The Dark Tower: Escaping Fantasy Cliches
Movies have always been a great way to escape into another world and this month we’re putting the spotlight on flicks that fans of action and music will love, so hold on as we dive into Stephen King’s dark and twisted world of The Dark Tower.
Fantasy epics have gotten a little over exposed in the past decade. From The Lord Of The Rings, to Game Of Thrones, you can’t swing a sword in the genre with out lopping off a good dozen golden locked knights and maidens, not to mention the odd wizard or two. It’s getting to the point where it’s all a bit, the same. So thank The Dark Lord – or should I say The Man In Black – for the breath of fresh air that is The Dark Tower.
Both the book series and the film take fantasy cliches and turns them on their head. Mashing swords and sorcery, the old west and even gritty New York City together for good measure, with references to Stephen King’s novels and film adaptations including IT and 1409, the result is quite the heady broth. The world’s complex palette of influences and its many interesting sub-versions of convention are so dense in fact, they can use a little exploration.
The Epic Hero Becomes The Lone Ranger
The cliche/archetype of the epic hero goes all the way back to Mesopotamia and the Epic of Gilgamesh, but you’re not here for a history lesson. Most of us know the cliche from some memorable characters and actors such as Viggo Mortensen’s moving and inspiring Aragorn and the ‘unforgettable’ Kevin Sorbo as Hercules. Hell even Arnold Schwarzenegger had a go at it in Conan The Barbarian.
Now each has their own particular characteristics, quirks and differences, but they do have a lot in common. They all have some kind of daddy issues, albeit some better hidden than others, with all their fathers either dying in their youth, or being a God and therefore kind of triggering a whole array of celestial inferiority complexities.
The Dark Tower avoids all this nonsense by throwing out the archetype altogether, and reaching for another one. It follows Roland Deschain (Idris Elba) aka The Last Gunslinger, last of a mythical order dedicated to defending The Dark Tower via their supernatural ability with firearms. It’s not quite as simple as that of course, but you get the idea – these guys aren’t sitting around braiding their hair like Legolas.
Elba does a great job playing Roland, finding a dignity in the character that at once recalls the epic heroes of mythology while also making his story all the more tragic by driving home that this is the last of a once proud and powerful order now reduced to just one man. And he shines in the film’s numerous action sequences, selling the mind blowing gunslinging scenes with an authenticity other actors could struggle to find in such a fantastical role. Especially in scenes where he is killing dozens of people with an ease that makes James Bond look like James Blunt.
You don’t question his impeccable marksmanship, even when he fires an impossible trick shot that takes out the last fleeing henchman. And while not all the credit is due to the actor, the director and stunt co-coordinators doing a great job of making every conflict feel real, and gritty and dangerous, without Elba at the centre making us feel every blow and cheer every kill, the action wouldn’t have the same impact. He is that committed to the role.
Roland oozes danger and stoicism. His hands aren’t healing hands, they’re killing hands. He isn’t fighting to regain a kingdom, he’s just all we have left between us and The Man In Black destroying all realities to let the demons of the ‘outer dark’ in. Drawing on the tradition of The Sheriff in Old Western films, he is a man set apart from everything and everyone by his duty, making for a more compelling and complex protagonist.
Not to mention some amazing actions sequences. While swords and magic are cool and all, a supernatural gunslinger is infinitely more badass. This is proven in the film’s climactic battle between Roland and The Man In Black where we quite literally get to see magic and guns go toe to toe.
The Dark Lord Trades The Doom For Charm
The archetype of The Dark Lord might not go back as far as the Epic Hero, but it’s become just as pervasive. Even Game Of Thrones, for all its unconventional twists and turns, still has to rely on a terse/silent boogeyman in the form of The Night King to threaten the citizens of Westeros.
Lord Of The Rings has Sauron. Harry Potter has Voldemort. The list goes on and, once again, as much as they are different they are also the same. They’re all weakened from their former glory but are regaining strength and all they want to do is plunge the world back into darkness while wreaking revenge on those that stopped them the first time round. Most importantly though, they all tend to talk about nothing but plunging the world back into darkness, if they talk at all.
The Dark Tower by comparison re-imagines The Dark Lord as The Man In Black (Matthew McConaughey) aka Walter Padick a strangely charming, vaguely business-like male model type who exudes cool indifference at times and manic malevolence at others. One of the scenes in which we see this contrast is when looking for the powerful psychic child Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) in New York he discovers he has fled, and only his parents are there.
Rather than the usual scene of this nature, where the villain ambushes the parents and then interrogates them at gunpoint, Padick starts off by cooking himself some chicken and politely waiting for the couple to arrive. And when they do he even apologises for the intrusion, explaining that “where I come from, we don’t have chicken.” He then handedly does away with Jake’s stepfather by merely telling him to ‘stop breathing’ before using magic to question/torture Jake’s mother to find out where he has gone. This is a nice contrast to a scenery chewing Ralph Fiennes as Voldermort or the mute, all seeing eye of Sauron, but more importantly it’s only the half of it, with some of the film’s most memorable scenes being the numerous occasions where Padick uses his powers to wreak havoc – everything from causing a young girl to hate her mother, to making two diners in a restaurant tear each other apart while the rest of the people watch – most often on nothing more than a whim.
First appearing in The Dark Tower series as Walter O’Dim, with his true name revealed to be Walter Padick in a later story, the character is the antithesis of the Dark Lord cliche. King’s description of him in The Stand says it all really:
“There was a dark hilarity in his face, and perhaps in his heart, too, you would think—and you would be right. It was the face of a hatefully happy man, a face that radiated a horrible handsome warmth.”
Seeking to collapse all realities and bring the world into darkness, he still has the same shopping list of demands you’d expect of a cliche Dark Lord, but it’s the way he goes about it that sets him apart. And just as King’s update of the Epic Hero can be seen to reflect the more complex morally grey world we live in today, his update of The Dark Lord reads as a kind of phantasm of American nationalism, religion and corporate greed. For rather than use direct violence to achieve his ends, Padick uses that most dangerous of modern weapons; persuasion.
The Battle Between Good and Evil Has No End
Framing the story and characters within the paradigm of Good vs Evil is another fantasy cliche that has become foundational to our understanding of the genre. Even films outside the genre have taken up the dichotomy, with most comic book and sci-fi films today rolling out the same tired cliche of the irredeemably evil villain pitted against a flawed but intrinsically good hero.
The hero at first seems outmatched and can’t possibly triumph, while the villain wields immense power and seems unstoppable in their quest to destroy everything. Yet by reaching down deep inside and finding strength they didn’t know was there, the hero rises to the task, defeats the evil villain and then gets to enjoy their victory. We all know the story.
While I have just outlined how The Dark Tower draws on the traditional archetypes of the good Epic Hero and the bad Dark Lord, the way King’s novels and the film construct the age old battle between the two is just as unconventional as the characters themselves. Because unlike every other fantasy story where the forces of good – despite facing overwhelming odds – eventually restore peace order and prosperity, The Dark Tower offers no such resolution for its hero.
Carried over into the film, the final revelation of King’s novels and Roland’s story was that his quest is cyclical. Despite besting The Man In Black time and time again, not to mention countless other monsters, evils and just general obstacles, Roland is given no reward when he finally reaches the tower.
In the film he does get to destroy The Man In Black’s machine, and we get to watch a truly awesome explosion which one could argue is kind of a reward – especially if you’re a pyro like me – but there isn’t any tangible prize or bounty. Instead he is thrust back to the beginning of the first novel of the series, with no memory of his actions in the books, although this time carrying the Horn Of Eld. The film then picks up directly following this, with Roland carrying the horn, making it a new story in the universe rather than an adaptation.
This shifts the values of the traditional fantasy story from ‘good will triumph over evil if it only believes in itself and tries hard enough’, to a more complex notion that ‘good can only triumph through endless struggle’. Thus the qualities of a hero, and of being good, are shown to be those of duty and dedication to the greater good, of integrity, grit and selflessness in the face hopelessness.
For as the headlines of our own world well prove, there is no ‘final-solution’ to the problem of evil. No amount of violence, no amount of money and no amount of legislation will ever be enough to banish it from the world. What both the novels and the films suggest is that the only way to truly defeat evil is to fight it everyday, and that the cliche of the good guys always win in the end is itself a fantasy.