By Stacey Harrison
Having covered both books and movies in my career, one bit of crossover that’s always puzzled me is why one of the mainstay questions asked of any — and I mean any — author is whether one of his or her books will be made into a movie. Curiously, the people asking these questions are supposed lovers of the books, and they ask with gleeful, sometimes desperate, anticipation that the answer will be “yes.”
I’ve often wondered what the authors make of this. Regardless of their personal feelings toward movie adaptations — some are Salinger-esque in their opposition, while others welcome the exposure and the paycheck — I can’t help but think this is just a bit disheartening. It’s as though a book isn’t considered a major part of a writer’s oeuvre until it hits movie screens, similar to how (to use an outdated example) any song not given wide release off an album was considered a “deep track.” The hell of it is, if and when the movie version does materialize, it’s usually throttled by those same people for not being faithful enough, or for not casting the specific actors they had in mind.
These topics surfaced for me this week as it was made official that Javier Bardem has been cast as Roland in director Ron Howard’s massive, groundbreaking adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. Howard’s plans to encompass the entire seven-volume work, which fills thousands of pages, involves three films and a television series between each installment to tie things together. For completists, it’s way beyond what they could have hoped for, with a major studio (Universal) financing an A-list director with A-list talent using multiple platforms to tell the story.
I’ll go ahead and say it, at the risk of offending my fellow English majors: I’m a huge fan of the books. Stephen King was the first “grown-up” author I started to read once I finally put away my Hardy Boys books. My parents bought each of his novels as they came out, and their collection, which sat on the higher shelves, was a continuous source of wonder and forbidden charms for my burgeoning literary palate. By the time I read the first Dark Tower book my love of Stephen King was my own, and I consumed the first volume, The Gunslinger, enraptured in this alternate reality the Master of Horror had created — a world which combined elements of The Road Warrior, the Book of Revelation and spaghetti Westerns into a compulsively readable yarn.
King would contribute a preface or postscript to nearly every Dark Tower book, and occasionally address any possible movie adaptations of what was shaping up to be his magnum opus. Constant Reader just had to know if there was any chance of seeing Roland, Eddie, Jake and Susannah on the big screen as they sought to find the mythical tower, around which the entire universe hinges. Clint Eastwood seemed the early, obvious favorite to play Roland, but King himself never seemed to get too excited about the prospect, no doubt having been stung by past adaptations of his work. It’s not as though he’s precious about the process. He even allows amateur filmmakers to adapt any of his short stories they wish into a film, for $1, as long as it’s not distributed for profit. But even considering his “as long as the check clears” attitude toward Hollywood, there had to be some reticence when it came to The Dark Tower, especially as he started adding threads to the story that connected it to his other books — among them It, Insomnia, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Stand and The Talisman. What possible coherent two-hour movie could be made of the entire saga? What awful compromises would arise in the name of broadening its appeal?
Personally, I never craved a movie version. The books, and the beautiful illustrations that accompanied each one, were enough. Sure, I had my own ideas about what how certain scenes would play out onscreen — what the Slow Mutants would look like, the transformation from Odetta to Detta to Susannah, the landscape as seen from a seat aboard Blaine the Mono — but I couldn’t get particularly jonesed about seeing how Hollywood might visualize that for me. A more recent example of this has played out in the Harry Potter films. While I can appreciate the tenacity and skill involved in getting that baby on the screen in a consistent, entertaining manner, I can’t say I’ve ever eagerly awaited any cinematic year at Hogwarts. J.K. Rowling’s books, and Mary GrandPre’s art, did the job just fine, and at best the film version would be an adequate representation. At worst, I would sit there going through my mental checklist of what got left out, compressed, changed or switched around. I didn’t care to do the same with The Dark Tower.
Nevertheless, stories about possible Dark Tower projects would arise, everything from an animated HBO series (I’d totally watch that) to J.J. Abrams and the Lost boys producing a seven-film cycle. But little seemed to be happening as far as getting actual cameras to roll. On top of that, once King finally delivered the final volume in 2004, the ending was seen by many as a cop-out and anticlimactic. And although I love the ending, I can see how, as far as a cinematic payoff goes, it isn’t such a rosy prospect. (Nor is the idea of possibly portraying Stephen King himself in the story, as Book VI does, but that’s another topic.)
Yet even after the final book was out, there were plenty of Dark Tower projects for the die-hard fans. Out came the concordances, the comic books, literary analyses and fan sites aplenty. Talk of a film adaptation seemed to be relegated to pipe-dream status, with The Dark Tower sharing the ironic distinction of being the lone unfilmable work of a man whose work seems to be made for the movies. Then along came Ron Howard.
On a personal level, I remain a bit ambivalent, but being in my line of work I immediately informed my editor that if this project ever came to fruition that I want to be the one to cover it. It only seems right. And with Howard at the helm, I believe there’s reason for hope. In recent years, he seems to have escaped a bit of the reputation he once fostered for cranking out middle-of-the-road, safe entertainment, but I’m guessing he still feels like he’s got something to prove. Perhaps he’ll be fearless when it comes to portraying some of the series’ darker moments and not-so-happy endings, just to show all them haters. The casting of Bardem feels right in many ways, though I do worry about the accent a bit. Physically and emotionally, he’s a perfect fit, but he’s never been asked to carry a film in English before. Still, Roland isn’t exactly the most loquacious guy, so I’m expecting pretty great things.
Part of me wants to pore over the books again, in preparation for the films and series, but I’ve come to the conclusion that adaptations of books, by and large, work better for audiences who do not know the source material backward and forward. If you read the book, then watch the movie, you run the risk of letting the differences overwhelm any enjoyment you might have. Conversely, if you watch the movie first, the book could act as a director’s cut, for lack of a better term, filling in all the narrative holes and fleshing out the excised characters that just had to go. Furthermore, whatever is onscreen, good or bad, won’t change what the author wrote, and won’t change what you love about it. Even if the Dark Tower filmmakers do something on par with having Hester Prynne and Rev. Dimmesdale stay together at the end, the original work will endure.
So, bring it on, Mr. Howard. Best of luck to you and Mr. Bardem. Proceed safe in the knowledge that there is no danger of you raping my childhood or whatever the appropriate hyperbolic metaphor is for trampling on one’s good memories. Your Dark Tower will be just that. Mine is at home, sitting on a shelf. A high one.