In a career spanning 50 years and over 80 books, King has amassed a towering reputation as one of our greatest storytellers.
40 years ago the journey of the eight-novel epic The Dark Tower began when Stephen King wrote the words: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed,” sparking an entire universe that makes its long-awaited screen debut, telling of an eternal battle between good and evil, with the fate of multiple worlds at stake.
“I started The Dark Tower when I was 22 years old, when I had just graduated from college, so it’s spanned my entire career,” says King. Over time, he says, as the books and stories piled up, “I started to realize that I had all these characters that were referring back to this other world, Mid-World, the world of The Dark Tower. It had become the centerpiece of my fictional universe –characters who showed up in other books would show up in The Dark Tower and vice versa.” Even King himself would become a character in later novels. The Dark Tower series of books would become the nexus for most of the King universe and crosses over into many of King’s other books.
There are other worlds than these. In Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, the ambitious and expansive story from one of the world’s most celebrated authors, the last Gunslinger, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), has been locked in an eternal battle with Walter O’Dim, also known as the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), determined to prevent him from toppling the Dark Tower, which holds the universe together. With the fate of the worlds at stake, good and evil will collide in the ultimate battle as only Roland can defend the Tower from the Man in Black.
In a career spanning 50 years and over 80 books, King has amassed a towering reputation as one of our greatest storytellers. The author of innumerable bestsellers, he has been honored by the President of the United States with the National Medal for the Arts, by the National Book Foundation with the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and countless awards and prizes. His name is recognized everywhere as a master of blending our everyday world with the supernatural.
And there is one work that is at the center of his entire canon: The Dark Tower, the eight-novel epic telling of an eternal battle between good and evil, with the fate of multiple worlds at stake. “I started The Dark Tower when I was 22 years old, when I had just graduated from college, so it’s spanned my entire career,” says King. Over time, he says, as the books and stories piled up, “I started to realize that I had all these characters that were referring back to this other world, Mid-World, the world of The Dark Tower. It had become the centerpiece of my fictional universe –characters who showed up in other books would show up in The Dark Tower and vice versa.” Even King himself would become a character in later novels. The Dark Tower series of books would become the nexus for most of the King universe and crosses over into many of King’s other books.
King was influenced to create his magnum opus by blending together several unlikely sources.
“I was very much under the influence of Lord of the Rings – even though I’m not crazy about elves and orcs and walking trees, I loved what Tolkien did. And around that same time, I saw the movie The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name was also an influence. And there’s a poem by Robert Browning called ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,’ and I used that to start an epic fantasy. I wrote the line ‘The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed,’ and I didn’t know anything about where he lived, what Mid-World was or how it connected to our world or anything else.”
Danish director Nikolaj Arcel was determined to be the one to bring The Dark Tower to the screen.
It’s an epic that has inspired millions of readers – not least of which was a young boy in Denmark whose imagination was sparked by the events in Mid-World. Now grown, director Nikolaj Arcel was determined to be the one to bring The Dark Tower to the screen.
Growing up with the Dark Tower books, Arcel became so immersed in the stories that the Danish native taught himself English. He recounts, “When I was about 13, there were almost no Stephen King stories translated into Danish. I became infatuated with the few books that I’d read in Danish, even at that age. And so I had to start picking up his English-version novels and I had to teach myself to read adult novel-style English at a very early age. Stephen King taught me English.”
Arcel recalls that when he read The Gunslinger at 17, he was so into the novel that he creating a song, “The Gunslinger,” with his band. (And he still has it on cassette tape.)
For Arcel, the way King weaves together the personal and the larger-than-life elements of the story is why it’s connected to so many readers. “It’s as small as a 14 year-old boy, who has visions, who thinks he’s crazy, and it’s as big as a hero fighting a great villain and trying to save the entire universe. It expands from the very intimate to the very epic.”
And at the center of the story is the Dark Tower. “The Tower is a thing of beauty, it’s a thing of awe, with a powerful presence – it holds the whole world together. I think it’s beyond our comprehension,” says Arcel, “I think every single fan of the books will have their own idea of what the Dark Tower is.”
So who better to ask what it is than the man who created it? “You have to imagine an axle or a spindle, with all of these worlds connected to it,” says King. “You know what happens to a car if you cut the axle – it doesn’t run anymore. The Tower is the stabilizing force, and the Gunslingers are this ancient group of knights dedicated to the idea of protecting the Tower. But they have been wiped out – there’s only one left, Roland. And standing opposite him is an agent of chaos who wants to bring the Tower down.”
“The Tower is a magnetic vortex holding the universes together, and if that Tower falls, the universe goes into anarchic chaos, blackness and demons come out and they take it all over,” says McConaughey. “If that Tower maintains itself, it’s still holding a semblance of balance in the universe. So, what Walter’s going to do is bring down that Tower.”
Because this particular series of novels helped to shape Arcel’s entire artistic sensibilities, he became a perfect choice to direct. “I love films that take us to new worlds, have new ideas and mythologies, and world building,” he says. “Getting this chance to direct a movie of stories that I had dreamt about was incredible – especially coming directly off the boat from Denmark!”
Producer Erica Huggins recalls, “Nikolaj just wanted this project, he knew it well, and the moment we met him we knew he was the right guy. He brought innocence to the project, and he also found his own way into how he would tell the story.”
That way in – Arcel’s vision – was to try to stay true to King’s “mix of modern day and the fantastic. This is what Stephen King does best.”
In The Dark Tower, the fantastical elements would take care of themselves; to make those feel like a Stephen King story, Arcel sought to keep it grounded.
“We had to keep it real; this world is so immense and so complex, and in the novels, at times, even abstract. I really wanted Mid-World, the characters and everything to feel as real as every day. I didn’t want to have some kind of lofty genre and have everyone speaking in odd ways. I wanted it to feel like anybody could take this journey to Mid-World, and understand it, and be there, and feel that these are real people.”
Arcel also wanted the emotional quality of King’s story to permeate the film. “It didn’t feel cynical, or cold; it felt like it was very much about family, friendship, and heart, and the bond of people coming together to fight for the greater good.”
The Screenplay Adaptation
When it came to the screenplay adaptation, because King’s approach is, in his words, so “instinctive” (“I’m not somebody who plans things out in advance,” he says), the filmmakers faced an unusual challenge in bringing The Dark Tower to the screen.
With so much material, where to begin?
“How do you present this to the moviegoing audience so they’ll understand it and feel like they’re immediately in the story, whether or not they’ve read the books?” King asks.
The answer for the screenwriters came in looking at The Dark Tower as a whole, drawing elements from several of the books in the series. “It’s a classical thing – they call it in medias res, which means ‘begin in the middle of the story.’
You begin in the middle and then fill everybody in, and it just moves ahead like a freight train from that point,” King continues.
Not only did King himself bless the screenplay adaptation, which is by Akiva Goldsman & Jeff Pinkner and Anders Thomas Jensen & Nikolaj Arcel; the author was intimately involved in every step of the creative process of the film and an invaluable creative partner throughout the entire process.
Casting of King’s iconic characters: Roland Deschain, the Gunslinger, and Walter, the man in black, the personification of an evil force.
Key to the film, obviously, would be in the casting of King’s iconic characters: Roland Deschain, the Gunslinger, and Walter, the man in black, the personification of an evil force.
Roland Deschain, AKA the Gunslinger, is the last of the long Line of Eld – a legacy of Gunslingers who are peacekeepers and protectors of the Tower, which protects the universe. After the slaughter of the rest of the gunslingers, Roland is now on a quest to save what is left of his world by reaching the mysterious Tower.
“As the last in the line of protectors, Roland is very respected, but by the time we meet him his heart has been broken and blackened,” says Elba. “He’s basically a ghost looking for something he can’t find: The Man in Black, who has goaded and taunted him for years, and who destroyed Roland’s world and in it everyone he loved. On this journey, Roland is propelled by fury to take revenge against his old nemesis.”
Elba says he was excited to take on the role of the Gunslinger as he knew Stephen King to be a creator of deep, complex, and big-universe characters. “He is a very clever, master character builder,” says Elba. “Roland has had a massive journey throughout the books.”
Walter is Roland’s mystical foe and a modern day psychotic who destroyed the Mid-World. He is now on a mission to bring all worlds into chaos, which bringing down the Tower will do.
“The essence of the character is a casual and playful but ruthless and terrifying villain, all while seemingly in total control,” Howard continues. “Matthew McConaughey is the perfect embodiment for the role of the Man in Black – he’s incredibly charming, laid back, and mischievous with deep intensity.”
“Walter has traveled many worlds, throughout many ages – he knows contemporary New York and where he can buy a burger, and at the same time, with his sphere of magic, he can also go to the court of some king,” says Arcel. “His plan for the universe is to bring about the age of the Crimson King – the devil.”
“Walter’s not just a guy with one dimensional evil; he has an interesting way of seeing the world, with a certain delight – even if on the wrong side of the light and dark spectrum,” Arcel continues. “We had a lot of fun with the character and Matthew and I added a lot of layers that were very true to the book – how Walter speaks and moves.”
McConaughey was excited by the opportunity to bring such a dynamic character to life. “It’s an original – it was great that I could come in at the ground level and create a character, and hopefully be part of an original story where I am the author of the Man in Black.”
At the heart of the interplay between Walter and Roland is a dynamic that is both simple and complex. Ultimately, McConaughey says, “Walter is the quintessential bad guy in the mythic battle of good versus evil. If the Tower comes down, Walter takes the seat next to the Crimson King.”
But King has created a multilayered villain in Walter. “Walter walks a fine line with Roland; it’s an interesting little affection that Walter has for Roland,” says McConaughey. “He certainly doesn’t fully believe in Roland’s code of honor and valor and values. But Walter enjoys the game, and he doesn’t want it to end too soon, even if he wins. Roland is the most talented one out there, and when he’s down and losing it, through paranoia or pain, Walter resurrects him, lifts him up, so he stays in the game.”
Still, though Roland and Walter have been locked in this battle for an eternity, from McConaughey’s point of view, it’s been a one-sided battle. “Walter can’t be touched,” he says. “If someone comes at him, he may be a mirage – he might not even be what you think. He doesn’t even break a sweat.”
Between these battling forces comes a young boy from our world who could tip the balance either way. 14-year-old JAKE (Tom Taylor) lives an ordinary life in New York City with his mother Laurie (Katheryn Winnick) and stepfather Lon (Nicholas Pauling). Plagued by outlandish dreams that he doesn’t understand, he draws detailed sketches of otherworldly images which he sees: the Gunslinger, the Man in Black, and the unearthly world in which they live – Mid-World, in which he gets sight of the Tower.
“In many ways, the story is seen through Jake’s eyes, and we’re seeing it in a compelling way because we believe, as he believes, that he might be crazy,” says Huggins. “It’s a terrifying journey that we take with him in the first part of the movie until he realizes that he’s not crazy, he really is seeing this other world, and he’s part of something bigger than himself.
For The Fans
Over the years, Stephen King has established an astounding fan base of die-hard disciples, and the writer has millions of followers on social media. Because the Dark Tower series is the nexus for most of the King universe and crosses over into so many of King’s other books, it was important to the filmmakers to make a few sly nods to King’s other written works which the fans may recognize.
“We had a lot of fun planting hidden Stephen King references in the film,” says Arcel. “I wanted fans to sitting in the audience, thinking, ‘Oh is that from another Stephen King story?’”