REVIEW: The Dark Tower books may have magic, but the movie has none

William Mullally

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How do you adapt the 4,250 page magnum opus of the most popular authors of his generation into a 95 minute film? You whittle it down to its core elements.

Here’s what the filmmakers chose: There’s a Gunslinger (Idris Elba)—he’s good at shooting stuff. There’s a Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey)—he’s good at not getting shot. There’s a boy (Tom Taylor)—he’s got the shining, like in that movie The Shining.

There’s a big tower—it holds the universes together. Man in Black wants to destroy the tower so monsters and demons and such can come and chill and whatnot. Gunslinger wants to stop him. Boy is caught in the middle.

If you’re like me, you’ve never gotten through the Dark Tower books, but have heard they’re great from the many devotees out there. You likely marked this release on your calendar as the moment you might finally understand what all the fuss was about. But if you’re looking to see what makes those core elements so powerful to the fans of this series, and what makes this the series that Stephen King himself declares his masterpiece, you won’t find it here.

When a book you love is adapted into a film or television series, there’s two intertwined emotions you’re bound to feel—excitement, and fear. What kind of fear exactly? For me, it’s not the fear that I won’t be able to enjoy the movie version of the book I loved so much—after all, I’ll always have the book to go back to, even if the film fails me. No, what I fear most is that when the work finally makes it to the big screen, and to the biggest audience it will likely ever get, that it won’t capture what I loved about it to begin with for the many fresh eyes it’s about to find.

There’s an old rule in songwriting that a song isn’t truly good unless you can strip it down to its most basic ingredients—say, a voice, and an acoustic guitar--and have it hold its power. If that’s true, then one of two things happened here—either the Dark Tower isn’t powerful, or an essential ingredient was overlooked.

Actress Katheryn Winnick attends the special screening of Columbia Pictures and MRC “The Dark Tower” at the Museum of Modern Art on July 31, 2017 in New York. (AFP)
Actress Katheryn Winnick attends the special screening of Columbia Pictures and MRC “The Dark Tower” at the Museum of Modern Art on July 31, 2017 in New York. (AFP)

What doesn’t work about this film? It’s hard to suss out just one culprit. Maybe it’s the boy—Jake Chambers. He’s a psychic—he “shines”—and he’s the most powerful boy in any universe, because of course he is. Did you know there was a boy? I guess it was easier to, instead of focusing on Roland the Gunslinger, make the boy the main focus of the film—despite the fact that Jake wasn’t compelling enough to include on any of the film’s posters. With the focus put here, it’s hard not to grow weary of another magical Chosen One white boy, especially when we’re told how special he is instead of feeling it ourselves.

Maybe it’s the top-billed stars. Matthew McConaughey seemed right for the part of the Man in Black on paper. After all, the man has presence, as we’ve seen in so many of his roles since the McConaissance rose and plateaued, but it seems he’s best served with just a pinch of dark side—The Wolf of Wall Street, True Detective and Magic Mike.

When he’s forced to play a straight-up evil wizard who wants to destroy the universe, who wanders the streets using his magic powers to make little girls mean to their mothers, he comes off smaller than ever before. Here, McConaughey is an over-salted and over-boiled batch of squid-ink pasta—beautiful and useless.

I can’t blame Idris Elba nearly as much—he was the right choice for the Gunslinger, and I’m sure in a better movie he’d have been up to the task. He’s a stirring guitar solo in the middle of a generic pop song—impressive, but wasted.

Maybe it’s just the storytelling, which fails to make this feel like much of a story. Storytelling is powerful because even though it often has the same core elements, that rarely matters. Every storyteller is a Geppetto making a boy from wooden parts. When it works, you look at the wood and you see a boy. When it doesn’t, you see just the wood.

Every obstacle that Jake faces on his hunt to find The Gunslinger, every obstacle that the Man in Black has to find Jake, and every obstacle that Jake and the Gunslinger have together on their hunt to find the Man in Black, just feels like they don’t have much to tell, and even less to say, but they really needed to pad out a whole 95 minutes.

They don’t just fill this with random monsters—a wooden-floor demon, a big pointy dragon thing with its wings cut off, a ‘look I’m your dad but once you touch me I’m actually not’ ghoul—they also fill the background with references to Stephen King books—I caught the hotel from the Shining, the Rita Hayworth poster from Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption—and fill their mouths with what feels like famous quotes. But since you can’t buy in to the world, you can’t buy in to its language either. Non-book-readers will have no problem picking out the fan-service lines, as each is delivered as if it has a power that you’ll know the movie hadn’t earned on its own.

There’s something missing in this film, deep into its core. Maybe a better screenplay, or a better director, could have covered that up more effectively. But with just these pieces, Pinocchio isn’t just missing his head—he’s missing his soul.

- The Dark Tower is in theaters now -