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Book vs film: The Dark Tower vol 1 — The Gunslinger by Stephen King

Season 5 episode 2: The Dark Tower vol 1 — The Gunslinger, by Stephen King

The original concept for this season was “great book, shit film”. The Gunslinger certainly qualifies for the latter half and while The Dark Tower series has a passionate fanbase, “great” has to do a lot of heavy lifting for the book too.

The Book Corner

The Book Corner is a regular break from critiquing for a writing group with my former MA colleagues. We work out a theme and everyone chooses a book that we’ll read and discuss. Previous themes have included literary genre award winners and books that shaped our writing journeys.

As usual, it’s an odd mix with a skew towards SF and fantasy, and in this season we’re comparing books to their screen adaptations. Our first book was Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion. You can look forward to Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin vs Tales from Earthsea by Goro Miyazaki, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, The Colour Out Of Space by HP Lovecraft (vs the bonkers Nicolas Cage adap.) and Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynn Jones.

The Dark Tower series

The Gunslinger first hit bookshelves in 1984 when Stephen King was the king of horror, with film and TV adaptations spraying across screens like so many slashed arteries and his supply of new fiction apparently unstoppable.

The Dark Tower novels emerged sporadically until King’s near-fatal road accident in 1999, when he decided that his readers were owed an end to the series. By 2004 he’d completed the final novel and revised the earlier books.

He wasn’t really finished, though, so an eight story was slotted into the middle of the series in 2012 and part of the third book became a children’s story in 2016. A free online game continued the series in 2009, a TV series has wandered development hell since 2016, and the film arrived in 2017. We’ll get to that.

The series itself is a genre-mixing, dimension-spanning uber-narrative which references and connects many of King’s other works. Roland Deschain, the last of a noble order of gunslingers, seeks the fabled Dark Tower and hunts The Man In Black, Walter O’Dim, who wants to destroy the tower. The tower itself is a mega-macguffin, a nexus of universes which protects them from an apocalyptic evil.

The Gunslinger: the story

The first edition cover of Stephen King's The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, by Michael Whelan
The first edition cover of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, by Michael Whelan. Credit: Michael Whelan.

The Dark Tower part 1, The Gunslinger, introduces Roland Deschain, years – perhaps centuries – into his hunt, travelling a dying land. Roland is consumed by vengeance and though he’s closing on his quarry, Walter has corrupted every community he encounters. The Man In Black’s acolytes turn ordinary people into feral zombies that The Gunslinger is forced to kill, even his lovers.

Roland journeys through a post-apocalyptic Western landscape that looks like Earth, though it emerges as a parallel dimension. In flashbacks we begin to see Roland’s childhood, the death of his father and the root of his quest to destroy The Man In Black.

Crossing an inhospitable desert, Roland becomes an unwilling guardian to Jake, a lost boy who may be from Earth. Walter taunts them and warns Jake that Roland will betray him, before they travel by handcart through perilous subterranean tunnels populated by “slow mutants”. They escape the labyrinth but Roland allows Jake to fall into an abyss so that he can cross it to catch Walter, who reveals that he’s the servant of a greater evil that Roland must destroy.

Roland is unable to kill Walter. He allows Walter to perform a tarot-style card reading and receives a cosmic vision before he is put to sleep. Roland awakes ten years later beside a skeleton which may be Walter’s, and continues his quest.

The Gunslinger: a writer’s review

I wasn’t surprised to discover that The Gunslinger is a fix-up novel, a format which has almost died out today. It’s compiled from five stories published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Fix-ups don’t always sit comfortably together, and that’s a major flaw here. While the individual episodes work well, the structure makes for a lumpy plot. I’m not a King fan but he can spin a yarn that reels you in and the world is intriguing. Roland becomes a fascinating character as his past emerges, and Jake’s appearance adds mystery and heart to his bitter quest.

Fix-up novels often suffer tonal clashes between stories and The Gunslinger’s final act is a clanger. Roland’s obsessive quest for revenge evaporates while Jake’s demise is hollow and unresolved. The main reason I don’t read King is because I was so furious at the literal deus ex machina in The Stand. This isn’t as bad, but it gave me a bad case of deja vu.

I read the 2003 “Resumption” edition of The Gunslinger, which King revised to improve its continuity with the series. He famously eschews outlining, so there was naturally some narrative drift over the 40 years he’d been writing The Dark Tower stories. I get drift within a novel I’ve been writing for five years, so I can sympathise. Even so, it’s the continuity within the novel that needs attention.

Idris Elba as Roland Deschain and Tom Taylor as Jake Chambers in The Dark Tower (2017)
Idris Elba as Roland Deschain and Tom Taylor as Jake Chambers in The Dark Tower (2017)

The Dark Tower: the film

It’s hard to know what the producers thought The Dark Tower movie would achieve, or who it would satisfy. For a start, it’s not supposed to be an introduction to the series, but a sequel set afterwards.

Jake is a New York boy plagued by nightmares of The Dark Tower, The Man In Black and The Gunslinger. He’s bullied and misunderstood, but he’s actually a Chosen One with magic powers who can either destroy the tower or save it. We’ve all seen it before.

The film still contains elements of The Gunslinger and other novels, there to set up the main conflict. I liked the clash of technology and fantasy, and the hints of a connection to King’s horrorverse. You can see, though, that ten years of development crushed King’s vision in favour of hitting precise action beats.

At 95 minutes, The Dark Tower rattles along but that’s too little for a world that deserves more depth. Today, this would have been several seasons of streaming TV.

Idris Elba makes a solid gunslinger but Matthew McConaughey is a mediocre Walter and the effects are uninspired. King has frequently placed child characters at the centre of adult horror stories with great success on page and screen. Here though, Jake’s central role and PG-13 scares give The Dark Tower a limp YA feel.

A 15% Rotten Tomatoes score feels like King fans putting the boot in, but it’s not far off what this deserves.

What’s better, book or film? The book fires a couple of blanks but it still shoots the legs off the film.

The Book Corner season 5, episode 3: Percy Jackson and the Olympians — The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

Rick Riordan’s reimagining of Greek mythology attempted to ride the Harry Potter boom in magical YA. It’s due to return as a Disney+ series in December 2023, but we’ll be watching the 2010 film adaptation. Stars include Sean Bean, Pierce Brosnan, Steve Coogan, Rosario Dawson, Joe Pantoliano, and Uma Thurman. How can that go wrong?

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5 replies on “Book vs film: The Dark Tower vol 1 — The Gunslinger by Stephen King”

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  • Book vs film: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro | Alexander Lane
  • Book vs film: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan | Alexander Lane
  • Book vs film: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin | Alexander Lane

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