Wednesday, May 3, 2017

We Who WILL Watch: The Dark Tower (2017)

Aaron: Well, the hits just keep coming in the world of Stephen King adaptations, this time in the form of a full trailer for the most hotly anticipated King film of 2017: The Dark Tower. I say it's the most hotly anticipated, but that comes from the chatter and excitement I see online. I myself am surely looking forward to it, but I don't have the same love for the novels as a lot of fans, so that tempers things just a bit. And while in terms of general awareness and the interest piqued among non-Stephen King readers, It is probably the most popular adaptation coming out this year, among many readers The Dark Tower is slightly in the lead.

A lot of that has to do with the sheer improbability of the sprawling fantasy epic being adapted at all. The first book was published 35 years ago, and the film version has been in some form of development for so long that I don't think anyone really thought it was being made until that teaser poster was released just over a month ago. Casting announcements had been made, promo images had been released, interviews had been given, Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey (Roland of Gilead and The Man In Black, respectively) had some tongue-in-cheek twitter exchanges in character for the film, and yet we'd been down this road before so I know I never put much stock in any of it...

Referencing the famous first line of
The Gunslinger in March 2016.
Any lingering doubts as to the film's inevitability were laid to rest yesterday with yet another twitter exchange between Elba and McConaughey (or, as is almost certainly the case, the film's marketing department taking over their accounts for a few minutes). The exchange culminated in a pair of teaser trailers for the film, each focused on their respective characters, along with the announcement that a full trailer for the film would be released the next day...

Well, here it is, the next day, and a full trailer has indeed been released...

I've watched it through a handful of times now, and the first thing that occurred to me when the trailer started was the immediate shift in perspective. The film's entire marketing so far has been focused on building up Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey as these two titans facing off against each other. The posters, the tweets, those two clips yesterday, each serving to make the film about these two characters (who actually don't interact all that much in the source material). The full trailer takes the opportunity to not only introduce Jake, the third major character (so far) in the movie, but it shows us everything from his point of view. That's maybe my least favorite part of this trailer, which is otherwise pretty exciting; the fact that the movie is being sold, however slightly, as another young adult style fantasy where an otherwise unremarkable youth finds a doorway to another world full of epic adventure where he or she has an important role to play. To be fair, that is an aspect of the story, but the novels are so singularly following Roland's quest that it never registers as quite so obvious on the page.

The second thing I really noticed is how much of our world is in the trailer. The Dark Tower series eventually encompasses the fictitious Mid-World, along with every book Stephen King has ever written, but it also crosses over into the "real" world several times. But that doesn't happen until the second book, and the first novel, The Gunslinger, takes place entirely in Roland's world. Jake is a pretty big character in The Gunslinger, but we never actually spend any time where he came from, aside from some backstory he gives Roland. There are a couple reasons for this, of course. The movies probably feel the need to streamline a story that, to be honest, can often feel like it's spinning its wheels.

A filmed adaptation is always someone else's interpretation of any given work, and so changes are bound to be made, but from what is on display here we're getting a mashup of several books at once, rather than a strict chronological adaptation.That is probably in the film's favor, actually, as the first book is not only the briefest, but it also has the slimmest and most disposable story, acting more as interesting prologue to establish the epic world of the series.

Rik, I know you've not finished the books, but what did you think of this trailer? Has it given you the desire to jump back into the novels?

Rik: The trailer doesn't particularly make me want to immerse myself in the books again based on anything I see here, but that does not mean that I wasn't already planning to do on my own already (even apart from my participation in this blog). The Dark Tower books are sort of a sore spot in my Stephen King record. I really found myself fascinated with the first two – The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three – and a lot of that could be chalked up to my relative youth at the time. I like the melding of different genres, and the spaghetti western mood that King evoked was something that I was far more "into" in those days than now. (I feel like it has been overplayed by this point in our culture.)

Midway through reading the third book, The Waste Lands, my focus was diverted by many things, chiefly the nauseating drama of my first marriage that was destroying my will to live. But another factor was that I was burning out mightily on the Stephen King train at the time. Around the same time that I was reading that third book, I was also hit by King's 1993 novel, Gerald's Game. I hated it, and so did some of my friends. I hated it so much that I pretty much stopped reading King for a few years (except for the occasional dip into something like The Green Mile, which I also did not like all that much). Gerald's Game made me put down The Waste Lands (I was a little delayed on reading it even then) and when my wife took her copy away following her divorce, I didn't have the book lying around for me to pick up once again. That spelled the end of my interest in The Dark Tower series for a good many years, at least until we started doing this blog, which I joined eagerly with the express purpose to reengage with King on an especially literary level (I still watched the movie and film adaptations the whole time) after such a long absence.

Getting to the subject at hand, earlier today, I was discussing The Dark Tower trailer on Facebook with my oldest high school pal, Tony. Both Tony and I were huge fans of King since our teenage years, and we have shared a thousand discussions about the man and his works during our friendship. Tony had some doubts about where The Dark Tower film adaptation was supposed to fall in the series timeline, or if it was even really connected to the series. He wrote, "Because I'm certainly in the camp of most Constant Readers, who thought 'This movie isn't the novels?'"

It is a sentiment that many share anytime a film is adapted from a beloved book or even a TV series that is reinvented for the big screen. It has always been a tricky thing to gain an audience's trust in a book adaptation. As much as films like Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz are adored the world over, there is still some stickler out there that things the films are travesties because they just didn't capture the world of the book. As an Oz fan of longstanding myself – who has read all of Baum's original stories and a great many produced by Ruth Plumly Thompson and John R. Neill afterwards – while I will say that the underrated Disney movie adaptation from the '80s, Return to Oz, truly captured the actual look and adventure of the books more precisely (seriously, O'Neill could have storyboarded the entire thing), the musical version of The Wizard of Oz is so gloriously wonderful that it takes someone with a heart three sizes too small to appreciate it. And yet, what if it came out in 1939 and everyone said, "Oh, it's just too different from the book! Dorothy is way too old and has boobs! Where's the Witch of the North? Why didn't the Tin Man chop himself into pieces? Where is the Queen of the Field Mice? Why is it all a dream? What the hell is going on with all the singing? Blah blah blah..."

That's how the internet would have sounded in 1939 had it existed. The world didn't have the immediacy of social media then to render a film, show, song, or piece of art to mush in mere minutes like we do now. Honestly, it's amazing anything makes money at all these days, because half the world wants to tear something down as the other half tries to prop it up at the same time. Everyone just has to get their comments in on everything within seconds of seeing them. This allows no time at all for reflection and working through the angles when they are confronted with something that perhaps doesn't fit their idea of what something should be. They don't allow for artists to interpret, to transform, or to give their impression of something.

Now, I try to hold back a bit on forming a full impression of a film before I go to see it. I do have an active dislike for trailers that seem to tell the entire story of a film in three minutes. One trailer that at least appears to do this that set me off recently was The Space Between Us. I would start to cringe in my seat every single time that trailer would show up before a movie over the last few months. I am not going to say the film itself is dog-meat (though it likely could be), because I have not actually seen the film. Since two of my strongly felt personal mottos for film-watching are "Any movie, any time" and "I will see any movie ONCE," it is important that I tread lightly in regards to my reaction to a film from simply seeing what are only highlights. My reaction to The Space Between Us relied on a stupidly conceived and completely rote attempt at a movie trailer... NOT THE FILM ITSELF.

As to The Dark Tower, reading the comments on the YouTube page and Facebook and Twitter is a largely frustrating affair for someone of my mindset because nearly the vast majority are made up of knee-jerk reactions, from fans or otherwise. Only a handful of people seem to be willing to accept that we are simply seeing a merely 3-minute trailer for the film, that has been edited and arranged to deliver a specific impact to an audience, and that in no way have you actually seen the finished work. "This movie sucks!" "I love this movie so much!" "Why did they have to change everything so much!" All opinions I have encountered this morning, and all of them make it sound like these people have actually seen the entire film. Which they haven't. This is why we can't have nice things, people...

On the plus side, there have been a handful of fanboy and fangirl comments (sorry, fanperson just doesn't sound right) that I have seen that did respond in a more measured, considerate tone, along the lines of my Constant Reader pal Tony. As I mentioned, he has some qualms about the whole affair, but will be sure to not miss the film when it comes out, and is more than ready to form his actual opinion after he sees the movie. He will go in knowing that his opinion will certainly be affected by his love for the books, and for the author, though he is open to seeing just how The Dark Tower movie will fit into the series overall. 

Luckily for me, I am in the camp of Once Constant Reader Who Became a Nearly Cold Turkey Non-Reader Mostly Because of Gerald's Game But Is Now Turning Back Into a Constant Reader (Eventually) Because He Co-Writes a Stephen King Blog. Except for a remnant of knowledge involving the plot of those 2½ books in the series I tackled, my head mostly has traces of the mood of King's writing. I have retained very little of the setting of the novels, or how the world appeared. Certainly, I plan to hit the series again before the movie comes out, though – since King himself has hinted that this is not a straight adaptation of any of the books (and the trailer bears that out) but rather a story that takes place after the entire book series. Others have described it as being both a sequel and an adaptation at the same time.

Me, I don't care. I am going to see the film whether I start reading the series again or not. If I have any real misgivings from the trailer, it is that it looks like such an amalgamation of every sci-fi/action film of the past 20-some years that I am afraid of just simply being bored by everything that happens in it. I cannot see the poster and trailer images of lurching, overwhelming, upside-down skyscrapers without naturally flashing first on Inception, and then jumping to last year's Dr. Strange, which also gave me serious Inception recall. (Though Inception itself made me flash on Total Recall at points, so everything works in a chain for me.) All of Roland's bullet stuff and mind stuff and action stuff whips up The Matrix in my head, and I can't let go of it. There is nothing wrong with being inspired by other successful films; Hollywood has always been based around doing precisely what others have found rakes in the money. Studios are first and foremost about doing business, not making art. In fact, they might only be about doing business and not art at all. I think my main fear in having The Dark Tower trailer bring to my mind other films so instantly is that it could make casual viewers believe that they have seen this all before (and that can be said of most films in some or even many ways). There is a possibility of boring the audience from seeing the film.

What are your thoughts, Aaron, on how this film might fit into the series? King has really only hinted at that suggestion of the movie version following the book series. Do you think a film should ever be considered part of a literary world, or should it be a separate piece and be held accountable on those terms only?

Aaron: Before I answer your questions, I want to reply directly to a couple of your thoughts up above. I believe we are in perfect sync with how we view movies and their marketing; that we may hold opinions only on what we have seen. I'm more than happy to say a movie looks like a piece of crap, but if I haven't actually seen it I will refrain from saying it actually is a piece of crap. My goal here with these shorter pieces isn't to pass judgment on a film I haven't seen yet, but to engage in the much more palatable pastime of talking with a friend about our excitement (or relative lack thereof, in some cases) about upcoming films. Conversely, I feel like I should leaven my natural fanboy enthusiasm with some actual critical reasoning behind why I feel the way I do about something that hasn't even come out yet. Like you, I find the initial knee-jerk reactions found on the YouTube page to be utterly infuriating, and it's a level of discourse I will not allow myself to sink to.

I was not bothered at all by the moments in the trailer that gave me flashbacks to The Matrix (or, more specifically, the Matrix-inspired Equilibrium came to mind), simply because that is part and parcel of the universe Stephen King created with The Dark Tower series. As unique as it is to describe, it's all been assembled from bits and pieces of other things that Stephen King loves. A little bit of Narnia, a little bit of Sergio Leone, a lot of Tolkien, and eventually some stuff from Star Wars, Marvel Comics, and Harry Potter, of all places. The world of The Dark Tower has always been a mix of intriguingly offbeat and shamelessly derivative. Keeping that ethos going for the film version makes sense to me.

You ask me how I feel about the placement of this film as a possible sequel to the novel, and how I feel about the merging of film and literary worlds, I'll have to play it safe and reiterate that I reserve judgment until the movie finally comes out. I will say that the idea –teased by Stephen King in the image below, which will make sense to those who have finished the series – that this movie takes place after the events of the novels is the single most exciting thing about this project to me. When I saw the image, when I digested what it implied, I suddenly became interested in a project I had more or less felt ambivalent about. It's such an audacious idea, such a simple and clever way to preemptively cut off arguments from fans about the changes to the source material while also retelling the same story for viewers new to the tale, that I must applaud whoever came up with it.

As I keep saying, I am generally a fan of making changes to a story as you adapt it to a new medium. Stephen King wrote the books; they are the story from his very specific point of view. The movie is adapted by several people, the writers and directors, with their own very specific points of view. That is obviously going to change the flavor of things, as everybody will find something unique out of their favorite stories, and I am fine with people following the thread of that and sharing what the work means to them. In this case, I am not only open to the idea, I am downright salivating for it. 

There have been announcements to the effect that a television series will be released which fills in the backstory of this world, some of the moments the film won't have time for, but at this point we don't know how many films are planned for this series. The trailer seems to be jumping ahead into the series quite a bit, but doesn't have an glimpses of Eddie Dean or Odetta Walker, two characters as integral to this story as anyone we have seen so far. Of course, the trailer can only show so much, but I highly doubt the entire story will be told in one film. So the question now, since you say you'll eventually dive back in to the series, is which books will we have to cover to discuss just this one movie?

Rik: Ooooh, first things first... my concern wasn't with whether you or I found some elements derivative of other works; I was questioning whether the inclusion of such elements might turn off a certain percentage of viewers because they so often appear in other films, especially of late. This is why I was discussing the nature of movie trailers in general. I was worried that the very sameness of the trailer after so many even fleetingly similar films might hurt the film's box office. 

I know that from my own angle, every time that I hear those annoying rumbling brass sounds that Hans Zimmer unleashed upon the world in Inception (which have now become the only sound anyone wants to use in a modern movie trailer), it immediately puts me on the defensive against the movie. The coming attractions before a film used to be a pleasure to dive into as you were settling into your seat; now it is rare that I don't have the stirrings of a migraine already before the film proper has begun. This is especially true if the film you are seeing that evening is an action or sci-fi or superhero flick, because you will get like-minded trailers that all have that sound. (Horror films and their trailers have their own modern set of endlessly repeated skronky, shrieking sounds that drive me nuts today.) And it is no surprise that the trailer for The Dark Tower also uses the Zimmer Sound Effect to great extent. (Seriously, trailer producers seem to have about three moves left anymore, and it is driving me nuts. At least the poster business seems to finally be getting away from the "two big heads" trend.)

Something you raise, and this just may be because I have not read into the series that far, or have forgotten a lot of details of ones I read, but you mention how the trailer seems to be jumping ahead into the series quite a bit. Since this film, by various accounts, might be a sequel, might be from a separate world altogether and have nothing to do with the series in actuality, and might be an adaptation of the entire series at the same time, isn't this statement at least partially rather presumptuous? We may be talking about a different world here. What if Eddie and Odetta don't exist in the timeline of this particular telling? (Their names do not appear on the official cast credits, that is certain, but it doesn't mean they wouldn't show up in the series.) Just something that struck me when you stated it earlier.

I seriously doubt that I will get to even one of two of the books in this series before the film version is released, so your question on that may be moot. We may be diving into the film on its own, especially if I already need to reread It before September and possibly The Mist again before the new Spike series. I still need to hit 11/22/63 and possibly Mr. Mercedes. For some out there, they would jump at the chance to read all of this, and would probably knock them out in a fortnight. That's not me. I seriously have trouble reading fiction at all anymore; I am pretty much hardcore non-fiction these days, mostly science, history, and cinema books. Even with my non-fiction jones, I just do not give myself any time in the day for reading anyway, not even at bedtime. My life right now is watch, watch, watch, write, write, write, watch, watch, watch, write, write write... and if even one thing enters into that rhythm, it throws me off for days sometimes. Yeah, I could call a moratorium on film for a week or two to delve into a King book or three, but that takes real commitment, along with breaking my cinema addiction. If I finally get a regular job, I will have even less time, though it is likely I would use my breaks to read through stuff. And the possible bus/train trips to get to and from work if I don't have a ride that day. 

"Waaaaahhhh!!!," you are thinking... #firstworldproblems is what you should post about this terrible dilemma of mine. Yeah, I know... my problems are self-created and self-controlled. I am just being whiny for whiny's sake. I just need to pick up a Stephen King book again and burn through it. And then the next book. And the next book, ad nauseam... You see? Just thinking about it makes me want to dive into a pile of DVDs and never come out again. Why am I co-writing a blog partially about books again?

Aaron: You love it and you know it. And you're doing this for the same reason I am: to reconnect with an important part of your childhood that you've drifted away from, with the goal of recapturing some of that youthful excitement while also revisiting everything with a new perspective and critical eye. If I may be so bold as to presume why you do anything, that is.

The original novel in this series, The Gunslinger, came out in 1982, while the final (at the time) book came out in 2012. That's a thirty year span, with the longest gap between books being six years. Stephen King admits that those gaps caused some minor continuity errors (place names changed between books, characters shifted, and the order of some past events got mixed up), and he used Robin Furth (author of The Dark Tower: A Concordance books) to help keep a lot of those details straight. Given the chance, he's said, he would like to go back and straighten all of those details out, and to smooth out the overall pace of the story. It's a shame he hasn't found the time yet, as reading those versions would be a much more enticing proposition. As it is, I'm excited for the movie, but less so for reading all seven novels in the original series over again, especially since I've read the first couple three times already, and the third book twice. 

I guess you could say I'm in the same boat as you are, suddenly questioning my decision to cover Stephen King's dual 'ographies (film- and biblio-). But of course, with that trepidation comes a certain anticipation at seeing how everything strikes me this time around, and of course in discussing all of this with you. That, I suppose you could say, is why I've committed to this blog.

[Note: The Dark Tower, directed by Nikolaj Arcel, will be released to theatres on July 28th.]


  1. I am working hard to change my mindset, so as to be able to watch and enjoy The Dark Tower for what it is, not what it's "supposed" to be.
    Although I am still a firm believer in "don't mess with my story!" Rik and I have had this discussion several times over the years. He views books and movies as two separate individuals that should be treated as such. While I've held the opinion that "Why bother to make a movie from the book if you're not going to use what's in the book?"
    Intellectually, I understand why this is so, of course. But I still maintain my belief that the person who reads a good book, then goes to see the movie from that book, goes with the expectation to see what they read transferred to the screen.
    Arguing against myself, sometimes that doesn't work. Firestarter was a pretty dreadful movie and it was extremely close to the novel (George C. Scott was a great actor, but he is no Indian)
    So I will do my best to divest myself of that attitude before I sit down in the theatre. But I *will* say that, if Eddie and Odetta are *not* anywhere in this movie or the upcoming series, I will be highly upset!
    **Spoiler warning for the novel ahead**
    When Eddie is shot, that was one of the worst scenes for me in a King novel that I'd ever read. I literally put the novel down and said "No!!" to myself the first time I read it.
    **Continue reading**

    To not have either of those *extremely* important characters in the story would be an unforgivable sin, I think.
    But now, there's nothing left to do but wait, and see what's in store for Roland and Jake and Marten.
    And Oy better be Bumbling around somewhere, too! :)

  2. I sure agree with you on Firestarter. Oy, what a stinkburger! Watched it again in the past two years or so, and it held the same position with me. Honestly, I can't wait to have our We Who Watch Behind the Rows discussion on Firestarter for the very reason you stated: because of how close it actually is to the novel, at least how I remember it. (I quite enjoyed the book, and if I recall correctly, Tony, it was one of your favorites back then?)

  3. It is still one of my favorites, definitely!
    I've formed an opinion of Stephen's works...he is a better *writer* now than when he was younger, but his *stories* were better then than they are now.
    That's a generalization, of course. Cujo is one of my least favorite novels of his, and I *loved* 11/22/63. But I've often found that statement to be true in my own substandard mind :)

    1. That's actually an interesting point about his writing improving while his stories have declined in quality. I haven't thought of it in those terms, but I can see a case for it. Several of his post-2000 novels rank among my favorites, but often his recent novels feel a bit like writing exercises to me. I can totally see him reading stuff about wireless technology and some articles on neuro-biology, and then throwing that info together and coming up with Cell (which is now over over a decade old and not that recent, but I think my point stands). He's always been a writer who loves creating a story based on some new information he's learned and found interesting, but I think that trait has won out over his more character-based tendencies in a lot of his recent output.