The Dark Tower’s Storytelling Problem

The Dark Tower, adapted form Stephen King’s magnum opus of the same name, was released August 4th, a week and a half ago, and has not been well recieved by critics or by fans. Not only that, but both fans of the series and those who have never even opened the books agree that this movie was a flop.

I myself am a huge fan of the series. The books are incredible in their fusion of genres and their beautiful character development. They inspire my writing. When I finished the epic tale, which took less than three months, I had a hard time picking up anything else. Needless to say, when I heard that there was actually a movie coming out after all the drama that has been keeping this movie back for nearly ten years, I was ecstatic.

The movie dissapointed on many levels, and I’m here to talk all about that disappointment. Spoilers for both the books and the movie ahead.

I think my first gripe is one I share with most other fans of the books. The first line of The Gunslinger, the first book, reads “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” This line is iconic, it sets up a story that instantly grabs the reader’s attention, and it hurls the reader into the middle of this epic tale. So why would the movie take this introduction and throw it away as some voice in Jake’s dream instead of letting the movie open with that? Furthermore why couldn’t this movie just be an adaptation of the first book? I don’t want to spend to much time on this, an excellent article about this and many other faults can be found here.

What I want to talk about is storytelling, a topic which fascinates me and drives me to read and write and learn. The Dark Tower series is centered around the idea of storytelling. It explores the relationship between characters and authors, it questions the reality of stories and whether or not they are really as make believe as we think, it explains that perhaps the world we live in is in fact no more real than the worlds explored within the pages of books. Not just the story but the concept of creating a story is the thesis of these books. Therefore, it follows that any Dark Tower tale should go to great lengths to tell a good story, right?

Apparently not.

I think the easiest way to explain this is in terms of Roland’s character arc (or lack thereof) in the movie. In the books, Roland has one task: to traverse Mid-World and reach the Tower, thereby saving it from falling. This quest takes several turns throughout the books and develops in many interesting ways, but I see no need to spoil to much of it. In this retelling, Roland has lost sight of his quest. This time, in the fallout of what most fans are assuming is the battle of Jericho Hill, the man in black kills Roland’s father (who, in the books, was long dead before the battle). Roland therefore looses sight of his quest and becomes hellbent on taking revenge on the man in black. Now what we have is a fallen gunslinger, one who has lost his way in his anger and need for revenge.

When this change was introduced, I was intrigued. It seemed to me that the director was making the choice to tell a new tale instead of recycling the old story, and while the change is not quite in line with Roland’s character, it didn’t bother me much.

The problem with this comes at the end, where the movie failed to follow through on Roland’s development as a character.

So Jake gets to Mid-World and Roland decides Jake is useful. After almost no character development for either Jake or Roland, a battle with a Todash creature in an amusement park jungle, and an inconsequential battle with the taheen, the duo returns to New York and Jake discovers that his mom is dead, murdered by the man in black. In my favorite scene in the movie, Roland and Jake sit on the rooftop and Roland makes a plan to kill the man in black. Jake calls him out by asking if his mom died just so that Roland could have his revenge. Jake knows that Roland’s duty as a gunslinger is to save the Tower, and though Roland has fallen from duty and title, Jake sees potential in him for redemption.

The rooftop scene sets up the climax of this film: Jake gets captured, Roland follows Jake to the Dixie Pig. Jake is put in the Beam Breaker machine, and Roland, after a pretty cool action scene where he kicks some butt inside the Pig, is finally faced with the man in black and his opportunity for revenge. Here it is obvious that the story has set it up for Roland to have to make a choice: either he must stay on his path of revenge, killing the man in black and dooming the world, or he must get past his anger and pain and rise to his higher calling by saving the Tower from falling. Here is where we should see our gunslinger develop, rising once again to his duty and letting the man in black live as a result. Unfortunately, some genius in the writing room decided Roland gets to do both. He kills the man in black and he saves the Tower with bullets to spare. Here, in my opinion, is where the movie fail so drastically I find it hard to believe that a storyteller as legendary as Stephen King himself told the director that he had “remembered the face of his father.” The film sets up a beautiful arc that feels like a step toward Roland’s true and final redemption and then fails completely. I was so shocked by the ending that for a while I couldn’t even talk with my friends about what we had just seen, it was that shockingly flawed.

Maybe I’m being overdramatic or pretentious, but even so I think there’s hope for this series. This movie wasn’t terrible, it was just very mediocre. It failed to live up to the standards of storytelling set by the books. I think that the upcoming installments in this franchise have the potential to learn from this film’s mistakes.