For decades, Stephen King has scared, captivated, and devastated millions of people with his unrivaled work as an author. His tremendous creations are prone to both big and small screen adaptations, and 2017 has, arguably, been the greatest single year for films based on his work.
There have been four major adaptations based on the stories of King this year, three of which garnered acclaim from fans and critics alike. Released exclusively to Netflix, Gerald’s Game and 1922 have wowed audiences, thanks in large part to the powerful performances in which they contain. Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of It, however, raised the bar in regard to not just our expectations, but in the way it transcended its terrifying premise to become pure cinematic magic. It’s no wonder that it’s officially the highest grossing R-rated horror film of all time.
The general consensus would lead you to believe that, unlike these three films, The Dark Tower, which is based on perhaps King’s most popular work, is a poor adaptation that isn’t worth your time. While it can be agreed that Nikolaj Arcel’s (Sweden’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) take on the story is not without flaws (The editing is choppy in the first half of the movie, secondary actors give laughable performances, and the director takes liberties with the source material), the fact that a film with this much heart can be so universally loathed is baffling.
The film, which stars heavyweights Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey as the iconic Gunslinger and Man in Black, tells the story of a young boy, Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), who is suffering from nightmarish visions of a looming apocalypse. In the visions, the Man in Black utilizes the psychic ability of children (known as the “shine” in a nice reference to The Shining) to bring down a tower at the center of the universe. Jake, who is an outcast that is frequently bullied (Nicholas Hamilton, who also stars as Henry Bowers in It, plays the bully), draws pictures of the things in his visions, and seeks the help of Roland Deschain (The Gunslinger) when those visions become his reality.
Much of The Dark Tower, despite the horrific elements at the center of the story, plays as a fantasy film about a young boy on an adventure to, not only save the world, but learn his place in it. While watching, I had thoughts of The Wizard of Oz, The NeverEnding Story, and the novel Inkheart, and though I didn’t expect the film to draw comparisons to the tone of those fantasies, I was quite enchanted by it- specifically in the way it handled the relationship between Deschain and Chambers.
Idris Elba is frequently great in films, and while you’d expect his performance to be matched by McConaughey’s evil turn (He’s fine in the film), he’s instead met by 16-year-old Tom Taylor. Both of the characters begin The Dark Tower in similar ways: Roland has dedicated his life to the war against evil after losing his father and companions to the Man in Black, and Jake, who has also lost his father, is misunderstood by his loving mother and hateful stepfather.
When the two meet, Deschain is reluctant to trust Chambers, but even more afraid of the danger he’d be putting him in. The majority of the film, through all the fantasy elements, focuses on the built relationship between the two as they come to love and rely on each other during their journey. As the film progresses, Jake suffers great loss that relates the character to the Gunslinger even more-so, and the two form a bond that transcends the early stages of their characters to fully fleshed-out individuals who, after beginning the story alone, have made a family in each other.
The Dark Tower isn’t a perfect film, but it wears its heart on its sleeve in a way that is both admirable and effective. Those who allow themselves to place their love for the source material aside will be treated to a film that proudly stands on its own. And if you’re like me, it might just move you.
It’s unlikely that we’ll ever see the sequels or film universe that director Arcel hoped to establish, which is unfortunate, because in the year of Stephen King, The Dark Tower more than earned its place.
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