The Dark Tower (2017) is a mash up between the Western, there's a gunslinger, the epic fantasy, there's a dark tower that is central of the fate of a mankind, and a quest to prevent evil overtaking the world, and this acts as a direct reference to fantasy film and plot of Lord of The Rings (2001). Adding to then similarities in plot and setting The Dark Tower has orcs and an emotional tone and visual style that is directly mimics The Lord of the Rings trilogy of films. In addition, as as another trope of fantasy, The Dark Tower story there has a portal fantasy which works through science fiction technology. Also, to reference further fantasy links the gunslinger's revolvers are made from the metal from which the Arthurian Excalibur sword was made. Plus, the boy in the story has The Shine, the Stephen King label for psychic/supernatural powers. So, throughout The Dark Tower there is an explicit and extensive mashup, which is the populist time for inter textual hybridity.
With a mash up either this can be accepted and enjoyed, so that the audience's inter texual knowledge, genre matching, is an enjoyment, as much as the specific story or the mash up can be rejected. Audience's rejected The Dark Tower, probably because the inter texuality is so close to other specific sources that it is derivative: a key scene in The Dark Tower is a re-working of the foyer gunfight in The Matrix (1999) and The Dark Tower uses so much that is similar to Lord of The Rings that it is a chore making all the comparisons. The fan audience enjoys the sense of being privileged of being an insider to inter textual references, but when the mash up is so explicit this sense of special knowledge and cult belonging is lost: its all too easy for everyone and anyone to see the sources for the film, so it looses cultural value for the connoisseur.
For me, the mash up element that badly damaged the potential for an engaging individual story in The Dark Tower was the image and characterisation of the evil Walter, the devil of the story who is visually stylized as though they are going to a 1970's disco night: dyed raven black hair, combed back flat, all black clothes, fashion cut, and coded as a cool part of Walter's cool, cold demonic style. Walter first appears in a scene set close to the end of the American Civil War (1881 to 1885) which is anachronistic to his costume and then the world that Walter inhabits, where his base and minions are, is a 20th century industrial and dystopian factory lair. So, why is he dressed as though he's going to Club 54, for a boogie on the dance floor? Also, his costume is a cliche of the villain and does not have any subtlety of reference. It's not integrated into the film, has no function in the narrative and is stereotypical rather than iconic, with an iconic costume linking the costume to a specific and particular narrative.
Fantasy, Sci-Fi (SF to some) and Horror are all subject to genre fandom where inter texuality is a key feature of audience pleasure, but The Dark Tower makes it clear that this referencing can't be so overt and blatant that it becomes banal. The feature that increases this problem is the story structure. The film is 95 minutes, not long enough for an epic, so the story has to jump between epic story elements: its in the 1880's, its in modern New York, its in the Wasteland. The pace of the changes emphasizes the construction, and so the young boy's personal journey, to overcome the loss caused by his father's death, the boy's journey to realize his power to stop evil, is quickly and negligently signposted. There's no depth and no surprises in the story. So, to resolve this one solution would a longer film, or a trilogy, or just one move in the story from New York to the Wasteland would be better, but, presumably the choice not to move between worlds, past and present, future and imaginary, and to stay in the Wasteland once it was established would no doubt loose fidelity to the Stephen King novels, which is considered a failure of adaptation by SF fans.. The reviews of the film make it clear that the novels are far superior and more successful than the film. There are eight books in the series, so a single film is effectively only a summary: a television series is more suited to adapt a long novel.
In terms of writing a story like the Dark Tower, mixing genres, Stephen King wrote a long and very detailed book about horror and fantasy, Danse Macabre (1981 re-published 2010) Running to over 350 pages this indicate how much work King has devoted to studying writing through genre, how to develop as a genre writer, but the book also participates in a significant feature of late 20th century fiction in its creation by Stephen King, and popul ar consumption, a widespread discussion and debate about genres. Authors and the public not being concerned with what the story is about, but what kind of story is being told and how it connects to their understanding and expectations for this genre.
This discussion about narrative as genre is propagated, prolonged and evidenced by the critical and popular arguments, positions, debates about what is science-fiction is: are both hard and soft science fiction, truly science fiction? This discourse is one that removes any debate away from realism and the resulting narrative mash ups is one of the products of this: audience's being offered familiarity of content rather than singularity. More broadly the move into genre as the basis for film narrative, how it is recognized judged and values, indicate a shift in fiction from naturalism and the depiction of society in 19th century and early 20th century literature, to modernism emerging in the first part of the 20th century and then in the second half with the concern of literature moving away from naturalism and into genre and intertextual readings. This intertexuality is a significant change in the intention and use of storytelling. Genre creates non-specific cultural artifacts, mass culture forms which develop commercially through mass publication and mark a separation of story moving from direct historical and cultural origin to non-realist fantasy and SF.
The progression of this shift to genre in the the 21st century is witnessing the dominance of the Marvel and DC universes and the key issues for the audience is not realism, but how the story in one film relates to the last film and predicts or makes possible the next. The audience is living in the Marvel Universe, the world of Star Wars and the DC universe and these are colliding and combining so that there is evermore overlap. National narratives, specification narratives are in the minority, while ensemble casting, culturally diverse and allegorical dystopian worlds dominate. This trajectory from genre group to the persistance of story universe is only for the mass audience films, but the effect is to make socially specific and historical films reach only specialized, small scale audience. This is counter to the aims of cultural diversity and empowerment because only fabricated story worlds and emblematic signs of diversity and equality are represented. And what might seem odd in relation to genre dominance is that non-realist storytelling, which was prevalent in pre-industrial, pre-literary ages, is again dominant in the digital age
The Chinese saga known respectively as The Investiture of the Gods, or Tales of a Teahouse Retold recounts the story of the Zhou dynasty (1600–1046 BC) across a several thousand pages and this very long form story line that has been learned, shared and discussed by mass disparate, society to create a shared mythology is the one that is being mirrored by the long form serial narrative of Marvel, DC and Star Wars. This may indicate that in larges cale, diverse societies, rather than narratives becoming diverse, they become unified in a fictionalized and mythic landscape. The reason for the success of the Marvel and DC franchises is given to globalization in marketing and distribution, but this pan-circulation is also a cultural process: individual and small scale social histories are devalued but the global franchises and brands are shared and they offer cultural value.
Given the poor critical and commercial reception to The Dark Tower and in relation to the forms and consumption of genre the story should not have been made as single standalone film, but as long form television series and of course this is how many stories are being adapted and developed for television: where formerly a novel or a set of novels might become a single feature film it will now be a series, such as Game of Thrones (2011-2019) which takes the story beyond that of the publish books to maintain and enlarge its story world. Stephen King and other SF/Horror writers work to scale of the epic tale and this investment in forms of fantasy and in genre as the mode of storytelling has moved from a specialist subject interest, to the mass audience investing in genre above realism.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019