Why Is Stephen King’s ‘The Dark Tower’ So Hard to Adapt?

In honor of the prolific author's new book, I returned to the shitty remakes of his self-described "magnum opus" in an attempt to figure out what went wrong.

Why Is Stephen King’s ‘The Dark Tower’ So Hard to Adapt?

This is the second installment of Fantasy Aisle, a monthly column from Jackie Jennings about everything related to horny dragon books

Horror fans might deny it, but their patron saint, Stephen King, is a fantasy writer. Non-genre fans will scoff at all of this—haunted houses versus dragons? It’s all imaginary, you say. But we take our classifications seriously in the geek world, and labeling anything as “fantasy” can have serious repercussions, thanks to its association with, well, geeks.  

However, now that King’s new short story collection—largely composed of horror stories, including a sequel to Cujo—is out, I’ve been revisiting his celebrated epic, The Dark Tower, a shining example of King’s indisputable fantasy-writing talents. Like nearly every popular fantasy series, there have been several bungled attempts to adapt it for the screen. Now, with another reportedly in the works (hopefully one that remains un-bungled), I turned to the earlier versions only to discover that one of my favorite things about it—its inarguable fantasy bent—is what ruined these previous attempts. 

The scale of The Dark Tower is fantastical in itself. The first book (The Gunslinger) was published in 1982; the eighth and final book, The Wind Through The Keyhole, in 2012. The completed series is over 4000 pages.

At its most basic, the series follows the story of gunslinger Roland Deschain and his quest to save existence. It hops through worlds and genres. There are elements of horror (obviously) and the trappings of a spaghetti Western (less obvious). 

As it progresses, the books pull in threads of King’s other works, weaving in characters, places, and themes from across his oeuvre. King himself even pops into the narrative. I won’t mince words: It’s insane. But the insanity is what makes it such a delight. It’s a series so strange and bold that, in the hands of any other writer, would feel utterly self-aggrandizing; King himself calls it his “magnum opus.”

Hollywood has been trying to adapt this unwieldy masterwork for at least a decade. The first and most notorious attempt was a 2017 film starring Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey It is, so far, the only adaptation that has actually seen the light of day and I ventured into the depths of terrible movies (we’re talking 15% on Rotten Tomatoes) for you, dear reader. I’ll spare you a full review, though you can find several pretty scathing ones written at the time of release, but suffice it to say: Bad. 

Idris is a perfect Roland, Matthew is…there. But I’m loath to blame individuals for a disaster. Sure, the captain did technically crash the Titanic but that shitty Irish steel didn’t help. And there’s a whole lot of bad steel in this film. But that’s not the biggest problem.

The problem is the obsession with and elevation of genre over all other elements of story. The first line of The Gunslinger declares, “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” Not only is that wildly evocative, it tells you everything you actually need to know about the series. We get action; we get character; we get motivation. The opening title card from the movie? A boring description of the literal dark tower. 

This difference immediately signals that, in this movie, mythology trumps every other element of storytelling. It’s the mistake that the Song of Ice and Fire adaptation (aka Game of Thrones) repeatedly made in its final season. Every scene is a set piece; every battle is bloodier than the last; no one seems to care about anything for more than the span of a scene. Both fundamentally misunderstand what genre fans want, which is really just the same thing any fan wants: a really good story about really compelling characters. (Plus elves. Or dragons. Or both.)

All of the best King adaptations understand that we want stunning reversals and reveals. And look, they serve up genre, sure. But Carrie isn’t about telekinesis; it’s about coming of age. The Shining isn’t about a haunted hotel; it’s about writing. Misery isn’t about writing; it’s about cocaine

I’m aware King himself doesn’t love all of these adaptations, but audiences do, because these films get what genre actually is: a setting, a tool, sometimes even just a vibe. That’s a truth that the unseen pilot of The Dark Tower seems to have understood.

Yes! There was a second attempt to adapt The Dark Tower, a TV series that was originally meant to be a companion to the film. It was set to be helmed by Glen Mazzara, writer and eventual showrunner of The Walking Dead (by all accounts a popular adaptation, though I wouldn’t know; I don’t love a zombie). However, Mazzara’s pilot was never released in any form so all we have to base our wistful “what could have been” sighs on are his musings. (On “The Kingcast” in May 2020, Mazzara detailed his plans for the scrapped series. It’s honestly a pretty depressing listen because his ideas are really, really good.)

Now, there is a third Dark Tower adaptation in the works, this time run by proven King adapter Michael Flanagan, who successfully adapted Gerald’s Game, a King novel previously deemed unfilmable because its protagonist who spends most of the narrative chained to a bed. In content and scope, Gerald’s Game couldn’t be more different from The Dark Tower, but in terms of the ingenuity required to adapt it, let’s call the projects at least second cousins. 

Flanagan also adapted Doctor Sleep, another King work; helmed The Fall of the House of Usher and The Haunting of Hill House for Netflix; and is currently in talks to direct the next Exorcist movie. At the very least, he understands how to translate a Stephen King novel to the screen. And he also understands the unique pain of watching a beloved book flounder in an adaptation. In another episode of The Kingcast, when The Dark Tower comes up, Flanagan reassures fans: “I know the ‘we’ve been hurt before’ feeling intimately well.” In other words, he says, “I’m really gonna try not to screw the pooch on this one.”

So… here I am, praying that maybe the third time really is the charm. Maybe fans have finally found their gunslinger. I’d call that a real fantasy—but hope can be a very dangerous thing.

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