By Michael Mims
In 2009, the novelist Neil Gaiman went viral when he blogged a response to a piece of fan mail from a frustrated reader of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. The fan asked if it was reasonable to feel Martin was bound by a “responsibility” to satisfy his fans by releasing the series’ next book in a timely manner. Gaiman famously responded, “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.”
Gaiman wrote that when a fan buys a copy of a book, the transaction is over. The author owes nothing more, and he can’t guarantee a swift and tidy resolution to the story.
“You don’t choose what will work,” he wrote. “You simply do the best you can each time. And you try to do what you can to increase the likelihood that good art will be created.”
Gaiman’s words ring true again with Tuesday’s announcement that Idris Elba will portray Roland Deschain in the upcoming movie adaption of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. Roland is the anti-hero protagonist of King’s Dark Tower saga and the titular character of the forthcoming first movie, “The Gunslinger.”
Many ardent Dark Tower fans have voiced disapproval of Elba’s casting because he is black, and the series’ Roland Deschain is white.
Such complaints have distracted from what should be a reason for celebration — a film adaptation of Dark Tower (a seven volume, 4,000+ page behemoth ) has been stuck in development hell for nearly a decade, but now it is set to begin filming in South Africa in seven weeks.
Elba will provide a signature face to the franchise. After his breakout role as fan-favorite Stringer Bell on HBO’s The Wire, Elba starred in such works as the BBC series Luther and the film Beasts of No Nation. He has earned a reputation as one of Hollywood’s budding stars, as indicated by long-running rumors that he could play the next James Bond.
Yet in the current cultural climate, the negative response to Elba’s casting in Dark Tower is hardly a surprise. Recent years have bore witness to outrage over the idea of casting Quvenzhané Wallis as Little Orphan Annie, Donald Glover as Spiderman, and of course Elba himself as James Bond. In each instance, the complaints contained little substance beyond cries that “the character has always been white!” Such hollow objections made it easy to dismiss their concerns as bigotry.
But as an obsessive fan of Dark Tower, I’m willing to give the Elba-as-Roland critics a little benefit of the doubt. I was initially skeptical of Elba’s casting. The race of Roland Deschain is more than just a footnote. The story of a young Stephen King falling in love with Clint Eastwood as the “Man With No Name” and modeling Roland after Eastwood, is a crucial piece of the Dark Tower’s mythology, both in real life and in the meta elements of the books. Of course fans are going to be disappointed to hear that, right from the start, the studio is tinkering with that mythology. For that reason, I don’t think most of the complaining fans are racists. But I do think that they’re a tad shortsighted, and exhibiting a form of the entitlement Gaiman described above.
When rumors of Elba’s casting first surfaced, King tweeted:
His words ring true–race seems to be a flexible issue for a character in a story that is part Western, part sci-fi, and part Arthurian legend. And more than anything else, the pleasures of Dark Tower come from its rich characters, its intoxicating alien world and the adventures of its band of friends.
Dark Tower is not a story about race, but Elba as Roland will inevitably alter some of the story’s mythos.
For one, in the written story, Roland has a racially-charged conflict with one of the story’s other main characters, who is black. She spends an entire book hatefully referring to Roland as a “honky mahfah.” But perhaps more importantly, the character’s resemblance to Clint Eastwood is far from perfunctory
Roland is described as having blue “bombardier’s eyes.” His companions—who hail from our own world —frequently note his resemblance to the famous actor as the “Man With No Name.” In “Wolves of the Calla,” the fifth volume of Dark Tower, King explains why.
In an introductory essay, King writes that at nineteen-years-old he became obsessed with writing an epic tale in the style of The Lord of the Rings. Soon after, he saw Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly in theatres.
“[B]efore the film was even half over, I realized that what I wanted to write was a novel that contained Tolkien’s sense of quest and magic but set against Leone’s almost absurdly majestic Western backdrop.” And so was born Roland Deschain, whom King explicitly modeled after Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name.”
But in 1999, with three Dark Tower books left for King to write, Roland’s quest was nearly derailed. A blue Dodge van struck King, nearly killing him. That traumatizing event significantly altered King’s vision for Dark Tower. The final three volumes ooze with nostalgia, as King explores themes of adolescence, growing old, and the power of imagination. King’s conception of Roland Deschain becomes the chief embodiment of these themes, as the books begin to wed fiction and reality.
King himself becomes a character in Roland’s quest, and the gunslinger and his “ka-tet” help the author narrowly escape death from that blue van. The fictional King gazes into the eyes of Roland, that spaghetti western hero he dreamed up in a movie theatre so many years ago, and confesses “You started as a version of Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name … a fantasy version of Clint Eastwood.”
The Dark Tower’s central conflict relies heavily on the mythology of the young King’s fascination with Eastwood, his molding of Eastwood into Roland, and the young man’s creation returning years later to save the elder King’s life.
Since Dark Tower’s debut in 1982, fans have waited eagerly for their film adaptation, which wasn’t made easier by the adaptations of other series such as The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Game of Thrones, all of which have more or less remained faithful to their books. Surely a Dark Tower film couldn’t swing and miss on such a prominent detail as Roland’s resemblance to Eastwood, right?
As an ardent Dark Tower fan, I’m tempted to agree with such logic, but I don’t think it’s fair. Fans are not entitled to a Dark Tower adaptation that perfectly encapsulates their vision for the series. We should root for a version of “The Gunslinger” that’s true to the core themes of the series while also having enough mass-appeal to ensure six more movies.
For the past decade of development hell, rumors tied several white actors to the role of Roland, including Russell Crowe, Viggo Mortensen, and Javier Bardem. Those productions never got off the ground, perhaps due to fan loyalty to a series considered by many to be “unadaptable” for the silver screen.
At one point, Damon Lindelof—co-creator of Lost and showrunner for The Leftovers—was tabbed to adapt the series. It was seemingly a perfect fit, as Lindelof called Dark Tower “the defining literary tale of my young adulthood.”
But even he acknowledged the difficulty of adapting a true-to-the-books version of Dark Tower.
“I just get headaches thinking about changing anything,” Lindelof told MTV News in 2009. “My reverence for Stephen King is now getting in the way of what any good writer would do first when they’re adapting a book, which is take creative license in changing stuff.”
Lindelof’s claim that change is a good thing has been proven time and again, particularly in the case of Stephen King adaptations.
Perhaps the two most acclaimed Stephen King film adaptations are The Shining and The Shawshank Redemption. The novel version of The Shining is about a man whose alcoholism is tearing his family apart, a story that was deeply personal (indeed semi-autobiographical) to King. The film glosses over many of those details, but Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant portrayal of the haunting Overlook Hotel and Jack Nicholson’s descent into madness make it a masterpiece in its own right.
The film adaptation of Shawshank, on the other hand, is mostly faithful to the book, save one detail that’s particularly relevant to this conversation: The book’s narrator, nicknamed Red for the color of his hair, is Irish. In the movie, he is famously portrayed by Morgan Freeman (who received an Oscar nomination for best actor ).
I suspect even the most zealous King fans wouldn’t change that casting decision.
With Dark Tower, Sony and its creative team (which includes Ron Howard as a producer) obviously feel a departure from the books is necessary. And considering some of the bizarre, borderline perverse storylines contained in the books (sacrificing a companion to a demon rapist to distract it from guarding a doorway between worlds), the race of Roland Deschain is surely not the last change Sony will make. The entire meta-fiction subplot regarding Stephen King – while vital to the mythology of the books – seems likely to be cut from the films.
Perhaps the announcement of Elba’s casting, leaked before almost any other details of the films have emerged, was timed strategically. With a single casting decision, Sony sent a clear message: these movies will not mimic the books. For such a peculiar franchise, that was surely going to be the case all along, but at least we’ve been put on notice from the start.
Some “purists” have argued the best way to capture King’s vision of Roland would be to cast Eastwood in the role—not Clint, but his son, Scott, also an actor (though a relatively unproven one).
Those who would prefer Eastwood to portray Roland have lost sight of what fans should cheer for: Not just a good adaptation of “The Gunslinger” but good adaptations of the whole Dark Tower series. The worst-case scenario would be for “The Gunslinger” to flop, ending our chances at more Dark Tower movies and likely forever branding the series as unadaptable.
That’s exactly what happened to another sci-fi/Western hybrid film: Disney’s John Carter, starring Taylor Kitsch and adapted from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series.
Disney planned to produce a trilogy, but after the film’s massive flop — Disney estimated a $200 million loss — the studio cut bait.
Many critics (and apparently audiences) felt Kitsch lacked the charisma to carry the film. The model-turned-actor was previously best known as high school heartthrob Tim Riggins on the TV series Friday Night Lights, but otherwise lacked significant acting experience. His portrayal of John Carter was routinely criticized as “stiff” or “wooden,” and he never got a chance to reprise the role.
“The Gunslinger” features lots of empty desert, but not much dialogue, and is widely considered to be the dullest book in the series. It can’t afford a “wooden” performance from its protagonist, especially since Roland is known to be short on talk and big on action. Instead, it requires a lead actor who is able to speak volumes with a shift of the eyes, a wrinkle in his forehead, or a twist in his lips .
Elba can be that guy.
Just watch this famous “we ain’t gotta dream anymore” rooftop scene between Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale in Season 3 of The Wire.
Elba joins in a “palaver” (as Roland would call it) with his lifelong best friend (and drug empire co-conspirator). The two reminisce about the old days when they worked the streets of Baltimore as kids.
But Elba’s face tells a different story—just a few hours earlier, he betrayed his best friend. Elba’s presence in that scene—cold, humorless, oddly magnetic—mirrors the temperament of Roland Deschain . The resemblance isn’t just physical: Roland has betrayal issues of his own.
In Dark Tower, Roland has words for those who act with dishonor: “You have forgotten the face of your father .” Ultimately, if Sony creatives think Elba provides the best shot at making a sustainable franchise, we should give them the benefit of the doubt.
A Clint Eastwood lookalike may satisfy our thirst for a faithful adaptation, but if that protagonist fails to capture audiences, he could be “one-and-done,” much like Taylor Kitsch in John Carter.
I’d prefer a franchise with a face that is not so easily forgotten.