‘The Dark Tower’: What You Need to Know

It would be tempting to say Hollywood is once again in the Stephen King business but for the fact that it has never left it. In the four decades since the release of “Carrie,” there have been dozens of movie and television adaptations of his novels and short stories. This year alone, we will see the evil clown-centric movie “It,” the bondage-gone-wrong Netflix film “Gerald’s Game,” a Spike TV series based on the monster-insect novella “The Mist” and “The Dark Tower.”

Oh, “The Dark Tower.” What many loyal readers of Mr. King see as the magnum opus of his career has had a tortuous road to the big screen. The film, due Aug. 4 after several delays, stars Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey and is directed by Nikolaj Arcel, whose last film was the 18th-century Danish drama “A Royal Affair.”

Sony Pictures hopes that this is but the first entry in a franchise that can span both movies and television. The story of how “The Dark Tower” was made covers many years. The story of “The Dark Tower” is even more complex. Here are the basics:

What is ‘The Dark Tower’?

It’s a sprawling series of seven novels written between 1982 and 2004. (An eighth interstitial novel was released in 2012.) The first four books were published every four to six years. But after Mr. King was hit by a minivan in 1999 and almost died, he decided to finish the saga lest another accident finish the job. The final three books were published in 2003 and 2004.

Characters from the “Dark Tower” books have frequently appeared in other stories by Mr. King (one of the series villains is also the main antagonist of “The Stand”), and vice versa, effectively making the series the backbone of the author’s oeuvre. Mr. King himself also makes an appearance in the novels, which still comes as a surprise even if you know about it beforehand.

O.K., but what is it actually about?

It is an epic tale about Roland Deschain, a “gunslinger” (think a medieval knight, but with the outward trappings of an American cowboy) who lives in a place called Mid-World, which runs parallel to our own. In that world is a giant black tower that serves as the center of all universes, including our own. But Mid-World has begun to fall apart and, in an effort to save it, Roland must pursue both a bad guy who dresses all in black and the Tower itself.

In the film, Mr. Elba plays Roland and Mr. McConaughey plays Walter O’Dim, a.k.a. the Man in Black. They are able to cross back and forth between their world and modern-day Earth, where they encounter Jake Chambers (the newcomer Tom Taylor), a boy who has been having visions of Mid-World.

So it’s a western? a fantasy?

Both! It’s also a sci-fi story and a horror story. There are evil wizards and crystal balls, people who come back to life and vampires and creatures with animal heads who wear human faces. It’s a lot. Mr. King incorporated as many genre elements as possible, and it makes for a fun, though not easy to categorize, experience.

This is still a little confusing. Should I read any of the books beforehand?

Feel free. You should be aware, though, that the film is not a straight adaptation. Rather, it seems to be some combination of the first novel (“The Gunslinger”) and the third (“The Waste Lands”), while also incorporating significant story points from the last book. Reading all seven novels would also mean plowing through nearly 4,000 pages. So there’s that.

There are so many Stephen King movies. Why hasn’t someone tried to make this one before?

Someone has. Several someones. It was initially set to be adapted by the “Lost” collaborators Carlton Cuse, Damon Lindelof and J. J. Abrams. Then in 2010, Ron Howard, Akiva Goldsman and Brian Grazer — the trio behind “The Da Vinci Code,” among other films — decided to try their hands with a plan to make three movies with Universal starring Javier Bardem as Roland as well as several television seasons that would bridge the story between films. That deal fell apart a year later. But the team found a new studio (Sony) and a new star (Mr. Elba). And while the film’s release date has been twice delayed (from February to July to August), footage screened in April at the annual CinemaCon convention proved that, at the least, Mr. Elba looks tremendous in a leather duster.

Idris Elba in “The Dark Tower,” due in August. Credit Columbia Pictures

So, what’s the deal with The Dark Tower?

The trailer for The Dark Tower dropped early this morning, giving us our first glimpse of the long-awaited adaptation of Stephen King’s epic series. But this film isn’t your typical adaptation, where the movie is largely based on the novel. This movie is actually a kind of sequel to the entire series, and there are bigger plans beyond just a film franchise for the story.

So, what’s the deal with this project? And what can we expect when the movie hits in August?

To understand the film, you need to know a little bit about the books that the film is associated with. Stephen King is easily one of the best-known genre writers in the world. While King is known as a horror writer, having written classics like Carrie and The Shining, he’s more than that: he experiments with epic fantasy, horror, and science fiction. The Dark Tower, as a series, is a bit of a mash-up of all those genres, and it’s a series he considers his magnum opus.

He later explained in the foreword to the first novel of the series, The Gunslinger, that “The Dark Tower books, like most long fantasy tales written by men and women of my generation... were born out of Tolkien’s [Middle-earth].” He goes on to say that he read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in the 1960s, and that he wanted to write his own sort of epic, fantastical quest novel. But he didn’t want to just copy Tolkien. After seeing The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, he realized that he wanted something that encompassed more. “I realized that what I wanted to write was a novel that contained Tolkien’s sense of quest and magic, but set against Leone’s almost absurdly majestic Western backdrop.”

Between October 1978 and November 1981, King published five short stories in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and collected them into a single novel, The Gunslinger, in 1982. From there, King followed up with a series of novels: The Drawing of Three (1987), The Wastelands (1991), Wizard and Glass (1997), Wolves of Calla (2003), Song of Susannah (2004), and The Dark Tower (2004). He explained at the time that the seven books were part of “one long über-novel,” and that the series had come to an end with that last book. The books have become incredibly popular, and most were best-sellers.

However, King announced in 2009, that he had an idea for another Dark Tower novel, and he polled his readers on his website to see which book they’d like to see first: a new Dark Tower novel, or a sequel to The Shining. It was close, but readers picked The Wind through the Keyhole. (Dr. Sleep, The Shining’s follow-up, would come a year later.) He wrote The Wind Through the Keyhole, which is set about halfway through the series, but it’s a bit more standalone than the other installments.

There have also been a handful of comic adaptations, as well as a video game called Discordia, which players can play through King’s website.

The short answer is that it’s an epic story about Roland Deschain, who’s on a quest to find the Dark Tower, a building that’s said to link all the worlds in existence together. He’s the last living member of an order of knights known as Gunslingers, living in an alternate world (part of King’s larger multiverse) known as Mid-World.

Mid-World is magical, in a state of post-apocalyptic ruin (King describes it as “moved on”), and it looks like the American West. Magic has largely vanished, but there are remnants left behind, as well as some pieces of advanced technology. Roland is chasing after The Man in Black, which is part of his quest to discover the Dark Tower. Along the way, Roland discovers a boy named Jake Chambers, who died in a world like our own. The character is essentially Roland’s spiritual son, and after meeting him in Mid-World, he accompanies him on his quest. The rest of the series is about that quest.

This film has experienced a bit of a convoluted production. Way back in 2007, J.J. Abrams, Carlton Cuse, and Damon Lindelof (the people behind Lost), first optioned the series with an eye for adapting all seven novels. Nothing came of that project, and in 2010, the rights expired.

However, Universal Pictures optioned the series later in 2010, with Ron Howard (Apollo 13) slated to direct. They had a particularly ambitious plan for this series: a film and television franchise. A film would come out every two years, with a television show bridging the story between each major film. That project was worked on for a couple of years, but it, too, was canceled because of rising costs. Warner Bros. was interested, but also passed, and the project ended up with Sony Pictures, with writers Akiva Goldsman (I Am Legend) and Jeff Pinkner (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) penning the screenplay and Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair) directing. Idris Elba (Pacific Rim, The Wire) signed on to play Roland, and Matthew McConaughey (True Detective) would play The Man in Black. It was originally slated for a January 2017 release, but it’s been bumped back to August 4th, 2017.

Not exactly. People are describing The Dark Tower as a sequel or continuation of the entire novel series.

So last year, King tweeted a picture: the Horn of Eld, which is a relic of the world that was passed down to Roland.

Fans went nuts, because what King tweeted is a reference to the final book of the series, The Dark Tower. That’s where [spoilers] Roland finally reaches the Dark Tower and faces off against a villain known as the Crimson King. It’s there that he discovers that he’s gone on this quest before, many times, and is sent back to the beginning of his journey by a being known as Gan each time. In prior quests, Roland had left the Horn of Eld with a dying compatriot after a battle. In this latest version of the quest, he kept it with him, which changes things for the next cycle of the story.

The implication here is that the film is set after The Dark Tower (the novel): Roland has been sent back to the beginning of his quest, and the events of The Gunslinger will play out in a slightly different way. As we saw in the trailer, he meets Jake Chambers, and is going after The Man in Black. So, the film could essentially be an adaptation of The Gunslinger, but a continuation of the story at the same time. It also looks like it’ll be set partially in our own world.

Maybe, but it’ll allow Nikolaj Arcel to not only adapt the novel, but play with the conventions of this particular story. It gives them cover to change things in the adaptation without upsetting fans of the books, and it allows them to introduce newcomers to the series through a slightly different take on The Gunslinger.

So, we’re not only getting the film, but a TV series. Word broke about that last September, and the show is going to be designed to flesh out this pretty epic story that they’re telling. Apparently, it’ll include Idris Elba (who’s playing Roland in the movie), and it’ll explore his backstory a bit. It’ll be based a bit on The Gunslinger, and it’ll have parts of the fourth book, Wizard and Glass. So, in some ways, it looks like it’ll be an actual adaptation of the novels, whereas the film is a continuation of that.

Well, King wrote an ambitious and sprawling series — The Gunslinger is one of King’s best books, and it’s really interesting to read it and see him playing with all these different genres and influences. Devoted fans of the books are a little more iffy on how the series ended, but for the most part, it’s an amazing world with an epic story to go along with it.

While the subject matter is cool, the series has the potential to do some interesting things with film. As we’ve seen, the story is playing with not just being a straight-up adaptation of the series, but being an additive part to it. Additionally, we’ve seen places like Disney do some interesting things with their Marvel franchise: cross-over television shows and films. We’ve seen these sorts of cinematic universes with comics and science fiction, but this has the potential to become another bit thing like those properties.

Last we heard, the show is due to enter production this year, with a 10–13 episode season slated to hit in 2018. The film is set to hit theaters this summer, so it’ll likely tie in with that as a prequel. Depending on how well The Dark Tower does at the box office, it’ll probably be part of a strategy similar to what Marvel is doing with its films and various television shows. We’ll find out in August.

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