Back in the long-ago age of 1978, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction published a novella called The Gunslinger by Stephen King, who at the time had just rocketed from obscurity to the best-seller list with his books Carrie, 'Salem's Lot, The Shining and The Stand. Already regarded as a master of horror fiction, the author proved just as adept at epic fantasy, telling a story about an archetypal western hero named Roland, on a quest through a mystical desert on a ravaged parallel Earth, in pursuit of a wily "Man in Black" and a mythical "Dark Tower."
Two years later, F&SF ran a sequel novella, The Way Station. By fall of 1981, the magazine had printed five chapters of Roland's adventures, which were collected into a skinny small-press book that even most of the author's fans didn't know existed … at least, not at first. In the decades that followed, King would write six more installments and a handful of short stories about Roland's increasingly difficult and convoluted trek, which grew to involve time travel, portals to our own Earth and metafictional winks at the reader. "The Dark Tower" series has been called the writer's "magnum opus," weaving together themes and concepts from his life's work into a larger statement about the enduring power of a good story.
Thanks in part to the boffo box office for multi-part big-screen fantasy adaptations like The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series, Hollywood's been sniffing around King's "Dark Tower" for a while, but it's struggled to figure out how to turn this strange, deeply personal cycle into a franchise. Now, after multiple false starts, a film is finally about to hit theaters, starring Idris Elba as Roland, Matthew McConaughey as his black-clad nemesis and Tom Taylor as the 11-year-old boy from our world who gets up caught in the middle of an ancient extra-dimensional standoff.
Here's what you need to know about the movie version of The Dark Tower, out next Friday, August 4th.
The original books connect up "the Stephen King universe."
If you pick up any two random Stephen King books, odds are you'll see some of the same names popping up again and again – from quaint Maine small towns like Castle Rock and Jerusalem's Lot to the fictional U.S. government research organization dubbed "the Shop." Though written and published over the course of 50 years, a hefty chunk of King's stories seem to take place in the same reality, with some of the tales of vampires, killer dogs and telekinetic teens persisting as rumors and legends from novel to novel. That narrative unity becomes even more solidified in "The Dark Tower" series, which in later volumes begin making more and more references to the author's other work – and even include the writer himself as a character.
The most prominent recurring character in King's mythology appears in the original Dark Tower novella. Randall Flagg is a mysterious force of evil, who first appeared in the apocalyptic 1978 novel The Stand, and has since been reincarnated as a figure of nigh-unstoppable menace is several other books. McConaughey's "Man in Black" (a.k.a Walter o'Dim) is a version of Flagg, representing every modern boogeyman that King has written about across the decades. He's the spirit of inhuman darkness that the author has spent a lifetime exploring.
This is an old-school fantasy series, with maps and lingo and all that jazz.
King has always unapologetically styled himself a pulp-horror fanatic, with minimal literary pretensions. But when he decided to turn The Gunslinger into the first part of a larger fantasy cycle, he committed to a wonkiness that's been a hallmark of sword-and-sorcery narratives for centuries. The abstract dimension that Roland patrols has the Tolkien-worthy name "All-World." From within that space, the hero converses in a form of English known as "High Speech," and assembles an eclectic team of fellow travelers dubbed "the Ka-tet." The books are aimed more at hardcore fans than a general readership, because they're not always as immediately easy to understand as King's more colloquial, colorfully profanity-packed bestsellers.
Also, because the Tower itself is described as a kind of nexus of humanity's many mythologies, the novels reference more than King's own bibliography. By the end, they expand to contain nods to classic westerns, children's literature, comic books, Arthurian legends, prog-rock albums and Robert Browning's 1855 poem "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came." On one level, this series tells a very simple, archetypal tale, about good pursuing evil and vice-versa, across a stark and dangerous landscape. But it's also a sort of repository for King's passion and theories about genre fiction itself.
The movie is meant to be the first part of a series. But it's also a sequel.
Without giving too much away, it's worth noting that the original "Dark Tower" series suggests that every major event in its narrative is part of a pattern that keeps recurring. When the film went into production, King tweeted out a picture of an object that appears at the end of the last book, and confirmed that the image was a hint that the Dark Tower movie would take place after the events of his novels. It's still an adaptation of the original story. But it's also "new."
None of this will matter to neophytes, who'll be encountering this plot for the first time. But fans who've read The Gunslinger to tatters should expect some surprises in this version.
This project has been in the works for over a decade, with three different directors attached.
How long has The Dark Tower been in the pipeline? Consider this: For a time, the adaptation was going to be the next project from the creative team behind ABC's Lost, which was in the middle of its third season when news broke that producer/director J.J. Abrams and writers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof had been hand-picked by King to take care of his baby. The trio later changed their mind, claiming to have been drained by their show (although Abrams getting a chance to tackle the new Star Trek and Star Wars movies probably didn't make his decision to drop Roland & co. all that difficult).
Next up to the plate was Ron Howard, who spent five years talking to actors and studios and developing strategies for how best to bring the series to the screen. He too relied a lot on a couple of TV-tested writers – Akiva Goldsman and Jeff Pinkner, who both worked on the Abrams-produced cult sci-fi series Fringe – to pen a script that could be produced more economically than most motion-picture epics. After Howard retreated to a producing role, Danish director Nicolaj Arcel stepped in to make his English-language filmmaking debut, with the help of fellow Dane and prolific screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen.
The running time is unusually short.
Given that The Gunslinger is just a little over 200 pages long, it shouldn't be that surprising to see that The Dark Tower clocks in at a mere 95 minutes. But the movie reportedly also combines elements from the first book with pieces of The Waste Lands (the series' third part) and The Wind Through the Keyhole (a collection of related stories written after the original cycle was complete). Blockbuster films these days routinely push well past the two hour mark; one tackling a fantasy universe as dense as King's sci-fi-Western dystopia certainly seems like it should take about that long, if not longer. The writer's devotees are already curious – and possibly a little nervous – about just how much of the novels the movie will cover, and if it'll have an actual ending or will just trail off with a "to be continued."
If the film does well, expect more of The Dark Tower … just maybe not on the big screen.
When Ron Howard was in charge of the project, he and his producing partner Brian Grazer pitched an ambitious way of tackling King's winding, digressive saga: make it into multiple movies, released over several years, with a concurrent TV series to fill in some of the backstories and subplots. Howard's team then had to rework the first film's script to get the budget down, and the more elaborate multi-platform version seemed to lose momentum. But that vision hasn't necessarily been nixed. Even taking into account that this adaptation won't strictly be following the books, when the closing credits roll there will still be a lot of story left to tell. Bring on The Dark Tower Netflix series, The Dark Tower animated cartoon, The Dark Tower Instagram memes – whatever it takes to cover everything King had in his fertile imagination.