In The Dark Tower, a boy, Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is experience strange dreams and visions of a Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) forcing children into a machine to use their (energy/souls?) to assault a giant tower above swirling clouds. Chambers, naturally has trouble sleeping, gets into fights, and is told by his psychotherapist that these dreams have nothing to do with the spate of unexplained earthquakes rocking major international cities, and everything to do with his firefighter father’s passing. Jake skips town, and his home dimension, when he has a vision of Roland (Idris Elba) a gunfighter chasing after the Man in Black hellbent on revenge for the death of his father. The two meet and a short series of gunfights and mentorship experiences follow.
I guess it’s no surprise that The Dark Tower, an adaptation of Steven King’s eight volume fantasy epic boiled down to a single movie, should leave fans cold. I saw it, recently, and enjoyed it, but I never have felt especially connected to King’s mythos.
It could be because King writes like a modern day Dickens, not in the sense of social commentary, but in the sense of writing as if he were being paid by the word. This isn’t intended as snark or a critical statement on King’s writing, but simply that I turned to reading mostly YA novels for my fantasy and science fiction needs because I enjoyed more than anything their economy of language; that they had to express complex concepts in as few words as possible, which often opened up those concepts to more ambiguous interpretations. King’s comprehensive use of language tends towards specific and vivid imagery, but also sets itself fairly conceptually in stone.
The Dark Tower saga is certainly King’s most ambiguous work, with a mythos that is never completely explained, and certain character histories that are only ever really hinted at. The world/realms/universe itself is hazy as the walls come down between King’s various literary creations, and concepts and ideas permeate through. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed it when I read it shortly after he completed it, even though I didn’t read much of his classic horror work.
The Dark Tower the film is notably far from ambiguous. It streamlines the story into a series of action-set-pieces, while attempting to retain the heart of series (with fan favorites lines like, “I kill with my heart”, the obsession with “the face of our fathers”, “thanky-sai” and all that) and it suddenly occurred to me that one component of the series that goes un-championed by many of its fans is it’s extolling the value of both chosen families and vulnerable masculinity; Roland tells Jake in the film at one point to quiet his mind and allow the pain of grief to fill him (which perfectly fits the character of the books). Can you imagine the John Wayne-like film figures that inspired Roland’s creation telling a boy to stop thinking and just feel his emotions?
So I dug the movie, though it’s hardly the epic that fans would like; you’d need a quartet of Lord of the Rings sized three-hour films to really tell King’s tale, at the very least; and many a voice online is upset that it hasn’t been optioned as a Game of Thrones-style television mega event. My favorite element of The Dark Tower (the film’s) construction is how it manages to canonically insulate itself from super-fan grousing about inaccuracy, though.
If there’s one thing that has become clear since the inception of the internet as pop-culture haven, it’s that the most pure form of gatekeeping relies on adherence to canonical plot conventions: how an action in an adaptation must adhere perfectly to the source material. The Dark Tower cleverly uses an “out” to get around this (book/movie spoilers follow):
Throughout the Dark Tower books, the final, lost, Battle of Jericho between the Gunslingers and the forces of darkness is heavily alluded to. One element that Roland comes back to is that he failed to retrieve the “Horn of Eld” (King Arthur’s personal horn, Roland’s guns are also forged from the steel of Excalibur) after the battle. At the series end, after saving the tower, Roland passes through a door and finds himself back at the beginning of the tale, reliving the same cycle of forever saving the realms. In the epilogue it’s revealed, though, that in this iteration Roland picked up the horn, implying that his destiny can change, if only slowly, over time.
In any number of scenes in the film, Elba’s Roland is seen with a knapsack and peaking out from the back is a horn. This single detail allows for any and all changes to the series’ events; this is a new cycle. It’s within continuity, but is completely uncharted territory. It completely insulates the film from a criticism of total minutia.
Frankly, I love this sort of thing. JJ Abrams did much the same when he rebooted Star Trek by creating an alternative timeline that rebuilds James T Kirk’s history. Hideaki Anno is doing the same with his current incarnation of Neon Genesis Evangelion, Rebuild of Evangelion, where there is a subtle suggestion that the events of the series are a new cycle in a “groundhog day” of never-ending Evangelion variations (Evangelion creator company GAINAX has played heavily with this idea in video games and comics, with tons of alt versions of the story with the same characters thrust into different scenarios).
In earlier eras of science fiction media, there was less of a focus on the literal train of events, and making sure they made sense. This was especially true of television and film media, because until the advent of the VCR, it was difficult to collect films or television series, you watched them when they premiered or potentially caught their syndication appearances. Continuity between entries and their backgrounds could be much more fluid, and required way less management. This was no less true of comic books, which were largely considered to be a speculators market, and the production was geared less towards fans of the stories, as to collectors who believed the comics would eventually appreciate in value (until the speculation bubble burst in late 90’s). All that has changed as media is now more easily collected and stored, for greater scrutiny.
Creators are catching up, and long-running titles are finding ways to make stories with classic characters their own, without having to totally rewrite what came before (“retcon” has long been a dirty word, particularly for how it erases the history of the characters and potentially changes their personalities) but create new stories while acknowledging the history. Dark Horse comics did fantastic work in this realm with their film franchises in the 1990’s, building off of film brands and doing wild and original crossovers between them, since the comic book rights weren’t owned by competing studios.
Here’s a few titles that play with recurring continuity in a fun way (check your library):
Groundhog Day: So famous it became a trope: Harold Ramis’ classic Bill Murray comedy is about a grouchy, misanthropic weatherman who is trapped living the same day over and over until he gets it right.
Day Break: This short-lived TV show features a premise similar to Groundhog Day. Taye Diggs plays a framed Homicide Detective who starts reliving the same day over once it hits midnight. Unlike Murray’s character, Diggs’ wounds carry over with him. However, some changes, like helping people with their lives, carries over from one iteration to the next, as they have been changed by his actions, even though they can’t remember it happening.
The Star Diaries: In one of Stanislaw Lem’s stories in this collection, his hero Ijon Tichy ends up coming back over and over into the same time and space, eventually filling his spaceship with multiple versions of himself, played for laughs.
La Jetee: La Jetee may be the single greatest science fiction film ever made. Inspired by the spiraling narrative of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, French Filmmaker Chris Marker’s short photographic film is about a man in a terrible future recruited for a time travel experiment to try to reach out to beings from the far future to get the resources necessary for humanity to survive, who keeps returning inadvertently to one single day when he was a child on a jetee at an airport. It was remade as a feature film by Terry Gilliam as 12 Monkeys, and has influenced almost any time travel films that have come after (The Terminator especially follows a similar concept of time travel).
Triangle: British B movie director Christopher Smith has made a number of fun conceptual low budget horror films (Severance, The Black Death) but Triangle is probably the one that’s the most mindbending. A woman finds herself on a cruise ship after the yacht she and some friends are on strays into the Bermuda Triangle, but it soon becomes clear that some of the events are happening over and over again, and her own actions may have landed her in this strange purgatory.