After nearly 10 years of development, The Dark Tower is finally coming to the big screen. Under the direction of Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair), the movie hopes to launch an expansive film and television franchise based on Stephen King’s eight-volume series of the same name. However, while Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey’s performances have been met with praise, the film has failed to resonate with audiences and critics alike. Considering the movie is so far failing to impress at the box office, it’s looking like a Dark Tower film franchise is unlikely, although plans are already in place for a tie-in TV series.
Before Sony Pictures Entertainment’s fast-tracking of the project, the gunslinger’s quest drew the attraction of many big-name stars. But before we go into the whos and whats surrounding The Dark Tower’s development history, let’s take a brief look at the source material.
Published in 1982, the first volume in the Dark Tower series – called The Gunslinger – focuses on the titular character, whose real name is Roland Deschain. Inspired by Robert Browning’s poem ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’, the novel also introduces readers to the series’ primary antagonist, the Man in Black. Later novels, including The Drawing of the Three, The Waste Lands, and Wizard and Glass, would make up the eight-volume series, with 2004’s The Dark Tower closing off.
As readers follow the gunslinger on his journey toward the titular dark tower, the core of every universe, King introduces various themes and stylistic choices. Impressively, King also develops his own language, called High Speech, throughout the series.
With the Dark Tower series covering genres ranging from fantasy to horror to western, the fact that J.J. Abrams chose to adapt the story with Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof comes as little surprise. In a conversation with MTV News back in 2007, King explains how Abrams scored the rights to The Dark Tower. “This is not a thing I would have [given] to just anybody,” King says. He continues: “I’ve said no to everybody until recently, but based on [Abrams’] work, particularly Lost, which I think a lot of, I thought, ‘Yeah, these guys can do it.’’’
Two years and a Star Trek film later and Abrams remained hopeful. Speaking to IGN, Abrams went over how he and Lindelof had secured the rights. Yet with Abrams’ focus on Star Trek and Lindelof’s preoccupation with continuing the Lost series, all Abrams could say of his franchise was: “hopefully we’ll get to tackle that.”
Of course, Abrams and Lindelof never got the chance to pack The Dark Tower into their Mystery Box, despite how engaging the pairing of King’s horror and Abrams and Lindelof’s fantasy could have been. King’s source material clearly has room for experimentation between genres. Abrams and Lindelof’s track record – particularly with Lost – prove they could have handled the Western, mystery, and sci-fi genres present in King’s novels.
By the end of 2009, Lindelof and Abrams put the rumours to rest. In an interview for USA Today, Lindelof said “You’ll be hard-pressed to find a huger fan of The Dark Tower than me, but that’s probably the reason that I shouldn’t be the one to adapt it.” Abrams was slightly more to the point, telling MTV News, “The truth is that Damon and I are not looking at that right now.”
2010 marked the beginning of a new era of development, with Ron Howard set to direct the first film of the expansive franchise. Produced by Universal Pictures, Brian Grazer, and King himself, this five-year period was full of back-and-forth plans and conversations that usually ended up nowhere.
According to King, Howard had plans for “several movies and TV series” in order to be able to cover the breadth of King’s stories. A month after Universal announced Howard’s involvement in the film, The Dark Tower was given a 2013 release date. And Howard himself seemed to be hopeful for the franchise, saying, “I hope it goes great. I hope it goes the way we think it will. It never does, really. But sometimes it goes better.” In this case it didn’t. Nevertheless, Howard’s plans for an action-orientated, more fast-paced film sound intriguing. Howard’s plans also included a six-episode miniseries that would look deeper into the universe and characters that inhabit The Dark Tower.
Early 2011 brought new rumours around the casting of Howard’s film, with Javier Bardem and Viggo Mortensen positioned as frontrunners for the lead role of the gunslinger Roland Deschain. Naomie Harris was also attached to the lead female role, Susannah Dean. Both Bardem and Mortensen are interesting choices. Having starred in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Mortensen is familiar with franchises, ensuring his durability to carry a character through a series of films. Meanwhile Bardem, by that point mostly known for 2007’s No Country for Old Men, would have brought a distant, slightly chilling touch to the film’s central character. As for Naomie Harris, her presence alone increases the worth of a film. Bardem ultimately won the lead role; however, Universal soon after committed to lowering the project’s budget.
From mid-2011 to 2014, studios threw the project back and forth; Universal cancelled its development and Warner Bros. remained hesitant. It wasn’t until April 2015 that we got some clarity, with King’s announcement that The Dark Tower is “finally going to appear on the screen.” As we now know, Akiva Goldsman reworked the script with Jeff Pinkner. Two months later Nikolaj Arcel signed on as director, and also rewrote the script with Anders Thomas Jensen.
While Howard still has a producer credit on The Dark Tower, it’s a shame viewers didn’t get a chance to see his action-focused vision of King’s world. Where Abrams would have no doubt turned the story into a world full of mystery and intrigue, Howard’s franchise could have been a chance for the director to experiment in character-driven action, away from the over-exaggerated plots of his Robert Langdon films.
As Variety reported earlier this month, Hollywood is “always on the prowl” for the next The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. With so many setbacks, The Dark Tower‘s place on the big screen is questionable. In fact, it seems even Arcel’s film almost missed its chance. According to Variety, the post-production process was “plagued with problems and clashing visions.” Moreover, despite the denial of Sony Pictures chief Tom Rothman, a more experienced director was apparently considered to recut the film. Whatever the outcome, it seems Arcel’s artistic vision could never have won. With a limited time frame and budget, there were too many people to impress in such a short space of time.