09 September 2010

Size Defeats Us

“The greatest mystery the universe offers is not life but size. Size encompasses life, and the Tower encompasses size. The child, who is most at home with wonder, says: Daddy, what is above the sky? And the father says: The darkness of space. The child: What is beyond space? The father: The galaxy. The child: Beyond the galaxy? The father: Another galaxy. The child: Beyond the other galaxies? The father: No one knows."


WARNING: The following column contains spoilers for Stephen King's The Dark Tower series. Forewarned is forearmed.

By now, if you're any kind of fan of fantasy or horror fiction, or an avid reader of the novels of Stephen King, you will have heard the news that erupted yesterday: King's epic seven-book apocalyptic fantasy The Dark Tower is being adapted by Universal Pictures as a trilogy. And by NBC Universal Television as a series. That's the big deal. The books are being adapted for both film and for TV, will run consecutively with one another so that the first film will be followed by a one-season TV show, followed by the next film, and so on. It will film all at once much as Peter Jackson did with the Lord of the Rings movies. The difference here is that the people doing the adapting may not exactly understand what they've let themselves in for, because they've never done anything that wasn't incredibly average.

Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman, meet the hardest job you will ever undertake in your entire careers. I have absolutely no confidence in your abilities to pull it off.

This is not meant as a slight. Ron Howard is a competent filmmaker and has done some decent work in the past. Likewise, Akiva Goldsman is a screenwriter of workmanlike abilities who has had passing success at adapting books for film before now . . . though he has played fast and loose with some of those books, and he has a tendency to write utter dreck when he works on original stories (Lost In Space, Batman Forever, and Batman and Robin, I'm looking your way with narrowed eyes). I do not have many good things to say about Goldsman's work or about Howard's movies, but many people seem to like them both, and keep throwing money at them because they know how to make films people want to go to see, and this is fine if that's all you want from a film.

But this . . . this is another animal entirely. This is like climbing the Matterhorn when all you've done previously is run up the stairs with a bag of Funyuns.

King's Dark Tower books, their literary merits aside (and I am not about to engage in a debate about the literary merits of the work of Stephen King; I've heard the arguments for both sides and while Harold Bloom has a point or two, he's also an insufferable elitist snob -- and while King is an incredibly talented writer, he's far too in love with the sound of his own narrative voice to know when to stop using the fucking thing), are a massive undertaking just to read, let alone to adapt in any fashion. King himself took almost thirty years to write them, and they are a cornucopia of ideas, allusions, lyrical language, stark and strange and wonderful imagery, and some of the most compelling, memorable characters and events that King has ever set down on the page. There is also a lot of fat -- Lord, is there ever -- and the later books, Wolves of the Calla in particular, serve as examples of Harlan Ellison's complaint that what King's writing needs most of all is an editor unafraid to tell him no. But overall, the series serves as a high water mark in King's fiction, a blazing, comet-like arc of a story, more ambitious than anything else he's ever done, and so all-encompassingly large in scope that it has practically consumed everything else he's ever done.

The seven books clock in at almost 3800 pages, and while I doubt anyone has ever attempted a word count I would estimate that to be in the millions somewhere. And that's not including the Dark Tower comics plotted by King and being published by Marvel. Nor does it include the Tower-related novel The Wind Through the Keyhole, which King may or may not be writing at some future date. Howard and Goldsman are planning on adapting all seven books, as well as most of the comics, the plan being that the comics would comprise the TV series and deal with the main character Roland as a boy and young man, whereas the films would detail the main quest for the Tower as depicted in the novels. This would lead to some overlap, as Roland's youth and formative years are also treated with in the books, and it will be interesting to see what winds up where. It will also be interesting to see if Howard, who intends to direct the first film and the first TV season, and Goldsman, who intends to write them, will be up to the task. My instinct says that they will not be, because nothing they have done before suggests they are ready to do anything of this scope, of this magnitude. Stephen King, who frequently has several projects going at once and releases a book or two a year, almost didn't manage it.

Think about it. King took almost thirty years of writing, on and off, to put his epic together. That is a huge investment of time, a career-spanning, in some ways career-defining, piece of work. It contains some of King's most carefully constructed plotting, and some of his most sensitively-depicted characters. And at the center of it all is Roland, a tragic enigma whose life is only ever brought into partial focus, and whose tale's resolution is, quite frankly, one of the darkest and most horrifying King has ever written. (And if you don't agree with me, tough titty. This is my opinion. Go get your own blog. Nyah.) Howard and Goldsman are betting that they can condense all that into three movies and a couple of 24-episode TV seasons. And while that unprecedented combination of media may fit the span of King's story, I don't think the people doing the writing have a hope in hell of replicating the size of it.

Let me explain that. I keep going on about how all-encompassing the Dark Tower hooks are, how they seem to have consumed most of King's other work. That's not just hyperbole. In the seventh and last book of the Gunslinger's saga, the "Other Works By Stephen King" page has all the Dark Tower-related titles printed in boldface, and while I don't have the book here with me to look at right now (naughty me, I'm blogging from my desk at work on a slow day), the number is sizable and extends all the way back to Salem's Lot, King's second published novel. However, a quick check of Wikipedia shows that the list includes the novella "The Mist" in Skeleton Crew, another short story and a standalone novella featuring Roland that was printed in Everything's Eventual, and novels like Insomnia, Rose Madder, Desperation, The Regulators,  Bag of Bones, Dark House, and It . . . to name a few. In fact, Insomnia, Everything's Eventual, and especially Hearts In Atlantis play a significant part in the background of the overall story -- so much so that it's almost impossible to separate them from it. How are Goldsman and Howard going to approach those stories? Some of them can be dismissed -- Rose Madder, for instance, is negligible in this regard -- but Salem's Lot, Everything's Eventual, Hearts In Atlantis, and most especially Insomonia are intrinsic to what happens in the final volumes of the series, not just in terms of story or plot points, but in terms of essential characters. They can't be ignored completely, and while maybe a couple of them can be dealt with via cinematic shorthand, they still demand to be dealt with fairly. I guarantee that if they are not, King fans will howl bloody murder . . . and rightfully so.

Then there is King himself. In an excellent piece of metafiction that set not a few readers' teeth on edge and which was misconstrued as massive egomania on King's part, King audaciously wrote himself into the story starting with Book Five. (That King presents himself as a drunk, a poltroon, and more than a bit of a coward is apparently lost on these readers -- hardly the act of an egomaniac, that.). It is a literary conceit that few writers have had the guts to attempt, and King pulls it off fairly well. How are Goldsman and Howard going to approach this angle of the story? It's not something that can be ignored at all -- especially considering that one of the major setpieces in the novel takes place in the middle of King's near-fatal accident. Again, if this is left out or mucked up fans of the series -- including, no doubt, those who didn't like what King did -- will be less than pleased.

And then there are key events that will be very hard to depict, including but hardly limited to:

  • Roland gives a woman an abortion with the barrel of his gun in an infamous scene in The Gunslinger
  • Roland shoots dead an entire town full of people later in the same book.
  • Roland allows a young boy to fall to his death in order to catch the Man In Black.
  • Roland recruits a heroin addict named Eddie to fight by his side and Eddie must participate in a pitched gun battle while completely naked.
  • The Detta Walker character, who is black, talks in a ghetto patois so cartoonish that the NAACP will surely protest the use of the character, even though she's deliberately written that way to achieve a desired effect later in the story.
  • The attack of the Guardian Of The Beam Shardik early in The Waste Lands will be one of the more unpleasant scenes ever put to film, what with the snot and giant maggots. (Hey, enjoy your dinner!)
  • The eponymous Waste Lands themselves are going to require a massive outlay of budgeting for (presumably) CGI effects -- and you better believe fans are going to watch with an eagle eye to see how closely those effects match Ned Dameron's stunning illustrations.
. . . and that's just the first three books. I'm not including the creepy "virginity test" in Wizard and Glass, or the heartbreaking fiery climax of young Roland's tale in that book. Nor am I including the demon sex which bookends one of the most important subplots to crop up in Song of Susannah. And so on, and so forth. . . . there is a lot of envelope-pushing going on here, to say the least.

Then there's casting. And I don't even want to go there . . . but as long as I bring it up, who would you cast in your ideal version of The Dark Tower? Then think about the type of actors who routinely appear in Ron Howard's movies . . . yeah. Doesn't exactly inspire confidence, does it.

I could go on, but the point I've been trying to make is simply this: The Dark Tower is big. It's huge. Adapting it is going to be like going to Mars and back. It's going to take the kind of attention to worldbuilding and detail that Jackson and WETA brought to the Lord of the Rings movies. It's going to take a sure hand behind the camera, and a fine hand at the pen. And above all it's going to require a singular level of commitment from Universal and NBC that has never been accomplished before in popular entertainment. And once that level is achieved, it will have to be maintained throughout the entire production. It will have to please Stephen King -- who, let's face it folks, is pretty easy to please if his opinion of Mick Garris' lousy The Shining adaptation is any gauge -- but more than that, it will have to please a bevy of anxious fans who love these books, and who want to see them done justice, and not just thrown up on the screen with some pretty effects and some gore and grit and maybe a blue tint-wash to the footage to suggest a fantastic, horrific atmosphere. They don't just want a multi-media extravaganza. They want the goddamn Dark Tower. They want Roland and Eddie and Susannah and Jake, and Marten Broadcloak/Randall Flagg, and Susan Delgado, and Alain, and Cuthbert, and on and on and on.

And as a fan, that's what I want too.

I know I won't get all of that -- no film adaptation is perfect. But off the top of my head I can think of five directors infinitely more qualified than Ron Howard (Alfonso Cuaron., Guillermo del Toro, David Fincher, David Yates, and Frank Darabont), and screenwriters infinitely more qualified than Akiva Goldsman (Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, William Goldman, Darabont again, and Richard LaGravenese), to bring these books to life. To say that Howard and Goldsman are a disappointment to me is to understate somewhat. In a way it's dismaying . . . because I just don't have the confidence that these two can bring the tough, hard-hitting images of the books to life. That they can refuse to pull punches and produce a work that is true to the original in event and in spirit. That they will not make the more commercial decisions in their adaptation.

In short, that they will betray King's vision . . . and in so doing, betray the people who want most for them to do the best job they can: the fans.

I hope I'm wrong. I hope that what they produce will be a surprise to me. It's early going, and there isn't even a script or a casting decision to bitch about yet. So we'll see. But Howard and Goldsman had best be aware that what they have their hands on here is not just another story, at least not to those who love it most. What they have their hands on is huge. An Everest of stories. And they'd best have their Sherpas and their pitons and their tents and oxygen in order. Because if they fall, it's a long way down.

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