Director Nicolaj Arcel almost had to choose a single aspect of Stephen King’s epic story to bring The Dark Tower to life in a single film. Rather than cutting the multi-volume story into bloody shreds (dadachik dadachum) the 2017 Dark Tower movie uses Jake Chambers as its narrative lead. Taken as a young-adult fantasy summary of the often violently adult epic, the film holds its own within the narrative.
Since I care more about storytelling than marketing, I want to dig into the narrative choices and acting. There are some mild spoilers below, so let the reader beware.
Arcel’s choice to tell the story from Jake’s POV was inspired and gutsy. Fifteen-year-old British actor Tom Taylor could have been the death of the film if he had been unequal to the task, and Arcel must have been as aware as the rest of us how many films died terrible deaths when children were unequal to their roles. But rather than going the way of The Last Airbender, The Dark Tower uses Jake’s limited point of view to good effect. Jake starts off in our world, and we discover the Dark Tower and Midworld right alongside Jake. Tom Taylor surprised me with a solid presentation which required much more from him than his previous smaller roles. This telling hinges on Jake’s shine, his psychic abilities that are strong enough to destroy reality if the Man in Black can take Jake and use him to evil ends.
Sony Pictures deserves a quick rebuke for their marketing focus. Most of the stunning images from the trailer come from the first and last five minutes of the film, and consequently I went into the theater expecting to watch Roland Deschaine’s story spool out once again. If Jake was going to be the main character (and indeed Idris Elba’s Roland does not appear until relatively late in the film), then marketing should have matched Arcel’s narrative choice. If I had not been a big enough fan to get forewarning that this was Jake’s story, I would have felt misled and perhaps cheated to get a young adult storyline from a frequently NC-17 mythology.
That being said, I think Arcel’s two choices for Jake Chambers work well. As a relatable lead Jake was the best possible introduction to the incredibly intricate mythos. We got what Jake could see, both in visions and in real life, and are only required to understand what a teenage boy could grasp in a short period of time. Since Jake was a primary element in the world-hopping aspects of the original story, he is a valid choice for the POV character throughout. In the novels Jake is an eleven-year-old boy, and bringing the character’s age up allowed him to be more proactive in the film than the first two books, which almost had to happen because we did not have 300,000 words to watch Jake grow from sacrificial lamb to a full companion to the gunslinger.
Tom Taylor’s portrayal of Jake Chambers was going to make or break the movie. Jake is brave enough in character to win the gunslinger’s loyalty but not so tough that Roland’s physical heroics seem superfluous. He carries all this through at the same time he has to fulfill key points in the coming-of-age narrative journey so that he can play an active part in the story’s climax.
The Man in Black is one of King’s most ubiquitous villains, having ruined several worlds in King’s multiverse at one time or another. Matthew McConaughey’s protrayal pulls a little bit of the confident whimsey of Randal Flagg in The Wizard of the Glass as opposed to the malevolence of The Stand, and the film relies on the terrified reactions of the ratling minions to bring gravitas to the villain. This is a confident Man in Black, fully at ease with his place in the world and determined to have his malicious fun along the way. McConaughey delivers an excellent convivial malevolence and Arcel deserves a quick nod for casting the excellent supporting actors Jackie Haley, Abbey Lee, and Fran Kranz as minions.
Idris Elba’s protrayal of Roland Deschaine is severely limited by the gunslinger’s role in the film. No longer the damaged hero, he is a fallen knight who has abandoned his quest in order to seek personal vengeance.
That is a disappointing choice, but it was a critical one to fit the young-adult narrative choice. A strong theme of King’s writing ever since Salem’s Lot has been the non-sexual romance of brotherhood and love between the protagonists in face great emotional trauma. Within the scope of Jake’s character, the story trope requires the emotional courage of the ‘damsel in distress’ to transform the physical strength of the knight to become more than he already was. This is no less true for the chaste romances of character than the lurid bodice-rippers of Harlequin novels. Jake has to follow the romantic sequence of sympathy, loyalty, sacrifice, and dramatic transformation to fulfill those roles, and he does that well enough. He feels for Roland’s losses, earns the gunslinger’s loyalty, and then through his courage and sacrifice challenges Roland to become more than what he had been at the first.
Idris is not the principle protagonist in that romantic narrative, he is the one acted upon. The Man in Black drives him. The villagers’ reactions prod him, and ultimately Jake’s courage and brotherhood redeems him. This choice is also nearly inevitable. Roland Deschaine’s laconic style would drive a director nuts attempting to bring all of his deep and heavily contextual thougths to clear presentation on the big screen. This is the sort of challenge that drove Steven Gould to completely rewrite his Jumper mythology from the screen. Arcel simply changes the point of view character and keeps a far closer interpretation of the mythology for a much more limited medium. (Yes, fair readers, film is the more limited medium compared to the novel. Don’t take my word for it. Check out the Dark Tower books for yourselves.)
Elba’s Roland Deschaine does have a few moments to shine in character, to show the strength and determination that has kept him going when his whole culture has Passed On.
Stephen King knows this mechanic well and the depth of his characterization ennables strong romantic narratives that wash back and forth throughout this stories. Once again for the hyper-sexualized American audience, the romantic pattern I’m talking about here has nothing next to nothing to do with groins. Time and again in the long story format the romantic pattern bounces back and forth between group members as they drive one another forward. The best individual presentation of that is in It, to be released this year, but it is present to one degree or another in all of King’s good long fiction. Without the broader group and less than an hour and a half of runtime, this dynamic only shows up once, but it would almost be less than a Stephen King story without it.
Arcel spares the audience information overload, and used background details that Jake did not grasp to provide a fair amount of fan service for the hard-core enthusiasts. Arcel’s presentation is irregular, though. He varies between the intensely subtle (He posits an origin theory of the preferred identity of Derry, Maine’s rakshasa with a single background image that draws upon the familial relation between Roland, the Crimson King, and our favorite homocidal clown) and the insultingly blatant (telling the audience that Roland’s guns are forged from Excaliber in a talking-head moment though King’s novels infer and allow the audience to figure it out for themselves). There is a nice nod to Oy, the novel Jake’s talking Billy-bumbler, and many other tidbits that fit in just right.
Arcel’s young-adult adventure is full of homages but he is not afraid to revise controversial scenes. Jake’s awkward tween-age demon sex scene from the first book is replaced by a different sort of shape-shifter altogether that changes the nature of Roland’s rescue entirely and we owe Arcel a debt of thanks only slightly less than Tom Taylor. Roland’s mutilation and poisoning has been completely reimagined, and if I was muttering “dadachick dadachum” under my breath in the theater, a major plot point from The Drawing of the Three made it into the film without the cost of a beach location and a dozen CGI lobstrocities.
King’s Dark Tower mythology is second to none, and perhaps only equalled by the Terminator stories in its internal mechanism for retelling a tale. There is no need, then, to apologize for telling the story differently than the last time around. Both mythologies are focused around changing reality itself from a damaged and endangered future into something better. Other stories require vast twists of logic for their reboots, but The Dark Tower changes history by the second book, The Drawing of the Three, and it only gets twistier from there. So this time around things have gotten so much better that the apocalyptic gore-gasm of the first story has become a young adult story, and that is a good sign indeed.
Take this movie for what it sets out to be, and Nicolaj Arcel’s The Dark Tower is a decent summer adventure. Demand more than any movie can fullil, and it is best left behind. The books are still there, with their references to at least another dozen novels. The movie has not erased them or betrayed them, but no film could ever contain them.
If you can relax, this is a decent film. For everyone else, I can only quote Jake Chambers from the original novel.
“Go then, there are other worlds as these.”