off topic

There Are Other Movies Than These: A Response to The Dark Tower Trailer

I first encountered The Dark Tower in early-2008. I had just devoured Stephen King’s The Stand, and after doing a little bit of post-flu research, discovered that King’s entire life’s work shared a single, slightly convoluted universe, existing on several levels of some elusive tower at the nexus of space/time. I was intrigued, so I entered a generous bid on a copy of the first volume of The Dark Tower on eBay. I won it without contest, yet as soon as I paid for it, I had to buy a second copy when I realised that during my haste I had accidentally purchased the original iteration of The Gunslinger, instead of the revised and expanded edition. Who would have thought that impulse could be a bad thing?

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My copy is almost worn out by now!

Over the course of 2008, I ambled through the seven book series. When I put down Song of Susannah, I actually wrote a three-page letter to Sai King as an insurance policy, expressing to him how much I had enjoyed the journey, solidifying my thoughts in the event that he somehow screwed up the ending. As it turns out, my fears were faultless. He didn’t screw up the ending, and I finished the final book, after an 18-hour reading streak, in the nothing hours of night on the 2nd or 3rd of January, 2009. I laughed. I cried. I screamed. I cried. And I cried. My copy of the final book is still stained with my tears of yore!

And the Coda? It destroyed me. My stomach swallowed itself and I was left with an utter sense of dread that has never quite withered away. Few endings can rival The Dark Tower’s completely apathetic finale, which simultaneously stabs readers in the gut then whispers a powerful and resonant precept into their ears.

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An accurate representation of anyone who reads the Coda.

All of this is to say that The Dark Tower books left an indelible impression upon me, as they have for so many others. They are not without fault—I could talk for hours about what King did wrong—but they are as perfect as they need to be, telling a worthwhile story, with characters who are out of this world, weaving profound morals of primal potency. I only wish I could still find my letter, because from everything that has been glimpsed about the upcoming movie spells disaster in every sense of the word. I can’t help but feel we’re all on a train that can’t be stopped; a pink bullet with the split mind of a maniac, and no riddle in this world or any other can stop this movie from alighting in cinemas on 4th August, 2017.

I’m not going to sit here and talk about the blatant changes that everyone seems to be crying foul about. Yes, Roland is now black, and his blue, bombardier eyes have been washed out by the casting director. No, if Detta comes into the mix, which is highly unlikely, especially any time soon, she will not be calling Roland a “honky mahfah”. I’m sick and tired of everyone beating a dead mule—its bulging eyes gone, having been et by Zoltan, say sorry. Who gives a fuck? Is Roland’s skin colour and Detta’s racism the only things you have to complain about? Yeah, I get it, the changes suck the big one, but put a little bit of constructive criticism into your goddamned arguments and actually watch the fucking trailer! Can you honestly not find anything else wrong with this piece of garbage cinema that has completely contorted the original story and altered the complex and nuanced characters of the gunslinger and the man in black into rivals with binary ideologies?

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Believe it or not, this plot device doesn’t give the writer and director a free pass for fan-fiction.

By now I’m sure you’ve all seen the trailer, and because I don’t want to give that atrocity of a teaser any more free publicity, I’m not going to link it here. If you’re one of the three people that haven’t seen it and you’re morbidly curious, you’ll have to find it for yourself, but I plead you not to be Ka-Mai. Some things are better left untouched; some doors better left unopened, unfound. Don’t you remember King’s final warning? The one we all ignored?

I’ve told my tale all the way to the end, and am satisfied … I hope most of you know better. Want better … And so, my dear Constant Reader, I tell you this: You can stop here.

We never listen though. We never stop. In the end, we are all Ka-Mai. If you haven’t watched the trailer, you will watch it. Even if we know it’s going to be fustercluck—written by the grave wordsmith behind the phenomena of Batman & Robin and I Am Legend—we’ll still all go and see it. It’s in our nature. It’s a part of our curse. We’re tower junkies, as Eddie would say. The world has been saved. The beams are being renewed. Roland has crossed the threshold and passed into eternity. We have no reason to keep searching for the obsidian edifice on the horizon, but we keep looking anyway.

At least Roland would understand.

Before I get into the meat of my complaints, I’d like to address a few points of contention against Nicolaj Arcel’s interpretation of The Dark Tower, based on my observations of the tardy trailer. I’ll keep these brief, as they could easily devolve into nitpicking:

  • Jake looks fine, but his McGuffin obsession with the eponymous tower is asinine, especially considering he has never been to Mid-World before, as far as we can tell.
  • The portal through the house on Dutch Hill is electrifyingly aesthetic, but it’s a stark choice. What was wrong with a literal door between worlds? It wasn’t sy-fy-y enough, that’s what. It also looks very advanced, as if the portal was designed by our old friend, North Central Positronics.
  • The exposition is hard to swallow and textbook simple.
  • Roland’s outfit is too Hollywood. He looks like he just stepped out of a Marvel movie.
  • The tower itself looks okay. It’s a dark tower, they can’t exactly get it wrong. The beams, however, are totally uninspired. I’ll give them a pass for manifesting them as physical streams of energy, as we are now in a visual medium, but why do they jut out awkwardly from the middle of the tower though? The last book clearly states that the beams converge above it. Only three beams are supposed to be intact by the time of The Gunslinger as well, yet all six appear to be functioning. And why aren’t nearby clouds being manipulated and pulled by the beams, like in the books?
  • Walter apparently manifests the demon at Dutch Hill. It might just appear this way due to how the trailer has been edited, however. I hope so. The demon itself actually looks quite good.
  • Why do Roland’s guns glow?
  • “I do not aim with my hand; he who aims with his hand has forgotten the face of his father. I aim with my eye.” Just because you say it doesn’t make it true, Roland. You literally closed your eyes and let your gun auto-lock onto your target like a video game. Cort would thump you good for that one.

Yeah, a lot of bitter choices, especially for Constant Readers. They’re also choices that can’t simply be swept under the rug by claiming “It’s a new cycle!” It’s a shame, but I could probably live with these offences and a dozen more if Roland and Walter had remained faithful to their counterparts from the books. Alas, they are both as butchered as the rest of the story and setting.

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In Song of Susannah, Stephen King is described as looking like Roland’s father. Who do you think would play Stephen King in the movie to match Elba?

I was cautious of Idris Elba’s Roland a long time before the trailer landed, not so much because he’s now suddenly black, but because of the peculiar overview of his character, as depicted on Wikipedia. Apparently this portrayal of Roland is based upon Nicolaj Arcel’s interpretation of the character, and it will follow his own individual vision of the character’s journey. Elba also purportedly had a unique vision for the character that he wants to share. Maybe I’m just being cynical, but all of this sounds like the preface to a lot of ludicrous fan-fiction. We don’t need a personal interpretation of Roland by some avant-garde director! He’s not a fairy tale figure, not anymore; he stopped being the man with no name once he realised he still knew how to love.

Several lines in the trailer only exacerbate Roland’s bastardised character. Instead of the infallible anti-hero from King’s books who would stop at nothing to reach his godforsaken tower, it seems we are being treated to a down-trodden survivor who needs a pep-talk from a twelve-year-old boy to understand and appreciate the importance of his quest. I guess not so much a “tower junkie” as a “tower dreamer”, maybe?

This promotional poster only adds to the Constant Reader’s frustration (and don’t worry, I’ll get to its counterpart in a minute):

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Anyone who has read the books will understand that Roland was never sworn to protect the dark tower. By the time Eddie and Susannah come along, the only thing that Roland knows is that he has to reach the tower. He doesn’t even know what he’s going to do once he gets there, and once the world and the universe have been saved, he still marches forward, seeking to satisfy his perdurable urge. When he lost everything in the world—and then the world itself decided to move on—he just needed something to keep him going, and the tower gave him that. He may be a warrior of the light, but he’s still a junkie just the same, and it’s his very obsession that fuels the fire of his recursive curse. Something incredibly vital toward the character is forgotten for the sake of paraphrasing the slingshot struggle into a two-hour movie. It’s insulting.

Then there’s Walter Padick, and do I really need to say anything else? Walter Padick. Not Walter O’Dim. Not Marten. Not even Randall Flagg. Walter Padick. For whatever reason, Arcel refers to the name the ageless stranger promptly abandoned approximately 1,500 years ago, when he ran away from his father, Sam the Miller, at the tender age of thirteen. A name that rendered him inert when Mordred Deschain whispered it into his soul; a name that made him realise that his quasi-immortal life was about to come to a lurid and violent end. Yet, according to Arcel, Walter must have had a change of heart, because now he wears the name—the name of a peasant, the name of no one—with pride. I guess the new cycle rubbed off on him too, eh? Good for him.

Now we come to the crux of my indignation, the second half of the promotional poster I just shared:

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I don’t even need to say anything. All I’m going to do is borrow a quote from the last book in The Dark Tower cycle. It speaks for itself:

Walter O’Dim had wandered long, and under a hundred names, but the tower had always been his goal. Like Roland, he wanted to climb it and see what lived at the top. If anything did.

He had belonged to none of the cliques and cults and faiths and factions that had arisen in the confused years since the Tower began to totter, though he wore their siguls when it suited him. His service to the Crimson King had been a late thing, as was his service to John Farson, the Good Man who’d brought down Gilead, the last bastion of civilisation, in a tide of blood and murder. Walter had done his own share of murder in those years, living a long and only quasi-immortal life … Yet through all that he’d kept his gaze on the Tower.

[Until] he’d had Roland to complete him—to make him greater than his own destiny, perhaps—Walter O’Dim had been little more than a wanderer left over from the old days, a mercenary with a vague ambition to penetrate the tower before it was brought down.

I can already hear the defenders of Arcel’s vision lighting their torches and raising their pitchforks. “It’s an adaption!” they’ll say. “Things need to change to suit a wider audience!” I agree, for the most part. Change is necessary with any shift in medium. The plot being condensed doesn’t have bothered me. Tertiary characters being consolidated or shuffled around won’t have me losing sleep at night. Even the colour of Roland’s skin and the distinctive shade of his eyes are paltry points of dissension when you really start to analyse this pitfall of conscious and reason. The only thing that mattered to me was for the two most important characters from The Gunslinger to remain true to themselves. And they haven’t.

How will the movie inevitably fare? I don’t know. Perhaps Arcel’s streamlined interpretation will find an audience, and perhaps a new franchise will be born. I don’t think the chances of that are very high, but stranger things have certainly happened. Time will tell, I suppose. There will be water if god wills it.

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Oh, what could have been.

For one moment, however, let us imagine a movie penned by an intuitive screenwriter, brought to life by a faithful director with an eye for detail. We could have seen Roland pass over the desert. He could have met Brown and recounted his brief and bloody visit to Tull, painting a picture of a man who answers with lead. He could have met up with Jake at the Way Station, and crossed to the mountains where Roland would be raped by the Speaking Demon, taking his seed for later exploits. Then they would burrow underground, closing in on the man in black. As far as we would know, it would be a thrilling and authentic recreation of a beloved story. And then, at the pivotal moment when Jake falls, Roland would reach out with iron fingers and clasp the young boy, hoisting him back up onto the trestle. Every universe on every level of the tower would cry out—in pain or reverence, who knows—and then the past would open up. The man in black might get away, but we would know that Roland was closer than ever to finding the peace he has searched for since time untold.

It would have been the sequel the books—and the Constant Reader—deserved.