I’ve read some of Stephen King’s novels, and–with a few exceptions–I’ve seen most of the movies inspired by his novels. Although he has never been one of my favorite authors, I’ve enjoyed reading some of his work. Predictably, the novels surpass the movies. Nevertheless, I loved the two “Carrie” adaptations. The 2013 remake with Chloë Grace Moretz topped the 1976 original with Sissy Spacek and John Travolta. “The Shining” was a memorable novel, but the absence of CGI when it was produced in 1980 prompted director Stanley Kubrick to take liberties with the story. Jack Nicholson saved the movie. “The Green Mile” (1999) with Tom Hanks didn’t impress me, while “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994) ranked as the best King adaptation. “Dolores Claiborne” (1995), “The Running Man” (1987), “The Dead Zone” (1983), “Stand by Me” (1986), “Apt Pupil” (1998), and “Christine” (1983) all qualified as above-average. The ending ruined “The Mist” (2007). Stuff like “Silver Bullet” (1985), the two “Creepshow” movies, “Maximum Overdrive” (1986), “Thinner” (1996), and “The Lawnmower Man” (1992) and its sequel were potboilers.
After watching what “Island of Lost Souls” director Nikolaj Arcel and “Fifth Wave” co-screenwriters Akiva Goldsman and Jeff Pinker, and Anders Thomas Jensen of “The Duchess,” did to King’s “The Dark Tower,” you have to wonder what were they thinking when they tampered with his bestseller. Danish, art-house helmer Nikolaj looks clearly out of his element, and Goldsman, Pinker, and Jensen should have confined themselves strictly to the material in King’s novel. Hopelessly incomprehensible, thoroughly enigmatic, and predictably formulaic, this dire adaptation of King’s magnum opus “The Dark Tower” (* OUT OF ****) displays little fidelity to the novel. Pitting “Luther” star Idris Elba as the heroic Gunslinger, Roland Deschain, against Oscar-winner Matthew McConaughey as the evil Sorcerer, a.k.a. Walter Padick, ‘the Man in Black,’ the film struggles to generate any excitement and suspense. Despite his ambivalence about the film, Stephen King has said, “‘This is not exactly my novel but this is very much the spirit and the tone and I’m very happy.’ Mind you, the performances are all beyond reproach. Stephen King enthusiasts may appreciate this version more than anybody who have neither perused King nor the eight novels comprising “The Dark Tower” series. Curiously, I read the first novel in the franchise about The Gunslinger, and “The Dark Tower” contains only a microscopic amount of the book. “The Dark Tower” filmmakers have omitted more than half of the novel as well as eliminated some of its more sensational scenes. Reportedly, they have inserted material from later books in the series, but they have neglected to account for many details that must have been left on the editing room floor.
Jake Chambers (newcomer Tom Taylor) is a vividly imaginative, 14-year old lad, with a psychic gift that enables him to ‘shine.’ Basically, Jake can read minds and conduct mental conversations with others who share his ability. The allusion to Stephen King’s earlier epic “The Shining” is unmistakable. Jake’s sympathetic mother Laurie (Katheryn Winnick of “Cloud 9”) and his abrasive stepfather Lon (Nicholas Pauling of “Doomsday”) are anxious about their troubled son. Jake misses his biological father, an NYC firefighter who died in a conflagration, and he resents his stepdad. He gets into a fight with another student at his New York City school over his apocalyptic drawings. Laurie and Lon convince him to spend a weekend in psychiatric facility. Jake suspects that the people who have come to take him are sinister, shape-shifting aliens, and he flees. Walter, a.k.a. ‘the Man in Black’ (Matthew McConaughey of “Interstellar”) surprises Jake’s parents after the youth eludes his envoys. Walter orders Lon to “stop breathing,” and Lon keels over stone cold dead on the floor. Walter enters Jake’s room. He projects himself into the past and scrutinizes those ominous drawings that plaster one wall of Jake’s room. Pictures of a dark tower, a gunslinger, and a sorcerer recur in Jake’s sketches. Afterward, ‘the Man in Black’ incinerates Laurie on the spot without a qualm. Meantime, Jake finds a house in the city that contains a portal between the Earth and the post-apocalyptic world called Mid-World. Mid-World resembles a parched, desolate wasteland inhabited by woebegone people. Jake befriends the last living Gunslinger, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba of “Pacific Rim”), and explains that Walter has been abducting children, torturing them, and using their minds to demolish the Dark Tower. The Dark Tower is a soaring spire, sort of a primeval Empire State Building, that looms at the center of the universe and preserves the balance between Good and Evil. Walter,’ the Man in Black,’ longs to destroy the Dark Tower. Moreover, he believes Jake is the best candidate to topple the iconic structure. Roland has been pursuing ‘the Man in Black’ to exact vengeance because Walter killed his father, Steven Deschain (Dennis Haysbert of “Waiting to Exhale”), who taught Roland how to handle those six-shot revolvers. Miraculously, Walter has survived many attempts on his life by Roland. Essentially, Roland blasts away at him, but Walter snatches the bullets harmlessly out of the air before any can strike him.
Clocking in at 95 spartan minutes, “The Dark Tower” is boilerplate Stephen King. Unfortunately, the filmmakers reveal little about Mid-World, the portals connecting it with Earth, and most of all the background of the mysterious Dark Tower. The filmmakers in “The Dark Tower” seem to parcel out only bread crumbs of information, while they have glossed over the ground rules dictating behavior so as not to interfere with Roland’s single-minded, vengeance-driven pursuit of ‘the Man in Black.’ Inexplicably, Roland can reload his Remington revolvers with incredible speed, and he doesn’t have to shuck the cartridges physically from the loops in his gun belt to achieve this feat! We never learn what makes the minds of children so toxic to the tower. Ultimately, “The Dark Tower” qualifies as a formulaic sci-fi-fantasy-Western-horror epic that should have retained more elements of King’s original story.