For years, Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower” series was seen as unadaptable. Inspired by the 1855 Robert Browning poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” the story came to King in piecemeal — he started it with a single line, and fleshed out the plot as he moved through it. The resulting eight-book sci-fi/fantasy/horror saga is a mind-warping, inter-dimensional story that fuses the classic elements of a western showdown with existential turmoil and a meta-narrative that ultimately involved King himself as a character.
At the same time, the books play off familiar cinematic touchstones ranging from Clint Eastwood oaters to “The Wizard of Oz” and “Star Wars,” so a careful adaptation of its multifaceted approach could end up hitting several genre buttons at once. After a few failed attempts to get “The Dark Tower” off the ground over the years — including a troubled miniseries approach and one version set to star Javier Barden—“The Dark Tower” is finally coming to theaters August 4, courtesy of Danish filmmaker Nikolaj Arcel (“A Royal Affair”) with Idris Elba in the lead role. So was it worth the wait? It’s still not clear. The trailer offers a lot of concise interactions and intriguing images over the course of two minutes, but mainly it delivers plenty of hints about the approach taken for this ambitious adaptation. Here are five big takeaways.
It’s Basically the First Two Books
The series follows the sprawling, poetic journeys of a gunsingler named Roland Deschain, who travels between our world and violent, post-apocalyptic western landscape in his attempt to reach the mystical Dark Tower that holds together all existence and save it from destruction. Along the way, he contends a mysterious villain known only as The Man in Black and befriends a young boy named Jake, who actually dies in the first book and gets resurrected in the second after Roland yanks Jake back into his world through an interdimensional portal to New York City. In the process, he also drags in a crazed drug addict and a woman suffering from multiple personality disorder. They become the core members of Roland’s “Ka-tet,” the name he uses to describe his team of adventurers on a quest to reach the Dark Tower.
Much of the first trailer resembles this plot, although Arcel and co-writers Akiva Goldmsan, Jeff Pinker, and Anders Thomas Jensen have reduced the members of Roland’s Ka-tet to two and focused on the relationship between Roland and the young boy for whom he becomes an unlikely father figure. While early clues about the production have suggested that the movie is a secret sequel to King’s eighth book, the trailer mainly conveys the relatively straightforward process through which Roland battles his way to the Dark Tower, firing his gun with stellar shooting skills and bonding with Jake in the process. Their chemistry seems to work well: Elba is ideally suited to scowl and whisper his way through a broken world, while newcomer Tom Taylor perfectly fits that Kingsian archetype of the scrawny boy whose sense of wonder about everything around him draws him deeper into the high-stakes mystery.
The Atmosphere Is Spot On
The best sequence in the second “Dark Tower” book, “The Drawing of the Three,” revolves around Jake — in modern-day New York City — gradually becoming aware of another world beyond his reach and figuring out a way to travel there. The trailer suggests this wondrous tale remains a compelling one: With the soundtrack by Dutch DJ Junkie XL hitting small, twinkling notes to underscore the otherworldly events just beyond Jake’s reach, the scenes in which he struggles to resolve his mounting desire to travel to the Dark Tower resonate on a level of childlike awe. Meanwhile, Roland’s shadowy wasteland looks appropriately murky and filled with unknown threats — except for one, and that’s a different situation…
McConaughey Is a Hard Sell
Matthew McConaughey is a tricky choice for the Man in Black, who taunts Roland at every turn. While Roland tells Jake that the supervillain is “worse than the devil,” McConaughey’s delivery looks like it veers dangerously close to parody, as the actor scowls through various showdowns and barks potentially cheesy lines like “Death always wins.” However, in King’s books, the Man in Black was mostly an allegorical threat, a death-like specter who represents the encroaching desperation that surrounding Roland’s quest at every turn. If the movie doesn’t play the character too literally, instead allowing the archetypal villain to come across that way in service of the self-aware storytelling in the book, it may salvage a potentially over-the-top performance.
No Love for Susan?
One of the characters who apparently hasn’t been axed from the story is Roland’s early love interest, Susan Delgado (Alex McGregor), though King didn’t really explore her impact on Roland’s life until the fourth book, which takes the form of a prolonged flashback. Set in an earlier, more traditional fantasy setting, that story finds Roland living in an age in which Gunslingers were trained to protect their land. Susan is both the love of his life and the reason why, in modern times, he remains such a remote character. Their tale is a tragic one that will presumably crop up in flashbacks, which will be tricky considering that their story previously took place over the course of a single volume, but it’s not yet clear how that part of the drama will unfold — or whether it will resonate on the emotional level necessary to humanize the otherwise muted, remote shootist. (We do, however, glimpse Dennis Haysbert as Roland’s father, suggesting this trailer was mainly engineered for a male demo.) But about those magical shooting skills…
What Is This, The Matrix?
Many of the highly-processed shots in the trailer show off the fast-paced shooting sequences that suggest Sam Peckinpah by way of “The Matrix” bullet-time effects, and it’s hard to say whether they’ll serve the story or slow it down with effects-heavy battle sequences that distract from the core story. Of course, King infused his books with plenty of sophisticated battle (including one involving lightsabers) so it’s no surprise that “The Dark Tower” movie has been laced with a generous amount of CGI. But even though it’s exciting to watch Roland’s nimble reloading skills, it’s hard to tell how much of these scenes dominate the movie. As “Logan” proved, an effective action-drama doesn’t need more than a handful of big action sequences to keep viewers enthralled and invested in the broader stakes at hand, so one can only hope that Arcel and his collaborators have kept that balance in mind.
Of course, “The Dark Tower” presaged “The Matrix” in other ways: It’s about multiple people waking up to a world much larger than the way they initially understood it, and coming to grips with their central role in fixing it. Such idiosyncratic, philosophical storytelling might sit best in the hands of ambitious storytellers like the Wachowskis, though one could just as easily envision it in the hands of a genre-bending maestro like David Cronenberg or Guillermo Del Toro. Without the proper subtleties, “The Dark Tower” could easily sink in “Chronciles of Riddick”-level silliness, but there’s just enough potential in this early peek to suggest that the spirit of Roland’s epic adventures remain intact.