Why calling the Dark Tower movie a “sequel” to the books is meaningless (and brilliant)

Can you imagine if HBO had started its Game of Thrones show after the events of George R.R. Martin’s novels? It’d be insane, right? An impenetrable mess.

Unlike the straightforward storytelling we’re used to seeing thus far.

So it’s no surprise there’s a lot of hype and speculation (and even fear) surrounding the fact that the movie version of The Dark Tower opening this Friday is a sequel to Stephen King’s series of book, rather than an adaptation.

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Concern got ratcheted up to 11 earlier this week when Variety revealed that test audiences who saw the original cut late last year were absolutely brutal in their reviews because they couldn’t follow a damn word of the thing.

What part of “universe-hopping, demon-fighting, modern-day, medieval sorcery western” do you not understand?

As a result, the two production studios behind the film (both of which had absolute veto power every aspect of the film, as did Stephen King—triple yikes!) pushed the release date from February to July (and then August) so they could add $6 million worth of re-shoots to the $60 million film. These re-shoots resulted in a much more streamlined story, along with one entirely new scene full of crucial exposition.

“Before I shoot you, you don’t mind if I stop the action for a second and rehash the entire plot thus far, do you?”

Yeah, so, be afraid. What we’re getting in theaters is a studio-mandated Cliff Notes version of the original cut, and is, in fact, probably better than what was originally produced.

But here’s the good news. None of that has anything to do with the film being a sequel rather than starting at the beginning of the story.

Which, because it’s a Stephen King book, is required by law to start with an over-earnest, occasionally bullied, often neglected 12-year-old boy with a heart of gold.

This whole “sequel” thing is just a clever but meaningless tip o’ the hat to the uber-fans. It’s entirely irrelevant—and brilliant.

If you don’t mind some unforgivably massive spoilers, I’ll explain why after the warning. (And if you’d rather not read on, no worries. Just rest assured that all of this “sequel” hype has nothing to do with you or your movie-watching experience.)











Still with me? Good.

In the Dark Tower series, our hero Roland’s epic quest to save all of existence reaches its victorious conclusion at the end of book 7, which is simply titled The Dark Tower, and it is absolutely the best ending Stephen King has ever written.

This is particularly impressive since a) after 20+ years and a gazillion pages of build-up, expectations for the finale were beyond monumental, and b) Stephen King famously sucks at endings.

I wasted eight hours of my life on this bullshit?!

And here’s the thing: Stephen King, who had written himself into the Dark Tower series as a character by then, doesn’t give you the awesome ending until the epilogue.

In fact, he spends the first several pages of the epilogue chastising you, the reader, for wanting an epilogue with an ending that doesn’t suck.

Another eight hours of my life for the hero to cure his catatonic girlfriend with a fucking bike ride?

Only after browbeating you for not appreciating the literary brilliance of his lame pre-epilogue ending does King finally relent and reveal the true outcome of Roland’s journey. Which brings us to the big spoiler…

Our hero Roland is stuck in a time loop, and is immediately sucked back in time to the beginning of the first book, with his memory of everything that’s happened erased. His final thought as he’s ripped away from victory and returned to the middle of the quest is to wonder just how many hundreds or thousands of times he’s done this before.

(If that sounds like a crap ending to you, trust me that in the context of the full book series, it is amazing.)

So, there it is. Even though the movie is a sequel to the book series, the flick still starts at the very beginning of the story, with book 1.

Like I said, the “sequel” thing is completely irrelevant.

But it’s also completely brilliant. Not only does it reward the uber-fans who know about the time loop for their insider knowledge, but it also gives the filmmaker a perfect, inarguable excuse to deviate from the original story without pissing off the fanboys.

See, there’s one more thing you need to know: Whoever set up the tower and the time loop (presumably, God himself) whispers a quick word of reassurance in Roland’s ear as his memories are being stolen. Things don’t have to go exactly like they did before, says the All-Powerful Creator of the Multiverse. We the readers are even treated to a tiny bit of proof that Roland’s childhood in this cycle of the time loop didn’t go precisely as it had before.

Things are going to be the same but different this time around. Just like a movie is always different than the book, only this time there’s an explicit reason.

It’s the kind of a Get Out of Jail Free card most moviemakers can only dream of.

“Remember in Bleak House when I had an inexplicably magical laser beam-shooting baseball bat show up in the earnest/bullied/neglected 12-year-old boy’s mailbox as the prize to a contest I repeatedly assured the readers he’d forgotten to enter, and then his dad laser-blasts all the demons into oblivion in like five seconds? Yeah, that shit actually happened and people still keep buying my books!”

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  • Toby Clark

    “Another eight hours of my life for the hero to cure his catatonic girlfriend with a fucking bike ride?”
    It was only about three hours on DVD, probably four on TV.

  • Melvin shermen

    Great post

  • Deneb T. Hall

    Whether or not it works as a theory, it doesn’t do a thing to salvage the actual movie. I would have no trouble buying the notion that a story set in the DT universe which didn’t follow the storyline as presented was just Trip To The Dark Tower #1,339 or something – indeed, that’d be a rather ingenious way of telling just about any story you wanted with Roland, so long as it fit the basic parameters of his quest – but it still has to be a good enough story in its own right to be worthwhile watching, and in the movie’s case, it wasn’t. A bad movie is still a bad movie.

    Also, I don’t think that the ‘just one of many quests’ theory DOES work with the movie. Why? Because Roland isn’t actually on a quest. He could give a damn about reaching the Tower – he doesn’t care one bit about the friggin’ Tower. Sure, things can go ‘just a little bit differently than before’; sure, this Roland is clearly a different one from the guy we saw in the books, but surely the entire point of that ending is that the Gunslinger is doomed to repeat the quest over and over again until he somehow gets it just right, while never knowing until that last agonizing moment of realization that this IS happening, that what he thinks is his own personal obsession is actually some repetitive cosmic pattern that he’s been forced into, and whatever awaits for him in the Tower may yet be cumulative eons of hardship, torture and sacrifice away? Isn’t that the entire friggin’ point? Then how can a Roland who has no interest in the Tower at all be linked to that repetition? Nope, sorry – doesn’t work.

  • prairiemike

    Haven’t seen the film (and won’t), but I can understand its representation as a “sequel” given the epic’s parameters. As to its “brilliance” …. well … the whole point of the repetitive cycle — it seems to me — is to teach Roland something he doesn’t know about himself and his world.. In the source material, Roland’s evolution as a hero is characterized by his release of the last of his friends from the quest before she, too, is sacrificed at the altar of his obsession … just like all his other friends.. That character is not even in the film, and while I suspect the possibility of alternate endings may be addressed in some other way in the film, I would agree that simply calling this the next iteration in the cycle might mollify hardcore “bookies” who can still feel like “insiders” while they complain about the scattershot nature of how the multivverse is presented.

    Oh … and incidentally … I’m not sure I agree about how “amazing” the end of the source material is. It’s all well and good to applaud King for trotting out the tired old “it’s the journey, not the destination” chestnut, but he still uses arbitrary magic to dispose of the Crimson King (yet another of King’s indomitable evil guys who turns out to be a gibbering idiot when the hero looks at him sideways). But King fans almost always forgive him this. His strength as a writer is character development, and the movies simply don’t offer enough time to show us what he can over the course of 600 (or 6,000) pages.

    As far as I can tell, the critical bashing the film has taken is not hurting it at the box office and we can probably expect the long-discussed companion projects that will (might) allow fans a chance to see the people and places they didn’t get to see in the “sequel.”