With Stephen King movie adaptations Doctor Sleep and Gerald’s Game under his belt, as well as his series adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, director Mike Flanagan has proven himself a deft and thoughtful translator of the beloved works of horror novelists.
But there’s one project that would be his dream adaptation and it is, of course, what Stephen King fans might have guessed: The Dark Tower series.
This past weekend at this year’s virtual Fantasia International Film Festival, Flanagan sat down for a conversation with fellow Stephen King filmmaker Mick Garris, who directed 1994’s The Stand miniseries, Sleepwalkers, Bag of Bones, and 1997’s The Shining miniseries, which King himself much prefers to Kubrick’s iconic but source-irreverent adaptation.
During the hour-long conversation (via SyFy Wire), Flanagan was asked if there’s a dream project still left on his wish list and that’s when Flanagan dropped Stephen King’s magnum opus:
“I’ve got the answer that most Stephen King fans are going to have. The Dark Tower is forever going to be the story I wish I could tell. That would be the Holy Grail. I mean, talk about an adaptation challenge… So many very talented people have poured so much time and heart and soul and blood, sweat and tears trying to crack that. That for me would be the one. I don’t know how that would happen, or if it could happen. That property, it’s daunting. Just to think about even taking first steps toward it.”
If you’re not a Stephen King fan, at this moment you might be going, “Wait…I feel like there already was a Dark Tower adaptation… Didn’t a movie come out a few years ago or something?” And, yes, you’d be correct. A Dark Tower movie starring Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey did indeed come out in 2017 – but the less we speak of that particular cursed project, the better. Elba and McConaughey were phenomenal in their respective roles of gunslinger Roland Deschain and the villainous Man in Black, but the script took massive liberties with the admittedly sprawling books and profoundly misunderstood the character of Roland. Let’s just explain it to you like this: It was to Stephen King fans what Spider-Man 3 was to Spider-Man fans.
Yeah. Take a moment with that.
It’s rare that Hollywood ever greenlights a reboot of an IP just a few years after a first attempt failed. Rarer still when it’s based on an IP that is largely considered “impossible” to adapt, as King’s book series has always been viewed (the 2017 movie was the result of more than a decade of development hell).
Still, The Dark Tower is a rich world to mine if anyone could figure out how to tap into it correctly. It blends Western with fantasy, sci-fi with horror, and you can add a smattering of quantum physics and extremely meta writing. But despite the sprawling universe of King’s all-encompassing work, the essence of The Dark Tower series is not a complicated thing. In fact, King himself summarized the entire series in the very first line of the very first book, The Gunslinger: “The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.” Roland’s entire reason for existence is to find the Dark Tower, the mythical nexus of all universes, and his single-minded pursuit of anyone and anything that can help him in that quest is what drives him, drives the entire story. Find a writer and a director who understands that, and I truly believe it can be done.
Flanagan, I’d argue, may be just such a writer and director. He understands the source material and knows you have to approach it with respect. In that same interview, he acknowledged the challenges of adapting a beloved work. “The priority for me is always about trying to answer that impossible question of what do you keep, what do you lose and what do you change,” he explained.
Still, his work adapting The Shining sequel Doctor Sleep shows he’s more than capable of a thoughtful and layered take on someone else’s work. With that movie, he skillfully threaded the needle between incorporating not just the Doctor Sleep novel, but also King’s original version of The Shining as well as the Kubrick movie adaptation. Somehow, he managed to honor the spirit of all three. He has an understanding of Stephen King’s work that so many others do not: The horror of it has always been second in importance to the humanity.
It’s the characters more than anything that make The Dark Tower books what they are. Roland and his traveling companions, the found family of his ka-tet, and his eternal nemesis, the Man in Black, a.k.a. Randall Flagg, a.k.a. Walter O’Dim, a.k.a. Marten Broadcloak, are such complex, rich characters. It’s another area in which Flanagan excels, being able to tell a ripping good story while also getting at the heart of characters to create ones you care about.
It’s doubtful any studio or platform will greenlight a Dark Tower reboot any time soon. Not with the nightmare of getting it to the screen, any screen, for the first time only for it to bomb. But if and when they do, they could do far worse than to look to Mike Flanagan to lead that adaptation.