Ginger Nuts of Horror
Due to the recent cinema releases of The Dark Tower and IT, along with the BFI showing a season of King movies to celebrate his 70th birthday, I’ve seen five movies based on King’s work at the cinema in the last month. So, here’s a mini-series of trip reports - nothing so grand as reviews - based on my month of King Cinema. Spoilers, for both the movies under discussion and the source books abound, so be warned. Enjoy.
I think it’s fair to say this was the one I was most nervous about, going in. I like the two lead actors a great deal - especially Idris Elba, who has the kind of screen presence that makes almost anything he’s in some kind of watchable - but reviews, both on my Facebook wall and in the wider media had been… well, charitably, let’s call them ‘mixed’, shall we? A couple of the King Facebook fan groups I am a member of had some especially vitriolic responses.
Also, I basically love the Dark Tower books. From what I’d seen of the pre-publicity, I suspected the movie might work as well as a sequel to that series as an adaptation - and so it proved to be, I think - but I had to admit to being perplexed by the 90 minute running time.
I also wondered, given the ‘book sequel’ angle, if the movie would work on any level at all for a non-fan, so I took along my missus as a control sample - a woman who also likes the two leads, but hasn’t read a word of the books. I’ll get to her verdict later.
And basically, I was charmed. I didn’t love it, it didn’t set me on fire, but I enjoyed the experience thoroughly. I thought the film did a good job of weaving itself into the narrative that had come before, and in the process served as a worthy coda to that sprawling epic. There were a ton of fannish nods, from the setting of The Dixie Pig to a gorgeous mural of the rose (an aspect of the original narrative otherwise entirely absent), and my personal favorite, the Horn of Eld on Roland’s back, as he and Jake stepped through the gate and into Mid World in the final shot of the film.
Mcconaughey worked pretty well for me also, as The Walkin’ Dude. Age, and that weight loss thing he does so well, gave him a lean, sinuous, hungry look, and I felt he did an admirable job of avoiding the obvious scenery chewing, instead letting his dark charisma do most of the talking. In particular, the sequence where he met Jake’s mum was superbly played by both actors, and for me evoked a very King-like sense of awful inevitability and dread - a staple effect of many of his books, but one surprisingly absent from a lot of his cinema adaptations.
Tom Taylor as Jake was impressive too, for me, avoiding the seemingly endless pitfalls of being a child actor in this kind of movie. He sold both the sense of terror at the impossible things that were happening to him and also a child’s ability to adapt to the unlikely - the suppleness of their imaginations and the sense that basically everything is new allowing them to accept events and circumstances that would make most adults catatonic, and yes, I did start re-reading IT recently, well spotted, but also it’s still true.
And there are some just beautiful moments - quite a few of them, actually. The living house guardian that attempts to stop Jake from making it to Mid World was brilliantly realised, and a fair example of just what talented CGI artists can achieve in 2017. Similarly, the desert was gorgeous (though our time spent in it was, for me, too brief, and crucially lacking the honkey-tonk piano performance of Hey, Jude - still one of my all-time favourite moments in any King book). As for the trailer moment, when an injured Roland, in the middle of a massive raider attack, takes slow breaths, tunes into Jake and the raider carrying him, and then points and shoots blind - I mean, what the fuck in cinema even for, if not moments like that? Similarly, I know some people didn’t like Roland’s mid air reload technique, but come on, people - Roland was absolutely a superhero, whose superpower was shooting. In that context, again, it’s just cinema doing what it can do better than a book.
All that said and meant, as Dark Tower fan, it was a fucking weird viewing experience - like a whistlestop tour of a place you’d spent month living in - or, maybe better, like a greatest hits of one of your favourite bands, on shuffle - all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order.
Well, some of the right notes. No Suzanna, in this turn of the wheel, and sadly no Oy either, though there was a very funny gag/reference when Roland caught a TV advert with a talking animal on it (and the joke made my missus chuckle, too, so clearly it stood on it’s own terms, and not merely as an in-joke). And, I mean I wasn’t kidding about spoilers, and we need to talk about this - but killing off Flagg at the end was a pretty bold move, given all the talk of a possible follow-up TV show. I can't argue it wasn’t dramatically satisfying in the context of the story the movie told (and the actual method of his dispatch I found pleasing, and at least movie-clever), but at the same time, this is a fictional character with arguably the longest and darkest shadow of any in the King mythology. Ninety minutes and out felt a tad perfunctory, however well done the final putdown was.
The ending in general intrigued me, actually. As I said up top, as a coda to the novels, I found it satisfying, if a little odd and rushed. As the launch pad for a franchise of TV shows and further movies… I dunno, man. Flagg’s dead, the tower is safe, and Jake and Roland are off to Mid-World. Not that I don’t love that setting, but unless they’re going to abandon the mythology of the books almost entirely and go do their own thing, I don’t immediately see where the propulsion for the narrative comes from, going forward.
Still, I’m not sure how fair it is to judge a movie based on what it isn’t. And on it’s own terms, while a long way from having the earth shattering impact of the books, I thought the film was a fun enough whistlestop tour through the mythos of Mid-World and The Dark Tower.
My missus dug it, too. ‘It was good. Not brilliant, but good. But it can’t have been anything like the books, can it? It wasn’t long enough...’
Which will teach me to use a thousand words where four sentences would do :/