Before we go any further, if you haven’t read any reviews for The Dark Tower, ours called it a “middling 85-minute bore.” Regardless of if you’ve seen or liked it, it is undeniable that the film is a flop. It was the lowest August opening weekend since 1992, and is critically panned (sitting at an 18% on Rotten Tomatoes as of writing).
Yet it’s also true that it was a massive undertaking, a highly anticipated adaptation, and one of the rare survivors of developmental hell. This suggests that it could’ve been a rousing success, let alone salvaged. Nonetheless, it was obviously a tough nut to crack.
That being said, here’s how we would’ve fixed The Dark Tower adaptation. Also, there are significant spoilers ahead for both the film and book series.
Don’t make it a film adaptation
There really aren’t that many sprawling epic works with complex narratives that make it to film. Lord of the Rings is about the only example, and that only succeeded because Peter Jackson was given nearly a decade to create the films.
The Bible, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead: there’s a good reason why these types of stories don’t make it to the big screen. It’s because they’re really, really difficult to tell in two hours.
That’s not to besmirch the creativity or skill of screenwriters. The fact is, these stories contain dozens (if not hundreds) of characters, long character arcs, and complex story devices. These are things that are not often (but not never) told well in the medium of film, largely because of time restrictions.
The Dark Tower is in the same vein of difficult, but turned up to 11. Stephen King, who authored the series, originally set out to make his own Lord of the Rings. Except instead of three books, it’s eight. And instead of easily understood lines of good and evil, Dark Tower has incredibly complex morals and themes, particularly for its protagonists.
This is all to say that a film adaptation of The Dark Tower was always going to be a mistake. It covers far too much ground and time, more similar to Game of Thrones than Lord of the Rings in that regard.
Two hour chunks of one of the greatest modern epics was never going to succeed.
Take it to premium cable/streaming
This should’ve gone to HBO, or a competitor premium cable or streaming service. And that really comes down to money and restrictions.
First, whoever carried the show needs the money to make it work. Game of Thrones kind of money. Luckily, there’s not huge battle scenes, so the money spent on the Battle of the Bastards can go towards the multitude of locations, set designs, and special effects.
Second, the carrier needs to have little restriction on its content. King’s books have never shied away from maturity, and for good reason. The first book alone includes a copious amount of death, some mild sex scenes, and one pretty graphic abortion.
Given these benchmarks, it would have to be HBO, Starz, or Showtime. While AMC, Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu lack restrictions, their originals tend to have lower budgets that would make an epic adaptation harder.
Start with the first book
The movie’s biggest mistake was biting off more than it could chew. It attempted to adapt the entire broad stroke of the series into one 95 minute story. It’s just not possible.
Instead, start with the first book, The Gunslinger. It’s much smaller, and is fairly separated from the rest in its tone. It has fewer locations, special effects needs, and characters. The result is a pretty low-risk first season.
Adapt the themes, not the text
One thing the movie did do right: it didn’t directly adapt the books, scene for scene. And that’s smart. Not only does it allow them more creative freedom, it also follows up on the series perfect ending.
If you haven’t read the book series, stop now and go read them. Come back when you’re finished. Seriously. I’m warning you.
So the series ends with Roland finding the Tower, and climbing to the top. There, he walks through a door with his name on it, only to find himself back at the beginning of the series.
Essentially, Roland is living in a loop. The Tower won’t let him go until he completes his journey the right way, or dies trying. It is heavily implied that the lesson Roland still has yet to learn is the recognition of his humanity, identity, and compassion.
Where the movie went wrong, and fatally so, was the complete ignorance of the themes of the story.
The Dark Tower exists to buck the concept of the Hero’s Journey, and the duality of good and evil from LOTR. Here, the hero finds no redemption, conclusion, reward, etc. He is sent back, he must do the journey again. Not because he isn’t skilled, or didn’t learn things, like in most narratives. It’s because he didn’t learn the right things. He can be better.
The strongest underlying thematic is the treatment of good and evil. The film treats evil like most typical, often shallow stories. Matthew McConaheuy’s Man in Black is evil, entirely. He also has an evil mission of blowing up the Tower with a laser beam. Clear cut stuff.
Yet the book series questions this portrayal of what good and evil even are. Throughout the entire story, the Crimson King is built up as a great evil, the destroyer of peace and goodness, the Sauron/Emperor of the story.
When he is finally introduced in person, the Crimson King is essentially worthless. He’s a bumbling insane man, high on his power that has been long-ago ignored.
The “evil” of the story was perpetrated not by this all powerful force, but instead by simple, everyday things. Greedy corporations, human trafficking, corruption, racism, sexism, abuse, neglect. That is what evil is.
In the same vein, good isn’t Frodo with the ring, or Luke in X-Wing, or more recently, Wonder Woman as the god-killer. It’s being a father figure to a child who needs it. It’s placing a cross on the steps of the Tower because someone asked you to. It’s a rose in an abandoned lot.
It doesn’t matter what any adaptation of The Dark Tower did with the plot. With a deft, experienced hand, and a respect for the source material, it would be passable at worst. But respecting and utilizing these themes, completely unique among most of its peers, would elevate it to greatness.