THE DARK TOWER
Stephen King and co talk about filming the unfilmable in an article that links directly to the It feature in a future issue.
Hollywood has been in the Stephen King business for just about as long as Stephen King has been in the Stephen King business. From the moment the great American horror novelist burst onto the scene in the mid-1970s, studios and big-name directors such as Kubrick, Carpenter, De Palma, Cronenberg and Romero have been queuing up to adapt his work. Even his vastly ambitious doorstop novels, such as
The Stand and It, have been made into miniseries for the small screen, as Hollywood voraciously optioned virtually every word King wrote. If he’d written this paragraph, studios would be circling it even now.
But one major King work has remained conspicuously unadapted.
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” Those words kick off 1982’s The Gunslinger, the first novel in a series that together form The Dark Tower. It’s a work of staggering breadth, depth and ambition, spanning hundreds of years and multiple worlds. It’s about obsession, and guilt, and the act of creation, and the unblinking, unsentimental eye of fate, or ka, often depicted as a wheel, constantly turning on a ceaseless journey.
The tl;dr version? It principally concerns the efforts of the aforementioned gunslinger, Roland Deschain, and his heroic band of followers, the ka-tet, to find and protect the Dark Tower, the nexus of all existence, from the forces of evil determined to destroy it. Whichever way you look at it, though, The Dark
Tower is King’s crowning glory. “It’s the one that took the most time and the most effort and the most creative energy,” says the author, speaking to Empire in a world-exclusive interview from his home in Bangor, Maine. “You don’t sit down one day and say, ‘Well, I think I’ll write a magnum opus.’ But I said to myself, ‘This could be really long and really exciting and I wanna take a crack at it.’ Look what happened.”
What happened is that King had written something so audaciously ambitious, so
bewilderingly batshit, so creatively complex that it seemed unfilmable. And King himself seemed to be happy with that. “It never seemed likely to me that someone would come along and want to make a film out of it,” he says. “There were things from time to time, when people would talk about the possibility, but I never took it seriously.”
However, in a post-lord Of The Rings world, it seemed that unfilmable was a thing of the past, like leaving your doors unlocked at night or voting Lib Dem. And with the novels complete as of 2004 (bar a prequel, The Wind
Through The Keyhole, published in 2012), The Dark Tower was fair game. “Every studio is looking for a tentpole project where it’s possible to not only do a movie, but to do a series of movies,” adds King. “And the creative people were able to say, ‘This is something entirely new that melds the Western with fantasy — let’s go out there and see if we can make this happen.’ And finally someone did.” The result is this month’s The Dark
Tower, which sees Matthew Mcconaughey flee across the desert, and Idris Elba follow. But before we got to this point, the wheel had a few turns left in it…
J.J. ABRAMS was the first to attempt to scale the tower, when his Lost alums Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse optioned the rights to the series from King in 2007. After grappling with a proposed trilogy (“It does need room to breathe,” agrees King) for three years, the option expired and Abrams moved on. Awakening the Force? A cinch. Adapting over 4,000 pages of King? Not so much.
Enter Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman, who came on board to direct, produce and write in 2010, along with big-budget backing from Universal and a plan so cunning it could win a battle of riddles with a homicidal train (a scenario that takes place in the third Dark Tower book, The Waste Lands). Their version would comprise three films with two television series sandwiched in-between, and Javier Bardem was on board as Roland. “I liked that idea,” says King. “Everybody did. Turned out he had a bad back, at that time anyway. That made it a little iffy with him.”
With Bardem backing out, Universal soon joined him in 2011 and The Dark Tower fell back into limbo. It was never entirely dead, though. “I started to think maybe two years ago that it really would happen,” King says. “Modi [Wiczyk, CO-CEO of MRC] came along and got really interested in it. They started to spend serious money.”
With Sony Pictures also on board, this new version of the story gained momentum quickly. However, with Howard deciding only to remain on board as a producer, it needed a director, and fast. “I’ve been one of Stephen King’s Constant Readers since I was a teenager in Denmark,” says Nikolaj Arcel, whose biggest gig prior to this was writing the screenplay for the Swedish version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. “I know how vast the story is. It’s in my blood.”
AT FIRST glance, The Dark Tower a straight-up adaptation of The Gunslinger, in which Roland’s thirst for vengeance against man in black Walter Padick (for standard man-inblack stuff: murder, theft, that sort of thing) is complicated by the appearance of Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a young telepath who has come to Mid-world from our own modernday New York. At one point, The Gunslinger was the movie’s official subtitle. And it even starts with the line, “The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.”
But when Arcel, along with writing partner Anders Thomas Jensen, set to work on the existing Akiva Goldsman draft, he had to face an unexpected obstacle. Namely, that The Gunslinger is actually a bit of a slog. It’s a dense, and somewhat trippy, novel, heavily inspired by Robert Browning’s epic poem Childe Roland To The Dark Tower Came. It’s still got moments of dark King magic, but otherwise it’s the literary equivalent of the first season of Parks And Recreation, the one you have to wade through
Roland Deschain —the gunslinger (Idris Elba) — slings one of his mighty guns. Below left: Roland and Walter Padick — the man in black (Matthew Mcconaughey) — face off. Bottom left: Roland’s apprentice Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor).