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Blueprint for Success: Is The Dark Tower The Future of Multi-Media Experience?

Perhaps it’s down to the fact that movies have always been inherently distrustful of other forms of media (particularly newer modes like television or the internet), as reflected in the constant battle with them (with movies seeking an edge – like 3D – that other media can’t quickly ape) – but I’m surprised that an idea like this hasn’t been tried before. After quite a long period of speculation, it has been confirmed that Stephen King’s The Dark Tower is coming to the big screen. But it’s also coming to the little screen, at the same time. In fact, the not-at-all unambitious plan for the franchise can be laid out as follows:  

Step 1: They’ll kick it off with a movie, presumably the movie will tell the story of the first book, The Gunslinger which is a shorter book and extremely cinematic. They could also maybe fit in The Drawing of the Three in which the Gunslinger Roland meets his companions.  

Step 2: That movie will be immediately followed by a TV series which will pick up where the movie leaves off. A TV series is the ideal format to tackle some of the longer, more episodic stories.  

Step 3: The TV series will then lead into a second feature film.  

Step 4: After that second feature film, a TV series will then cover the events of the book Wizard and Glass in which the story of Roland’s youth is retold.  

Step 5: That will then launch into a third feature film… perhaps to wrap the story up or maybe simply to take the next step. Whether they end it there or plan more movies and more television presumably depends on audience response.  

That’s certainly one heck of a roadmap for a franchise, right there.  

Towering ambition...

For those unfamiliar with The Dark Tower (and, to be honest, despite the saga’s huge cult following, I suspect that’s quite a few people), it essentially forms the backbone of King’s work over the past couple of decades. It’s a central fantasy narrative which spans a simply huge area (in both time and space), with its tendrils extending across a wide selection of King’s earlier (and seemingly unrelated) novels like The Stand and It. The Dark Tower is essentially a surprisingly strong set of connecting tissue which wires through an incredibly vast network of work.  

While I have great fondness for Stephen King, I’ll admit he has his detractors, but I’ve noticed time and time again that those who have read The Dark Tower rave about it as a high watermark in modern fantasy. Indeed, some of the early buzz for the film series is already comparing to The Lord of the Rings or Avatar:  

Some of Stephen King’s grand seven-book The Dark Tower series has its roots in the fantasy world J.R.R. Tolkien created (and Peter Jackson brought to life magnificently) in Lord of the Rings. But the epic, winding, horrific journey of gunslinger anti-hero Roland Deschain – King’s most intriguing, deftly woven, exciting and tortured character – will, I predict, consign The Lord of the Rings three-film combined $3 billion box office total to the history books (and, also, with TV franchise revenues added in will also dwarf Avatar’s single-film $2.8billion figure too).  

I’m not quite convinced, but it demonstrates the sheer amount of buzz around the project, which is certainly reflected in the audacious cross-media plans for the adaptation.  

I’m actually pretty excited by the plans, and Howard himself seems to realise the strengths of the two forms of entertainment, and has figured out how to use each to its potential to tell a fully rounded story (and acknowledging the debt he owes Peter Jackson):  

What Peter did was a feat, cinematic history. The approach we’re taking also stands on its own, but it’s driven by the material. I love both, and like what’s going on in TV. With this story, if you dedicated to one medium or another, there’s the horrible risk of cheating material. The scope and scale call for a big screen budget. But if you committed only to films, you’d deny the audience the intimacy and nuance of some of these characters and a lot of cool twists and turns that make for jaw-dropping, compelling television. We’ve put some real time and deep thought into this, and a lot of conversations and analysis from a business standpoint, to get people to believe in this and take this leap with us. I hope audiences respond to it in a way that compels us to keep going after the first year or two of work. It’s fresh territory for me, as a filmmaker.  

Can NBC look forward to bright skies on the horizon?

There is a flipside to this, though, in that Universal are the studio who will be handling the epic production. When you think of ground-breaking television, it’s seldom networks like NBC which spring to mind – HBO or AMC would seem more logical choices:  

Moreover, even if the film versions are able to push the envelope a little, how will the TV series follow suit if they are screened as planned on conservative US TV network NBC?  

King himself has suggested that he relishes the idea of his story reaching as wide an audience as possible:  

There’s a lot of blood in the series — how much is the TV series going to be censored? It likely would have been easier to join forces with a network without restrictions, à la HBO, no?
I don’t see that as a problem at all! We’ll have just enough latitude to make a great series. I’ve worked in network TV before, and every time I was squeezed a little, it just made me look for creative solutions. Besides, I always like to play in the biggest auditorium available!  

Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the success or failure of the franchise will inevitably determine if this sort of style catches on, but I can’t help but feel a little excited by the multi-media aspect. Of course, film and television have always overlapped to an extent – series like M*A*S*H have crossed from big screen to little screen and series like Star Trek have gone to the silver screen from the TV screen, and adaptations of properties like The A-Team or Miami Vice are all the rage at the moment – but there’s seldom been a real engagement.  

It’s rare to see both aspects of a multi-media production thought of at the same time. More often one idea flows from the other, sometimes to the point where it’s hard to believe both concepts began as the same idea (compare the fun and gleefully ridiculous Stargate SG-1 to the po-faced original Stargate, for example). Sure, sometimes geek-savvy productions will attempt to use other media to wrangle cash or interest from the nerdy fans of a property, but such low-level crossovers rarely speak to a harmonised result – compare Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight to the direct-to-DVD tie-in Gotham Knight or the Watchmen movie to the direct-to-DVD Under the Hood, where the non-theatrical element usually feels at best superfluous.  

And as much fun as on-line content for big budget blockbusters can be (for example, the “all the rage” viral campaigns for films like Tron Legacy or The Dark Knight), there’s always just a sense that – no matter how immersive they are – they are just marketing campaigns. There’s generally little to no sense that the people behind the film (from a creative standpoint, at least) are every really engaged with what the marketing folks are up to, however faithful they make it. I doubt Christopher Nolan really drove the viral content for The Dark Knight, while he undoubtedly had veto.  

Instead, I get the sense from the content of the material and the talent involved, the television element will likely be almost as essential to the second film as the first film was. Though, to be honest, a Ron Howard television show is quite probably worth checking out regardless of whether it’s “essential” or not. It immediately places the television serial in the same category as Spielberg’s Band of Brothers or Darabonte’s Walking Dead or Scorsese’s Boardwalk Empire. It’s something that definitely doesn’t seem like an after-thought or a half-hearted cash-in (it’s definitely a cash-in, but I’ve got little problem with it if the quality is up to scratch).  

I haven’t read the books, I will concede, but I might just before the film adaptation comes our way. I’m definitely excited by the idea of combining the sheer scale of blockbuster cinema with the more intimate storytelling setting of television to paint a picture that can be epic yet lowkey, broad yet focused, jaw-dropping and engaging. It’s a wonderfully bold idea for a huge property like this, and one that is fascinatingly experimental (albeit in an entirely predictable way – I’m amazed it took this long for something like this to happen).  

Now, let’s see if Ron Howard can build a fantasy masterpiece to King’s specifications. As more than one commentator has observed, it’s highly likely that this particular opus will reach us long before The Hobbit.

4 Responses

  1. Talk about being well planned-out. Yeesh.

    That’s so involved that I honestly can’t see any end for it that doesn’t involve massive failure on some level.

    • I suspect you’re right, there’s just too much at stake. But, hey, we complain about movie studios not taking risks all the time, so I hope it plays out, at least.

  2. I love the movie/tv show idea for telling this story, but I’m greatly apprehensive about Ron Howard being in charge. The series is quite brutal and needs someone that understands that and I don’t see Howard as really being that person. I’m hoping he proves me wrong and absolutely hits this out of the park, but I’m trying not to get too excited. Dark Tower is one of my favorite book series and it has so much to it that could just go horribly wrong on screen if they don’t handle it right.

    • Yep, I am not too sure Howard’s the person, but I’m more concerned around Universal as the studio, to be honest. I’d be surprised if the TV show is allowed to be anything too remarkable.

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