After centuries and two reality shifts, The Dark Tower finally arrived in theaters as a film spectacularly uninterested in itself. Devoid of nearly everything fans loved about the series upon which it was based, it came to life as a echo of better fantasy films from the 1980s.
But then, Hollywood is terrified of fantasy films and clamped that down as quickly as it could.
People are still looking for reasons why it didn’t work; including Dark Tower author Stephen King, who told Vulture part of the problem was the project’s contractually obligated PG-13 rating. As he put it, “the decision to do a PG-13 feature adaptation of books that are extremely violent and deal with violent behavior in a fairly graphic way” was “something that had to be overcome.” While he credits screenwriter Akiva Goldsman with adapting elements of the book series into a cinema-ready concept, it seems he — like many upon the film’s release — thinks the problem lay in the lack of graphic content.
Which is nonsense, of course. The film could’ve been filled with gore and still been as dead-on-arrival as the Nikolaj Arcel directed Dark Tower ended up being. The problem is really a conceptual issue that I may not have full outlined in my initial review, but keeping coming back to as other King adaptations of late prove to be successful: no one wanted to make The Dark Tower.
As King notes in the Vulture interview, the series as a whole is 3,000 pages long. The first novel takes place mostly on Mid-World and, to be honest, is uninviting in its first few chapters. It lacks for “grounded” and relatable hooks movie studios depend on for their marketing. It’s no accident that the film version was titled after the series proper and not a single book in the saga. It’s also no accident the film primarily discards much of the first novel’s plot in favor of a New York-set story. The image of New York is one that marketers understand and can sell to people instantly.
And this issue of marketing is key in relation to any big budget fantasy. While Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy are fantasies draped in sci-fi clothing, most studios cower in fear when told potential projects feature wizards and magic. This is why you see the “highly advanced science” explanation so often. The belief, at least in terms of marketing, is that magic is corny and audiences don’t like corny things.
Curiously, the success of the Harry Potter series did nothing to dispel the notion that audiences hate fantasy because those films take place in recognizable locations. Conversely, The Lord of the Rings was successful because it downplayed its use of magic; avoiding the word entirely.
So it’s easy to see why a series of magicians, reality hopping and mythic gunslingers might give a studio pause. They understand It and The Shining, not The Silmarillion. Although, I imagine Warner Bros. will try to mine that book for material one day as they made J.R.R. Tolkien a brand name. But in the case of The Dark Tower, the project was left with people who seemingly had no passion for the material. Once they realized it was fantasy, they stopped caring. The film was made because some contract somewhere had to be honored. It just so happens that no high profile movie felt like such a product of contractual obligation in a long while.
King, for his part, is invested in the success of The Dark Tower as a media brand and cannot openly criticize his media partners in that endeavor. Instead, he must look toward the hope of a TV series more directly based on The Gunslinger. Maybe that hope will be warranted. Television is a place where fantasy is far more welcome.