Why It Took So Long to Make a Dark Tower Movie

5 minute read

Spoiler alert for the Dark Tower books ahead

The Dark Tower is the seemingly perfect series to make the leap to the big screen. Stephen King’s popular novels have made for many a movie and television show, and the Dark Tower series is perhaps his best-selling exception. All eight books in the series have topped bestseller lists, and the stories have been spun out into comics and even an online game. King has millions of loyal followers, and this particular sprawling tale is filled with the sort of magic and mythos that have made Harry Potter and Game of Thrones such successes. And yet, Dark Tower languished in in production hell for nearly a decade. Here’s what happened.

What exactly is The Dark Tower series?

King’s series — encompassing eight books and one novella — mashes up elements of fantasy, horror, sci-fi and Western. The author has cited Lord of the Rings and the The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as inspirations. He’s referred to the works as his magnum opus, and it took decades for him to complete the series. The first book, The Gunslinger, was published in 1982, the last, The Dark Tower, in 2004.

The plot is complicated, but the famous first line of the series holds the key: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” The Man in Black is the villain — well, a villain — and our hero is Roland Deschain, a cowboy knight known as a gunslinger. Roland is on a quest to find the Dark Tower, a place that links multiple worlds together. Along the way Roland befriends a boy named Jake Chamber who lives in the world readers recognize but has visions of Roland’s reality, a post-apocalyptic universe called Mid-World.

Characters and aspects of The Dark Tower also occasionally show up in other King novels, like The Shining, Salem’s Lot and The Stand.

Why is it so difficult to adapt?

The books’ complicated mythology might make them ripe for television adaptation — where creators have dozens of hours to explore the material — but the story is harder to condense into a film. (That’s part of the reason book readers are concerned with the upcoming movie’s relatively brief 95 minute run-time.) Director Nikolaj Arcel listed some of the challenges to Uproxx: “So many characters, so many ideas, so many plots, so many things you’ve got to remember from book one to be able to follow book five.”

So when did the saga of the making of The Dark Tower begin?

In 2007, the team behind Lost, including J.J. Abrams, Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, optioned the book series. It seemed to be a match made in heaven: Lost and Dark Tower both merge realism with magical elements. However, the team never adapted the series: They claimed that their show, which was still airing at the time, had drained them — though Abrams did go on to take a crack at two other epics, Star Trek and Star Wars. In 2010 the rights to Dark Tower expired.

But the project didn’t die?

Nope. That year, Universal scooped up the rights and recruited Ron Howard (Apollo 13) to direct. Universal planned to turn the books into both a movie and television series. A movie would premiere every two years with the TV show filling in the gaps between the films. That project, too, fell through, in part because of how expensive the unprecedented movie-TV crossover project would have been.

So how did this version come to be?

Sony acquired the right to the series and signed Stephen King super fan Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair) to direct and Idris Elba to star as Roland, a casting decision that received King’s seal of approval. Matthew McConaughey then signed on to play the villain, The Man in Black.

Arcel told Entertainment Weekly of his adaptation: “The tower is a beacon of light in a world that’s cynical and dark and sometimes feels a little hopeless, and this is about the quest for that.”

Does the movie share a plot with the first book?

This is rather complicated. The Dark Tower film is actually a sequel to the entire series. “The hardcore fans of The Dark Tower series will know that this is actually a sequel to the books in a way,” Arcel explained to Entertainment Weekly. “It has a lot of the same elements, a lot of the same characters, but it is a different journey.” It’s difficult to explain what Arcel means without spoiling the entire book series. You’ve been warned.

Wait it’s a sequel?

In the final book of the Dark Tower series, King introduces parallel timelines. Roland finds out that he’s been completing the same quest over and over again with differing results. He’s then sent back to the beginning with no memory of what transpired before. So The Dark Tower is a version of one of these lived-over lives, which means events may be different than those experienced by Roland in the book. Apparently, the movie fuses together parts of the first novel The Gunslinger and the third novel The Waste Lands together.

Is there still a TV show coming?

Maybe. Arcel told IndieWire that he and several others have written a script for the long-gestating TV series based on the fourth book, Wizard and Glass. He added that the producers plan to feature Elba in the show in some capacity. It’s still unclear whether McConaughey would make the jump to the the small screen. However, no network, streaming service or cable network has signed on to make the series yet. The fate of that show may depend on the film’s box office returns.

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com