As is the case with every rabid fanbase to which I do not belong, the cult of Stephen King is scary. And not, like, “Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining” scary; I’m talking “the TV adaptation of The Shining with the guy from Wings” scary. As is the case with the vast majority of books written in the English language, I have not read King’s Dark Tower series. And yet, I know for a fact — much to the outrage of King’s nigh-omnipresent acolytes — that adhering more doggedly to the novels was not how to fix this Dark Tower movie. Although reviews and thinkpieces have chucked discarded plot points from the books at me with the frequency of a belligerent, drunken octopus armed with infinite tomatoes, the adaptation only needed a few basic fixes to go from “meh” to “mmm.”
First off, electoral college results aside, we’re not all total idiots. The Dark Tower opted for the bare minimum in narrative development. The latest in a long line of brooding, misunderstood-but-deep-down-super-talented-and-awesome generic white boys, Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), has dreams about a bad guy in black (Matthew McConaughey) who is trying to bring about the apocalypse by using children to blow up a tower. A good guy with guns (Idris Elba) aims to stop him. The problem is not that the film wasn’t infused with the minutiae that King word-humped into eleventy-billion pages of books, but that it worried “good guy fights bad guy” was too complicated.
Second, if your film is going to be a dumbed-down spectacle, your moments of spectacle can’t be tepid weaksauce that looks like cut scenes in a video game. The coolest visual thing that the gunslinger does is reload. Putting bullets into the gun should not be the most captivating part. Also, snot in nasal spray TV commercials have had more compelling CGI than the demonic hordes in The Dark Tower.
Third, casting Elba gets an A-plus, but making Angsty McTeenager a white messiah central figure gets an F-minus. Elba does a great “fatigued cowboy seeking revenge before riding off into the sunset,” but he gets less screen time than Jake “I gots telepathy and make purdy drawings” Chambers. Also, nearly every single woman with a speaking role dies or gets physically violated. That’s not great…
Finally, if you’re going to bring in McConaughey to chew scenery, don’t force him to subsequently redub his weirdo performance with “hooked on phonics” enunciation afterwards. His vocal re-recording and physical acting are more distant than the parents of grown children. It was the only thing more distracting than his box-dyed hair and impossibly tiny vest.
Basically, The Dark Tower didn’t inherently need more King stuff; it needed less “magnificent white boy;” better female characters; more trust in Elba, McConaughey and its audience; and a bigger budget. It was a “made for SyFy Channel” movie with Lord of the Rings aspirations that ultimately satisfied neither die-hard fans nor laypeople who don’t know a langolier from a Pet Semetary.
This review previously appeared in The Reader of Omaha, Nebraska.