Get ready for the film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, starring Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey. Here’s a brief primer on the books before you sit back with your popcorn.
Over the past 40-plus years, Stephen King has published a staggering 56 novels. Perhaps the most recognizable American author, King is best known for his contributions to horror, including modern classics like The Shining and It. But one of his most ambitious works is The Dark Tower series. Not exactly mainstream King, it’s a rather strange amalgamation of genres, and its eight books make it a daunting read compared to his more popular one-offs.
In the foreword to recent editions of The Dark Tower, King admits its relatively low recognition among fans: At readings, he often asks audience members to raise their hands if they’ve read one of his books. Most hands shoot up, but when he asks for those who’ve dabbled with The Dark Tower to keep their hands raised, roughly half the members of the audience lower their hands.
With the theatrical release of The Dark Tower, King’s 30-plus years of work, his self-described magnum opus, will gain recognition. Reading the 4,000-plus pages in the series is an arduous task, to say the least, so let’s get to the gist of the series, what to expect and why The Dark Tower may play out very differently as a movie than it does on the page.
In introductions to the 2003 revised editions of the first few novels in the series, King writes that, like most fantasy series released in the latter half of the 20th century, The Dark Tower series was inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. But while comparisons to Tolkien’s iconic series have been made, The Dark Tower series isn’t traditional fantasy.
The Dark Tower series, like much of King’s fiction, is difficult to categorize. It’s parts western, fantasy, science fiction, medieval legend and, yes, there are even elements of horror. And that’s exactly what makes The Dark Tower series such an intriguing work of fiction. But it’s very different from what we think it is on the surface.
Without Tolkien, The Dark Tower series likely wouldn’t exist, but there’s another work that directly paved the way for King’s epic work: the 1885 Robert Browning poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.” Browning’s poem provided not only the series name but also our protagonist, Roland Deschain, portrayed in the film by Idris Elba.
The first Dark Tower novel, The Gunslinger, originated as a series of five short stories in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction from 1978 to 1981, before being published as a complete volume in 1982. Over the next 22 years, King published six more Dark Tower novels: The Drawing of the Three (1987), The Wastelands (1991), Wizard and Glass (1997), Wolves of the Calla (2003), Song of Susannah (2004) and The Dark Tower (2004). Then in 2012, he released The Wind through the Keyhole, which takes place between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla.
The Dark Tower series takes place in a multiverse. Roland, commonly referred to as the Last Gunslinger, lives in Mid-World, a wasteland similar to the American West that has been ravaged by wars, famine and mysterious circumstances. Mid-World used to be an advanced technological society, but at the start of The Gunslinger, Mid-World is rapidly coming apart. Roland’s country of Gilead, his family and all the other gunslingers of the high order are no more. To save Mid-World, Roland must find and defend the Tower, the legendary nucleus of all universes. Roland’s nemesis, the Man in Black, portrayed in the film by Matthew McConaughey, serves as the biggest threat to not just Mid-World but also other universes, including our own.
In The Gunslinger, Roland happens upon Jake Chambers, a young boy linked to Roland’s journey to save the Tower. Roland becomes Jake’s companion throughout the series and, in a way, his father.
The trailer for The Dark Tower shows Roland meeting Jake (portrayed by Tom Taylor), so it would be easy to assume The Dark Tower is an adaptation of book one, The Gunslinger. But while aspects of The Gunslinger will be present, director Nikolaj Arcel is turning the movie into something of a follow-up to the series.
Before Arcel took over the project in 2015, both Ron Howard and J.J. Abrams had taken years-long stabs at adapting The Dark Tower series to the silver screen, but because of time constraints and the uncertainty of how best to bring the source material to life, both directors eventually relinquished control of King’s magnum opus.
You may be thinking, “How can I possibly enjoy the movie if it’s a sequel to the books?” Don’t worry: the film will allow everyone to follow along. Still, it’s important to know why it’s technically a follow-up to the books, as it will help you better understand the world in which Roland, Jake and the Man in Black reside.
(While the following will reveal the end of the book series, the movie will spoil this anyway.)
Last year King tweeted a photo of the Horn of Eld with the caption “Last Time Around.” The tweet refers to the climax of the final book, when Roland reaches the Tower to battle the Crimson King. This is when Roland realizes his journey is a loop. Each time he reaches the Tower, a mysterious godlike being named Gan sends him back to the beginning. This time around, instead of leaving the powerful Horn of Eld at the end of the battle, he brings it with him into the next loop, which will alter the events of the next trek to the Tower.
It’s a clever trick to create not only a follow-up for longtime fans of the books but to deliver a new origin story for the film. In essence, the movie will reinterpret the events of The Gunslinger while simultaneously taking place after the events of the book series.
The movie will also use elements from many of the books following The Gunslinger.
The Drawing of the Three emphasizes simultaneously occurring parallel realities. We’ll see that represented by Jake’s world (Earth), and Mid-World, which exist concurrently.
From The Wastelands, we’ll see the events that occurred on Dutch Hill, a sentient Brooklyn mansion that guards a portal to Mid-World. The Wastelands also dives into Jake’s life in New York and his mother’s worries about his visions of Mid-World, a focal point in the trailer.
Thematically, the film draws from The Wind through the Keyhole, the most recent book, specifically in the notion that fantasy can obscure reality.
From the fifth book in the series, The Wolves of the Calla, we’ll see the Manni village. This village is inhabited by spiritualists who possess the power to navigate between worlds. Perhaps most importantly, The Wolves of the Calla will inspire the science fiction aspects of the film.
In Song of Susannah, the Dixie Pig is a breeding ground for insidious beings. While the Dixie Pig evidently will be represented in a more public setting in the film than in The Dark Tower series, it will serve the same purpose: introducing the Crimson King.
The final novel, The Dark Tower, may not be prominent in the movie. However, its ending is, as mentioned, the film’s beginning.
Now what about Wizard and Glass? Dark Tower IV is being saved for an upcoming television series that will serve as the backstory for the events of the movie.
The Dark Tower is an intriguing adaptation for both series veterans and newcomers alike. If you enjoy the movie, I highly recommend that you dive into books. After all, reading The Dark Tower series can even give you new insights on other King novels that live in a multiverse. For instance, the Man in Black and Randall Flagg, principle antagonist in The Stand? Same person: a man of many names.