‘The Dark Tower’: Why It Was a Missed Opportunity and How the Franchise Could Redeem Itself

After underperforming at the box office and facing bad reviews, does Stephen King's magnum opus still have some life left in it?
Roland Deschain (Idris Elba) in Columbia Pictures' THE DARK TOWER.
"The Dark Tower"
Ilze Kitshoff

The long-awaited adaptation of Stephen King’s magnum opus was met with middling reviews and so-so box office, but the franchise isn’t dead yet. The movie represents years of efforts to bring King’s eight-book series to the screen, but not every viewer has been so invested in that goal. IndieWire editors Eric Kohn (a fan of the books) and Kate Erbland (who hasn’t ready any of them) traded emails to discuss their very different reactions to the film, what it got wrong, and how it might be redeemed in future plans for the franchise. 

KATE: This summer season hasn’t been too kind to force-fed franchises, from the so-called Dark Universe (meant to be kicked off with the Tom Cruise-starring “The Mummy” reboot) to Guy Ritchie’s long-gestating and likely totally stalled-out “King Arthur” series to “The Dark Tower,” which has ambitious plans to include not just film sequels but also a television component. The franchise world is arguably bloated enough as is, and it seems to be getting harder and harder for new offerings to break through, even if they’re based on familiar characters and beloved myths.

That’s partly why I was hoping that “The Dark Tower” could thrill, thanks to a combination of reasonably popular material (from one of our most prolific authors to boot) and totally cockamamie original fantasy (even a cursory glance over the books’ Wikipedia pages makes it clear that this is a series unlike any other), the sort of stuff that could introduce a whole new world to both long-standing fans and newbies like me. I was extremely disappointed in the final result.

As someone who has not read the books but has done her darnedest to bone up on the broad strokes of the series, even I was baffled by the film’s entry point and insistence on telling the story through Jake’s eyes. It’s an idea that likely sounded better on paper: How best to introduce such a strange world? How about through the eyes of a someone just as surprised by it? But it turns at least the first half of the film into been-there, done-that YA material. Jake may be mystified by what he sees, but the limited perspective this narrative device brings to “The Dark Tower” keeps the sense of magic and wonder at bay. I never felt like I was seeing anything new, and that was the bare minimum expectation I had for such a story.

Walter (Matthew McConaughey) in Columbia Pictures' THE DARK TOWER.
“The Dark Tower”Ilze Kitshoff

As someone who has read the books, what did you think of the perspective choice? Was it as jarring to you?

ERIC: I hate to be that guy, but reading “The Dark Tower” books isn’t just helpful for watching the movie; it’s essential.

I’m not about to mount some snobby defense of “The Dark Tower” as a masterful realization of Stephen King’s novels. It’s flawed, but I do think it may be the summer’s most misunderstood blockbuster. I read a whole range of reviews for the movie that included disclaimers about not reading the books, which is completely acceptable in theory but makes it much harder to perceive the essence of what this movie is doing — that is, consolidating a remarkable universe into a tight narrative package while attempting to making it accessible to multiple kinds of audiences. This sci-fi/western/fantasy hodgepodge developed across multiple decades and really only succeeded because King did whatever the hell he wanted with it, even as he kept his ever-expanding mythology consistent. Notably, few diehard King fans are also “Dark Tower” fans. It’s not essential King so much as a class all to itself, and you’re either on that train or you’re not. The books have almost as much in common with Thomas Pynchon as they do with J.R.R. Tolkien, in that they veer all over the place even as they adhere to a baffling internal logic, and in that they’re virtually impossible to imagine as a movie.

Read More ‘The Dark Tower’ Director Says Television Series Will Be ‘Totally Canon’

But for much of “The Dark Tower,” I was impressed with the way the essence of the ideas from the books coalesced into a fairly comprehensible action-adventure, even as it skipped from post-apocalyptic desert showdowns to gritty face-offs in dilapidated downtown New York lofts. Despite a few cheesy asides, I found the bulk of the first two acts funny, thrilling, and strange, before it devolved into a rather bland finale. So it’s far from perfect, but I expected much worse.

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