The Dark Tower:
If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen my thread last week about watching the 2017 film, THE DARK TOWER (Dir. by Nikolaj Arcel). You know the one I’m talking about, even if you like to pretend it doesn’t exist, like so many Constant Readers do. It’s on Netflix here in the Caribbean and it sometimes shows up in the “Top 10” category of my home screen. My dad even caught some of it playing on cable recently, and then last week when my wife was editing my previous post, she suggested we put it on in the background. I’m the only Dark Tower fan in my family, so when someone else shows an interest in it—whether it be the books, the comics, or even this extremely unpopular movie—I don’t hesitate to encourage them. I hit play.
Now, I’m guessing you’re probably reading this after hate-clicking the title, and I want to address something right off the bat: I know that THE DARK TOWER is not a good movie. I think the first act is actually pretty strong, but it ultimately fails; you just don’t connect with the characters the way you connect with the ka-tet in the books. It is a collection of decent scenes and cool sequences that just don’t amount to much more than your average YA fantasy adventure flick. It’s nothing special.
And yet, I have to tell you guys. I have a real soft spot for this film. I am frustrated that the script fundamentally misunderstands the concept of gunslingers (that scene with Roland and his father is pretty atrocious), and I hate that it opens with that “some say the mind of a child can bring it down” nonsense, instead of “The man in black fled across the desert…” yada yada yada. I recognize that as an adaptation, it fails to honor the true core of the text. But on the surface, strictly as a casual visualization of the series, I think it’s actually a brilliant adaptation.
Just off the top of my head, here’s a list of things from the books that show up in this one short movie: the breakers in Algul Siento, Low-Men, the grapefruit, storming the Dixie Pig, Roland being a fish-out-of-water in NYC, his fingers doing their reloading trick, the demon of Dutch Hill, magic doors, beamquakes, and of course the recitation of the gunslinger’s shooting lesson.
Are all of the details just right? No. Does everything look exactly the way I imagine it should look? Nope. But the film actually uses that to its advantage. When Jake is escaping the Low-Men early on, there’s a moment when he pauses on a street corner, waiting for the light to change. This is a brilliant way of subverting the expectations of Constant Readers like us because we’re sitting there waiting for someone to push him in front of a Cadillac. Arcel creates suspense by trading on his audience’s familiarity with how the story is “supposed” to go, and when when Jake isn’t pushed it is genuinely surprising. He manages to include that part of the novel in his adaptation without actually including it.
Even when the discrepancies between book and film aren’t so strategic, the idea of Twinners in the Stephen King universe—the way people and places echo throughout his works—makes any imperfections seem intentional. It allows me to separate the adaptation from its source material, and subsequently I’m able to watch it without feeling like it’s somehow tarnishing the experience of reading the book.
Is it disappointing that, after so many years, the movie that we finally got was not as good as it could have been? For sure. But I have to say, when I just want to veg out and I’m too tired to read, it’s nice that I can just take a quick 90-minute trip to Mid-World without thinking too hard about it. Sure, it’s only the Epcot version of Mid-World, not nearly as rich and immersive as the “real” thing, but you know what? Sometimes you’re in the mood to actually travel around the world, and sometimes you’re in the mood to get hammered and ride “Its A Small World.” It’s also nice that when someone wants to know what this whole Dark Tower business is, I have a 90-minute sizzle reel I can show them that explains the basic idea without spoiling a single thing about the books.
So, what does any of this have to do with this week’s reading? Well, as I mentioned, most Constant Readers I’ve encountered haven’t been quite so forgiving of Arcel’s film. Ever since it came out, it has been spoken of online as if it were a crime against nature, an abhorrent creation that should not exist. So this week, when I was reading about the Child of Roderick that Roland and Eddie meet, and the birth of Mia’s chap, I couldn’t help but see the similarities in how those creatures are treated and how we treated the film.
The thing that had been trudging along the berm of Route 7 turned toward them, and Eddie let out an involuntary cry of horror. Its eyes bled together above the bridge of its nose, reminding him of a double-yolked egg in a frypan. A fang descended from one nostril like a bone booger.– The Dark Tower p. 39
“Would’ee have peace at the end of your course, thou Child of Roderick?” Roland asks the Chevin of Chayven when they meet in Maine (p. 40). It seems to be dying of radiation poisoning and Roland mercy-kills it as if he’s putting down a sick dog. “Poor old thing” he calls it (p. 41) as though its very existence is a tragedy. But here’s the thing: Chevin of Chayven was created by Stephen King just as Roland or Eddie were. He might be older, sicker, and far uglier than they are (just as some of King’s books aren’t as good as others), but does that mean he should cease to exist?
In the next chapter, Mordered makes his debut appearance. After coming forth from Mia’s birth canal, there is a brief moment of peace when the baby is a perfect little cherub…and then it quickly morphs into a hideous spider monster and eats its mother.
I’ve written before on this blog about a piece of art being the artist’s baby. Here, King seems to be exploring that metaphor in the most literal way possible. The brief period of cute calmness before Mordred goes berserk is just like the time between finishing a project and getting feedback on it. For that short time, you are under the tempting illusion that the thing you just created is perfect, that nobody could possibly criticize it… And then people start giving you notes, or the reviews start coming in, and maybe that thing you just created, that you thought was perfect, is far from it. Maybe the thing you just created is actually terrible, maybe terrible enough to end your career the way that Mordred ends Mia’s life.
Tumors swelled along the black thing’s sides, then burst and extruded legs. The red mark which had ridden the heel was still visible, but now had become a blob like the crimson brand on a black widow spider’s belly. For that was what this thing was: a spider.– The Dark Tower, p. 52
I think these two back-to-back chapters represent two different kinds of art. Chevin of Chayven, the Child of Roderick, is the kind of art that an artist recognizes is not up to their standard. He is the screenplay we start outlining and then decide isn’t worth pursuing; he is the painting we fucked up beyond recognition and are forced to trash; he is the unfinished novel we realize is actually no good and should probably never see the light of day. For every good idea a creative person has, there are plenty of bad ones they’ve had to put down, just as Roland puts down Chevin of Chayven.
Mordred is what happens when we conceive an idea, take it all the way to term, allowing it to gestate inside of us before delivering the final creation into the world, only to have the world reject it. Just as I’m not entirely convinced that Mordred is inherently evil, I don’t believe that art is inherently bad if it’s poorly received. Taste is subjective. If Roland and the ka-tet had shown Mia and her chap a little more acceptance, and didn’t talk about him like he was a scourge on their quest, maybe Mordred wouldn’t have been so hateful. If we hadn’t acted like THE DARK TOWER was a hideous aberration that deserved to be erased from reality, Amazon wouldn’t have been so hesitant to pick up Glenn Mazzara’s Dark Tower series.
The point is, there is indeed art that shouldn’t exist, but it’s up to the artist to make that call, just as only the gunslinger had the authority to escort Chevin of Chayven into the clearing at the end of the path. As for the art that does get made—the books that get published, the movies that are shot, the songs on the radio—it’s up to you to decide if you think they’re good or bad, but there’s no reason to wring your hands and cry “O’ Discordia!” if they’re not up to your standards. Remember, even the Crimson King loves Mordred, and despite all its flaws, I kind of love THE DARK TOWER.