The Dark Tower rises
The tower has begun to peek above the horizon.
After many years, and many attempts, a film version of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower is finally getting underway with Idris Elba confirmed as the gunslinger and Matthew McConaughey as the mystical foe known as the man in black.
Both the author and the movie’s director and co-writer, Nikolaj Arcel, spoke exclusively with EW about the plan to begin adapting the six-shooter-and-sorcery tale — which spans eight novels, assorted comic books and short stories, and is frequently referenced throughout King’s body of work.
“The thing is, it’s been a looong trip from the books to the film,” King says, putting it right in context: “When you think about it, I started these stories as a senior in college, sitting in a little sh-tty cabin beside the river in Maine, and finally this thing is actually in pre-production now.” He laughs. “I’m delighted, and I’m a little bit surprised.”
Arcel, who is best known for the 2012 Danish film A Royal Affair and for co-writing the Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, says he will start shooting The Dark Tower in South Africa in seven weeks, and Sony Pictures plans to have it in theaters on Jan. 13, 2017.
Arcel will share screenwriting credit with Anders Thomas Jensen, Akiva Goldsman, and Jeff Pinkner. The producers will be Goldman and his Weed Road company; Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, and Erica Huggins of Imagine Entertainment; and Pinkner as executive producer.
“What Stephen King does best is mixing the everyday, or what you might call the mundane, with the fantastical,” says Arcel. “In my view, [The Dark Tower] novels are a mix between sci-fi and fantasy and modern times. That exact mix is so Stephen King.”
King says the movie will open with the first line from the first book. “It should start that way,” he says. “I’ve been pretty insistent about that.” He even tweeted it out today:
It’s easy to imagine that phrase being The Dark Tower’s version of “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away …,” serving to introduce almost any part of the saga. But this first film will not adapt the plot of the first book, The Gunslinger, published in 1982.
“[The movie] starts in media res, in the middle of the story instead of at the beginning, which may upset some of the fans a little bit, but they’ll get behind it, because it is the story,” King says.
Arcel declined to specify which books his movie focus on, but he did offer this clue: “A lot of it takes place in our day, in the modern world.”
THE PATH OF THE BEAM
For those who haven’t turned the pages of The Dark Tower books, they tell the story of the fallen land of Mid-World through the eyes of Roland Deschain, a sort of frontiersman knight whose primary weapon is not a sword but a pair of revolvers. He’s on a quest to save his decaying world by reaching the tower that stands at the nexus point in time and space.
The man in black – a devil who goes by many names, but mostly Walter Padick or Walter O’Dim – is an ageless deceiver and sorcerer who also seeks to reach the tower and rule over its seemingly infinite kingdoms.
To complete his journey, Roland must call on help from our world, drawing a junkie named Eddie, an amputee named Susannah, and a young boy named Jake into his realm to be part of his ka-tet – the term for a group brought together by destiny. Their yellow brick road is one of the six invisible beams that hold Roland’s world together – and lead directly to the tower itself.
Although Arcel and King aren’t ready to reveal which books the movie may cover, we can use their clues to do a little soothsaying: Since the fourth novel in the eight-book series, 1997’s Wizard and Glass, is almost entirely a flashback about Roland’s youth and lost love, it’s a good guess that the movies may start with 1993’s The Waste Lands, the third book in the series, which is where much of King’s broader tower mythology began to coalesce. Its story involves the ka-tet’s efforts to connect with Jake, who lives in a far-off “where” (New York City) and a different “when” (1977 in the novel – although that could easily be changed to now.) But that’s just speculation.
As for additional casting, Mad Max: Fury Road actress Abbey Lee is reportedly in talks for the role of Tirana, but it’s not clear yet who will play the other main characters. More announcements are expected in the weeks ahead.
For now, Arcel is starting by introducing his hero and villain. Although it may be a surprise to some, who are used to picturing Roland as the blue-eyed white man depicted in the book’s illustrations, he says it was “a no-brainer” to cast Elba as the gunslinger. King agrees.
“For me, it just clicked. He’s such a formidable man,” says Arcel, who says he’s been a fan of Elba’s since The Wire. “I had to go to Idris and tell him my vision for the entire journey with Roland and the ka-tet. We discussed, who is this character? What’s he about? What’s his quest? What’s his psychology? We tried to figure out if we saw the same guy. And we absolutely had all the same ideas and thoughts. He had a unique vision for who Roland would be.”
King is a fan of the choice, and says he’s looking forward to seeing Elba bring Roland to life. “I love it. I think he’s a terrific actor, one of the best working in the business now,” the author says. But he admits he had a different actor in mind when he started writing the books 46 years ago – almost three years before Elba was even born.
“I visualized [Clint] Eastwood as Roland,” King says. “I loved the Spaghetti Westerns and all those widescreen close-ups of his face, especially the ones where he’d been left out in the desert and was all covered with blisters and sunburn. I thought, ‘That’s my Roland.’”
Ol’ Clint was more of an inspiration point, however. “As the years went by, [the character] became a more particular individual in my own mind,” King says. “He wasn’t Eastwood anymore. He was just … Roland.”
The author, who raves about Elba’s recent work in the child-soldier drama Beasts of No Nation, says he hopes fans of the books have no problem accepting a man of color as Roland. “For me the character is still the character. It’s almost a Sergio Leone character, like ‘the man with no name,’” King says. “He can be white or black, it makes no difference to me. I think it opens all kind of exciting possibilities for the backstory.”
Arcel acknowledges that skin color actually was an important factor in the relationship between Roland and Susannah, the black amputee he drew into his world from her life in 1964. In the books, she is not thrilled to find herself yanked into another dimension by a grizzled white guy. “Some fans are asking, understandably, ‘What about the racial tension?’” Arcel says. “But as the story progresses that will be made clear, how we’ll deal with all those things.”
This is an especially tricky character, in more ways than one. In The Gunslinger, he was like the shark in Jaws — mostly unseen, although his menace permeated the story. He’s a big part of Roland’s past, and weaves into the story as the novels continue. The movie will draw him further out of the shadows.
Even King says he never had a clear image of the man in black’s face, maybe because it kept changing. “I never really thought of him,” the author says. “But [in the movie] he becomes a character who isn’t just a mirage that Roland is chasing. The way things are set up, he’s right there.”
That shapeshifting quality is what drew Arcel to the Dallas Buyers Club Oscar-winner. “Matthew is an incredible actor who can do anything. That’s how I feel about Walter Padick. He could do anything,” the director says.
Those who know King’s other work will recognize the man in black as the same villain from both The Stand and the fantasy The Eyes of the Dragon. “He is this timeless sorcerer, and being a Stephen King fan, I’ve read and experienced Walter in various iterations,” Arcel says. “He has a very interesting way of seeing the world. He sees it with a sort of delight, even though he is obviously on the wrong side of the light-and-dark spectrum. He’s someone I’ve been having a lot of fun with.”
Fans who may be rejoicing that the story is finally headed to the screen have had their hosannas stifled before, but this time the movie is definitely happening.
For decades, The Dark Tower has defied adaptation – first by being incomplete, as King’s novels were spread out over decades, and then simply by being such a vast, genre-bending story. In 2010 director Ron Howard began trying to assemble a multi-platform approach to filming it, with Javier Bardem in the lead role of Roland. Howard’s innovative plan was to have a trio of movies that would follow the gunslinger’s quest to reach the tower, which would be accompanied by a cable TV series that could serve as a kind of prequel, filling in backstory.
“There were a lot of people who had trouble with that concept at first,” King says. “It’s tough to get show-people to actually try something new, which is one of the reasons they’re so bent out of shape about Netflix, and Beasts of No Nation. But little by little, people started to get on board with the idea.”
Akiva Goldsman, who won the adapted screenplay Oscar for writing A Beautiful Mind, began work on the scripts, and he and Howard even visited King to help break down which parts of the story they should tell onscreen.
“Ron has been a huge supporter of this project from the very beginning. I think the reason was his wife was crazy about the books,” King says. “He came up to Maine, and we talked about it for a long time in the backyard. We were actually playing catch. We had baseball gloves, and were saying, ‘We could do this with it… We could do that with it …’”
That was the first time anybody suggested to King that maybe there could be a collection of movies and also a TV series telling the same story from different directions.
Universal Pictures was set to launch this ambitious project, the Warner Bros. explored the possibility, but cold feet and money got in the way, King says. The project came back to life thanks to Tom Rothman, chairman of Sony’s motion picture group, who saw the possibility for a new fantasy franchise.
Goldsman’s script became the foundation for the new film, and King says a successful movie could revive Howard’s broader plan. That’s one reason for saving the earlier part of the narrative, depicting Roland’s younger days. “They’re still holding on to this idea that they can do a TV series, and they’ve got it pegged for that,” King says.
If they end up moving forward in the timeline, there’s another challenge the filmmakers will one day have to face: A younger version of King himself turns up as a character in The Dark Tower saga.
Although this is not a part of the first film, Arcel says he would want the author to eventually play himself. But King says no way: “I’m too old.”
For now, The Dark Tower is one movie, with only the possibility of more.
“Other people have tried fantasy spectacle. Sometimes it works, sometimes it works really well when it’s based on a series of books, like The Hunger Games or Harry Potter, and sometimes it doesn’t,” King says. “What I have to go back to is this: We have Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, two great actors. You’ve got a great production team and Akiva Goldsman as the primary script writer. The team is in place, so we’ll hope for the best.”
That’s called putting your faith in the ka-tet.