In a career spanning 50 years and over 80 books, Stephen King has amassed a towering reputation as one of our greatest storytellers. The author of innumerable bestsellers, he has been honoured 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 recognised 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 realise 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
“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.”
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 stabilising 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.”
“Roland is not a cowboy; he’s a Gunslinger, and a very skilled shooter,” says Idris Elba, who plays Roland Deschain. “When we meet him, he’s the last in a long line of the protectors of the Tower.”
“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 Matthew McConaughey, who plays Walter O’Dim, aka The Man In Black. “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 dreamed about was incredible – especially coming directly off the boat from Denmark!”
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.”
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 movie-going 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.