The fantasy film The Dark Tower is loosely based on a series of novels by Stephen King. I have read (and enjoyed) those novels. This movie is not really an adaptation of the series or even the first book. It takes a few of the characters and some plot elements and does its own thing with them, switching protagonists and eliminating many of the things that fans of the series loved. It is not faithful to its source material, which does not automatically make it bad. I am not reviewing this film based on its fidelity to the source material. The Dark Tower is a bad movie based entirely on its own merits.
As The Dark Tower (directed and co-written by Nikolaj Arcel) opens, young Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is having awful nightmares about a man in black trying to destroy a tower in another world while being pursued by a vengeful gunslinger. Jake becomes convinced his dreams are real and, with a surprising lack of difficulty, finds and teams up with the Gunslinger, Roland (Idris Elba). Together, they look to stop the evil Man in Black, Walter (a bored-looking Matthew McConaughey) from destroying the tower (which would destroy both worlds).
The novels are about Roland and his quest. However, this film relegates him to a supporting role in favor of Jake’s story. Presumably, it was decided that making a teenager the main character would allow the film to appeal to a wider audience. That would be fine, except that Roland is the far more interesting character and this approach keeps him off-screen for most of the first third of the film. That is especially problematic because, even in this version, the story is not actually about Jake. He is just a plot device in the battle between Roland and Walter.
The Dark Tower is only 87 minutes long (not including the end credits), so it rushes along without taking the time to develop its story, create interesting characters or establish the relationships between its characters. Even the action scenes are boring because it is hard to understand what is going on (there is a battle with a demon early in the film that could have been cool, but has been rendered completely incomprehensible by the editing). In short, a bunch of stuff happens, but Arcel and his co-screenwriters failed to make any of it compelling.
It seems like there was probably a much longer version of the screenplay at some point that would make a lot more sense. As it is, I had to use my knowledge of the book series to follow the plot because the screenplay does such a poor job of explaining things. For instance, based only on what is in the film, I am not entirely sure why Walter was trying to destroy the tower. Nor am I sure if Roland actually cared about the world ending or if he only wanted Walter dead for personal reasons. Jake’s involvement is understandable (he is trying to prove to himself that he isn’t crazy). I also get why Roland would take him along on his quest. However, their affiliation goes from strangers to a mentor/mentee (or father/son) relationship so quickly that it was impossible to believe. The Dark Tower feels like half a movie. Unfortunately, they left out the half that explains the half they put in.
The bigger crime here isn’t that the filmmakers changed so much from the books, it’s that they failed to make me care about characters and a story that I already cared so much about that I read seven books on their adventures. Films and books are completely different mediums and certain things have to be changed when adapting one to the other. But the best adaptations, whether faithful or not, are able to replicate the elements of the source material that allowed its author to captivate their readers. Those elements are completely lacking in the movie version of The Dark Tower.
It is hard for me to say that I would definitely feel the same way about the movie if I had not read the books, though I think I would. I definitely felt some disappointment as I watched the film brought on by my familiarity with the original story. But, as a movie, it is a mess with vaguely drawn characters and a poorly developed story. As a whole, The Dark Tower is not just a bad adaptation, it is a bad movie.
1½ out of 5
Tom Taylor as Jake Chambers
Idris Elba as Roland/Gunslinger
Matthew McConaughey as Walter/Man in Black
Directed by Nikolaj Arcel
Screenplay by Nikolaj Arcel, Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner and Anders Thomas Jensen