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Stephen King’s ‘Dark Tower’ movie: Is kiddie horror a thing?

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Condensing an intriguing series into a summer movie seems to have confused the filmmakers about their audience.

For decades now, the conventional wisdom has been that the eight novels making up Stephen King’s Dark Tower fantasy series contain a narrative far too vast and labyrinthine to ever properly be adapted to the big screen. Apparently, director Nikolaj Arcel and his screenwriters agree with that assumption, because they haven’t even tried. Gone is King’s complex multi-dimensional mythology, and in its place sits the simplest of children’s adventure tales.

In this nearly unrecognizable version of the story, we have a young boy named Jake (Tom Taylor) who is troubled by visions of a dark tower which sits at the center of all time and space. Should this tower ever fall, the monsters that exist outside the universe will have free reign to enter our reality and wreak havoc. Naturally, there is a Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), a wizard by the name of Walter, who desires to see the tower destroyed for no other reason than that he is evil and wants to hurt people. To accomplish this nefarious goal, Walter kidnaps psychic children like Jake from around the multiverse and uses their minds to empower his tower-blasting laser beam.

Jake sees all of this in his dreams, but his worried mother and wicked stepfather dismiss such notions as the imaginings of a troubled preteen. With no help to be found at home, Jake runs away to seek aid from another figure he has dreamed of, the Gunslinger (Idris Elba). This superhuman cross between a knight, a samurai, and an old west lawman is the only being with the power to oppose Walter, or so Jake believes. Making his way to the Gunslinger’s world, Jake eventually convinces the man to undertake a dimension-hopping journey to end Walter’s machinations and save the Dark Tower.

By this point, it’s likely that fans of King’s original story are pulling their hair, gnashing their teeth, and rending their garments. This is absolutely not The Dark Tower as published. So, as an adaptation, the movie is an abject failure. As its own thing, however, it is something more of a mixed bag.

Though it has not been marketed as such, The Dark Tower is ultimately a children’s movie, a boy’s adventure tale complete with a moral at the end. In this case, the lesson to be learned comes in the form of a mantra taught to Jake by the Gunslinger. It is a recitation that implies that any moral failing can be attributed to forgetting the face of one’s father. Conversely, only by always keeping in mind the face of one’s father can one stay on the true path. While this resonates on a personal level with the Gunslinger and Jake, both of whom are dealing with the loss of earthly fathers, savvy religious-minded folk will immediately recognize the broader spiritual implications inherent in such a belief.

Good morals aside, that doesn’t mean one should rush to take their little ones to see The Dark Tower. The movie does have a couple of problems, the first of which, bluntly put, is that the writing is terrible. One of Stephen King’s stated intentions in penning The Dark Tower books was to create a fantasy story with a scope to match that of The Lord of the Rings. Having never finished the series, I can’t attest as to whether or not he succeeded in that endeavor. What can be said is that even when writing for children, neither Tolkien nor King ever wrote at the level of a child. The screenplay for this film version of The Dark Tower, alas, has all the sophistication of a Saturday morning cartoon script. And not one of the good ones.

The second problem is one of tone. Those with long memories might recall an old Disney movie by the name of Return to Oz. Parents who showed up with their kids expecting a sequel to the bright and cheerful Wizard of Oz were greeted instead with a bleak vision of Dorothy committed to a mental institution and a land of Oz transformed into a steampunk nightmare world. The film would go on to garner a cult following, but mainstream audiences were not pleased. The Dark Tower has much the same problem. The movie is apparently geared towards children, but its images of murdered parents, mutants wearing human skin, and rampaging murderous monsters will be far too intense for many younger viewers.

In short, we have a movie written for young kids and marketed to adults, but not really suitable for either age group. Somewhere in the middle there is an audience for The Dark Tower, but whether they show up or not remains to be seen.

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