. the way Roland loads his guns, the scene where he shoots someone trying to harm Jake from a long distance.

If you haven’t read the books, and are coming into it clean, what did you think of it? Internet reaction from neophytes seems positive, as far as I can tell, but book readers like myself seemed perplexed by the whole endeavor, for what I think are obvious reasons by now. If you are a fellow reader, what did you think of it? Am I overreacting? Or are you equally confused about why the hell they chose to go about things this way?

Sound off down below in the comments section, and let me know what you think, and thanks for reading!

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Mark Trammell
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