Sunday, 20 August 2017

Movie Review - The Dark Tower


I have been a huge Dark Tower fan for years and it remains my favourite book series after The Lord of the Rings. So, I looked forward to this movie with great anticipation - and once I realised it was not actually a remake of the books, but a sequel I was even more excited about it. After all, with no need to stick exactly to the source material, what could possibly go wrong?

Turns out, quite a lot. Minor spoilers ahead.

The movie has been a long time in the making and rumours of its coming have been floating around for years, and while I was keen to see the series on the big screen, there was also a sense of trepdiation. How could so huge and rich a world be translated into a movie? Turns out, it can't. I mean, of course, there were going to be changes for the movie. Some of them are forgiveable, like the Beam Breakers attacking the Tower directly rather than the Beams. Even the fact that Jake only has one trip to Midworld rather than two can be forgiven in the context of a movie. Other things, I am less forgiving about.

The movie claims to be a sequel to the books. Because of that, I was willing to overlook changes to the plot. After all, this is a new turn at the wheel and no two journeys are ever the same. However, I was surprised that the plot of the movie had nothing to do with the plot of the first book, The Gunslinger. Admittedly, that book, great though it is, largely works as a setup for things to come and would make for a pretty boring movie for anyone who is not already a fan. The movie, instead, follows Jake, who dreams of the Tower and the Man in Black, and has to live with the fact that everyone around him thinks him crazy.
This is part of the set up of the third book in the Dark Tower series, The Waste Lands. However, book Jake lives in a world before mobile phones and follows a series of clues that lead him closer to the Tower and Roland. That journey deepens the reader's understanding of the Tower and how it connects the various worlds and times in King's vast story-verse. All movie Jake had to do was post a drawing of a house he saw in a dream in a forum and wait for an address.
The scenes at the house lose all their creep and drama, because we have no history provided by other characters in the book. There, Jake gets attacked by a demon and everything is really tense. In the movie the demon appears and is dealt with within a couple of seconds with no explanation about why it's there, what it is, or how it could be defeated until later in the movie and even then it's more glossed over than properly explained, leaving anyone who does not already know the story confused.
Once in Midworld Jake's role seems to be reduced to "someone Rolanad needs to rescue a lot", which, I guess, is true to the book on some level, but I would have liked him to show some more initiative and coming up with his own plans to defeat the enemies they faced. Having said that, he gets his shining moment (no pun intended) in the final act, so I can almost forgive that.

The world building as a whole, so rich in King's books, has been greatly lacking in this movie. We get one brief flashback into Roland's past and a comment about the war, but again this is brief and very much a "blink and you miss it" moment. It's also a flashback that, as a book fan, makes little sense, but I guess if Roland had been cast as a boy and the scene changed, it would have made the movie even more confusing for those not already familiar with the story.
The fact that nothing gets fleshed out, makes Roland appear like a very bland character. Don't get me wrong, Idris Elba does a great job with what he's given (evne if his eyes aren't steel blue killer eyes), but all we learn about Roland is that he is somewhat important (since he is the guy on the poster the average movie goer will have guessed that already) and that he's great with guns (if the term gunslinger wasn't enough of a hint already). In short, had I not read the books, I would find it difficult to care for Roland and his pursuit of the Man in Black.

Which brings me to the final character: the Man in Black. His role has been expanded quite a bit to give Roland and obvious antagonist. While in the book he likes to operate in the background and is more a manipulator than an actual player on the board, the movie follows him and makes it quite clear how he is intending to destroy the Tower. In a way, he was the most successfully portrayed. Evil, and not afraid to use his skills to leave corpses wherever he goes - which is refreshing as you don't often see villains of this kind actually going all out. But to me, that diminishes his character. In the book, he is this mysterious figure who we know pulls all the strings, but it's the very fact that he is in the background, manipulating everything and everyone else, that makes him so effective as a villain.

But the film did not go all wrong. Roland in our world got a few giggles out of me as he is hopelessly out of place. And his hands, while not quite so fast as to be almost invisible, definitely have some awesome speed, making the reload of the guns some of the best scenes in the movie. His relationship with Jake also remained very book true: distant, but with a deep affection for the boy and Jake clearly trusts and admires him. In fact, while the plot has changed greatly and, in my opinion, reveals too much too soon, some of the heart of the story is still in there. The gunslinger's creed, in particular, is used very effectively, and the abandoned theme park was a nice hint at the desolation of Midworld and things to come (did I spot a slightly out-of-location Charly the Choo-Choo?). Plus, the very fact that the opening line of The Gunslinger is quoted verbatim made my reader's heart beat higher. To me it is one of the most iconic opening lines of a novel and to have it quoted in the movie gave it some much needed brownie points.

All in all I'll give it a grudging 2 out of 5 stars. I had hoped for much better, and I still believe a TV series à la Game of Thrones would be more likely to do it justice. It wasn't all bad. In a way, it is exactly what you would expect if someone tried to squeeze a storyline that encompasses elements from 7 books (8 if you include The Wind Through the Keyhole) into just over 90 minutes. Definitely not a must-see, though it does work as an incentive to re-read the books, which I think shall be my next big reading project.

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