After an eight-year gap, Joe Cornish finally returns to the silver screen with his sophomore feature, The Kid Who Would Be King. What better time than this to look back at his debut feature, Attack the Block?
A LOVE LETTER TO ATTACK THE–
OK. Apparently there was a better time, and it was March 20, 2018, when Steph Watts wrote it. (Steph’s article is a perfect reflection of a great film. Go read it)
Well now that we’re all here, we’d better talk about something else – and I think I found just the ticket.
THE DARK TOWER.
I know what you’re thinking: “This seems like a stretch. Clearly you’ve just been waiting to roll out a hot take. We could be reading something more relevant to The Kid Who Would Be King, like 10 Adam & Joe Sketches that are Not Woke in Hindsight, or Why Boggins is the Brexit Hero We Need Right Now.”
Well it’s not a stretch – the two films have a lot in common. For one, they both feature Tom Taylor, star on the rise. Both draw from Arthurian legend, adapted to the 21st century in unconventional approaches. And both are ultimately family movies, in a time where you just don’t see as much live-action fantasy storytelling for every age. Any film that comes along with just a glimmer of that sincerity, that spectacle, deserves a chance to wow us.
The Dark Tower is the black sheep of the Stephen King cinema squad, and deserves a second chance at a first impression. Tower finally hit cinemas in 2017, after 10 years of development, including both J.J. Abrams and Ron Howard sitting in the director’s chair before Nikolaj Arcel took over. And 10 years is only the film’s actual production – the Man in Black first fled across the desert way back in 1978.
40 years? Endless studio changes? A rabid fanbase of book supporters, spoiling for a fight? The Dark Tower was never going to be anything other than a catastrophe, and it only took Andy Muschietti’s It releasing a month later to knock The Dark Tower down for good. The film sits at 16% on Rotten Tomatoes, and its limp box office performance means any planned sequels and TV spinoffs are likely dead on arrival.
UNLESS I SAVE THEM. WITH ONE ARTICLE.
Roland Deschain, the Eld-er Statesman
That is an incredible pun. It will make sense if you’ve read any of King’s Dark Tower books, or if like me you’ve poked around Wikipedia, trying to research without spoiling the series for yourself. Seeing the film probably won’t help you to get the joke – but is that a bad thing?
When novels shed their dustjacket cocoons and flutter into cinemas, everyone grabs a pitchfork to prod at what’s left behind. Whether they’ve ousted that beloved side character or swept over your favourite narrative sojourn, we can never see the forest for the felled trees. But the forest needs that space to grow. We want to meet the gunslinger, not check his genealogy. And so The Dark Tower cuts back on the excess to let the core ideas shine. Ideas like Roland Deschain, the Gunslinger.
Roland is a tough nut to crack, in more ways than one. He’s a tortured hero, but he’s gotta brood without seeming sulky. Sure, he’s a legendary gunslinger, but don’t lean into the fedora or it all just feels like wish fulfilment. He has to connect with the kid, so he needs to be nice, but not too nice. In hindsight, the solution is obvious: Idris Elba. He’s tortured without being mopey. He struts without posing. He kills without mercy. He’s awesome, and most importantly, he and co-star Tom Taylor turn Tower’s biggest liability into its greatest strength.
Taylor-made for Two
Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey squaring off across the multiverse certainly sounds exciting, but in practice it’s a pretty wild concept to just throw at an audience. To make it work on screen the audience needs a surrogate, and who better than a friendly kid. It’s the oldest card in the studio deck: you risk endless exposition thrown at a child-shaped cardboard cutout, but you may strike gold with the next family-friendly feature.
Tom Taylor isn’t the next bankable teen extraordinaire but he makes a likeable hero out of Jake Chambers, champion of every bland YA archetype you could think of. His quiet charm carries The Dark Tower and his chemistry with Idris Elba is the film’s high point; the film is at its best when the two are riffing, each taking a turn as the fish out of their own water.
The odd-couple pairing ups the tempo but, at least for now, this is more Jake’s story than it is Roland’s. Focusing on someone other than the gunslinger was a dealbreaker for die-hard fans but with Taylor’s performance, The Dark Tower skips right over King’s genre successes and back to his most enduring classic: Stand by Me. By building the story around Jake Chambers and his sudden descent into a dark new reality, Tower captures that same sense of adolescence colliding with adulthood, albeit with much higher and more ethereal stakes.
Towers Need Foundations.
Like it or not, The Dark Tower isn’t the adult genre thriller that some were hoping for. It’s bold, it’s earnest, and Arcel’s adaptation cuts back on the wilder elements to hit clearer story arcs. The film was criticised for its 90 minute runtime – a ridiculous complaint, 90 minutes is a blessing – but you’d be running 10 times that before you made a dent in the series.
That’s not to say Sony weren’t planning to build up to the complex narratives that made the books famous, but you couldn’t just start there. The best series adaptations don’t stand alone – they’re links in a chain. If Muschietti had been tasked with filming It in one single picture, it would have been a disaster. And that’s only adapting a single book – not eight.
Stephen King doesn’t shy away from a high page count. The Dark Tower series covers 4,250 pages, written over the course of 35 years. Now applauded for its rich tapestry of characters, themes and parallel worlds, the series kicked off with a short story in FS&F, the legendary magazine that first published Flowers for Algernon and Starship Troopers.
The Dark Tower didn’t even become a book until the ’80s, when King pulled a bunch of these stories together – and he ended up revising the whole thing 20 years later to fit the broader arcs. The Dark Tower was never a perfect creation, spawned as one piece and ripe for translation to celluloid. It’s a messy series, and the film adaptation deserved a chance to grow in the same way.
Sadly, while the tower still stands, this adaptation does not. Still, there are many worlds within the tower’s shadow – perhaps in another, the Gunslinger is still walking the desert, following the Man in Black.