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Tales from Development Hell: The Dark Tower

By Ryan Fleming

Idris Elba looking out of place.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

As film development drags into the dreaded development hell, there usually comes a point of no return. The point at which, no matter what, a film must be made, because so much effort (and, more importantly, money) has been sunk into the project. This is especially true in the modern days where news, rumours, and filmmakers are so readily accessible, and interactive, to the potential audience. A film made more out of obligation than anything else might differ wildly from the original intentions when the project began. One such example is The Dark Tower (2017), which went through a decade’s long period of development that ended in a whimper rather than a bang.

The Dark Tower is a series of eight (seven at the time that development of the film adaptation began) novels by Stephen King. Unlike the horror works that made King a household name, it is a blend of the fantasy, science fiction, horror, and Western genres. Inspired in equal parts by the works of poet Robert Browning, author JRR Tolkien, film director Sergio Leone, and Arthurian legend. King himself refers to the series as his magnum opus, and it contains many intertextual references to his other works. Those references worked both ways, even in adaptations, such as Frank Darabont’s The Mist (2007) which saw Dark Tower lead character Roland Deschain appearing as a painting in an otherwise unconnected work.

Volume 1 of the book series that started it all.

Picture courtesy Amazon.

2007 was the same year that development on a film adaptation of The Dark Tower began in earnest, though without the involvement of Frank Darabont or anyone else involved in his The Mist adaptation. Instead, development of The Dark Tower film adaptation was to lie with JJ Abrams (as producer and director), Carlton Cuse, and Damon Lindelof (both as writers). The three of them together had created the television series Lost, which took a lot of inspiration from the works of King.

The rights had been optioned by Cuse and Lindelof for a mere $19 – the mysterious recurring number of the series. Details were few and far between for that first year. In 2008, vague references were made that development was not progressing due to their commitments on Lost, or that work on The Dark Tower would begin as soon as Lost finished.

Come 2009 and Lindelof revealed in an interview that he was hesitant to pick up such a vast project after six seasons of Lost. He added in a later interview that, as a fan of the series, he was probably not the best to adapt, especially over a multi-year project. Before the end of that year, Abrams announced that he and Lindelof would not be proceeding with an adaptation.

The property did not remain dormant for long. Mere months after the Lost crew stepped away from the project, it was announced that Universal Pictures would adapt the series as a multimedia series.

The plan was for a trilogy of feature films, along with two seasons of a television series that would bridge the gaps between the three films in the series. It was a massively ambitious project, with at least one commentator calling it the most ambitious film project since New Line Cinema allowed Peter Jackson to adapt The Lord of the Rings as three films back-to-back. Ron Howard was set to direct and co-produce the first film with King, Brian Grazer, and Akiva Goldsman. Goldsman would also write the film scripts, though Mark Verheiden would co-write with him on the television components.

The Universal production even had a release date for the first film: 17th May 2013. At the time, it was reported that Javier Barden was in negotiations to start as Roland Deschain. Naomie Harris and Aaron Paul were other rumoured cast members. The latter said he had several interviews with Howard about playing Eddie Dean, a main character in the novels cut from the eventual adaptation. It was in May of 2011 that the President of Imagine (Howard and Glazer’s production company) vehemently denied that the project was going into turnaround.

One week later, the project was put into turnaround. The reason was that Universal had grown wary of the price tag attached to the multimedia adaptation, despite already having paid $5 million for the rights; fees for Howard, Grazer, Goldsman, and Bardem; as well as a rumoured $10 million penalty if the project went into turnaround. Goldsman began rewriting the script with a far smaller budget in mind, but two months later in July, Universal passed on the project completely.

This was around the same time that Universal passed on Guillermo Del Toro’s adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness because of a dispute as to whether the project be rated R or PG-13. What did Universal back as its tentpole films in 2012 and 2013 after passing on both The Dark Tower and At the Mountains of Madness?

2012 saw them release Battleship, based on the Hasbro board game, to negative reviews, and a loss for both Universal and Hasbro of $150 million. 2013 would provide no respite, with 47 Ronin starring Keanu Reeves receiving negative reviews; it also left Universal at a loss for the financial year, only grossing $151 million to its estimated $225 million budget. It was one of the biggest box office bombs in history. The word you’re looking for is schadenfreude.

After Universal passed, Goldsman and Howard shopped the project around various other Hollywood studios. As late as October 2011, Howard still sought to make both film and television adaptations, citing that the latter would now be carried by HBO. Warner Bros apparently expressed interest in 2012, with Goldman delivering them a new script. Russell Crowe was rumoured as the lead for this version of the project. Before the end of the year, WB, like Universal before them, passed on the project. Aaron Paul was still rumoured for a role in 2015, and Liam Neeson was rumoured to be interested in the part of Roland.

Come 2015, and The Dark Tower finally found a distributor: Sony Pictures Entertainment. They even seemed gung-ho on it, looking to fast-track it to production from a reworked script by Goldsman and Jeff Pinkner. However, Howard would not take directing duties, though he remained as producer. Nikolaj Arcel was hired as director. It was his first Hollywood production, having moved there following his international breakthrough with A Royal Affair (2012). It would be both his first and last Hollywood feature. Arcel and fellow Dane Anders Thomas Jensen would rewrite the script before filming began.

The film would eventually star Idris Elba as Roland and Matthew McConaughey as his nemesis, the Man in Black. After a decade of false starts, The Dark Tower adaptation was finally moving ahead. Clear sailing was still beyond the reach of the project between its filming and eventual release.

Test screenings proved disastrous, so much as that Sony actually considered cutting Arcel from the film and bringing in another, more experienced, director. Instead, both Howard and Goldsman stepped in as advisors to the novice director. There were even rumours that Sony Pictures chief Tim Rothman spent hours in the editing room with the director and his advisors’ offering his own input.

The Dark Tower of the title. Maybe they shouldn't have held the screenings here.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The nature of the source material, coupled with a unique arrangement between Sony and fellow distributor Media Rights Capital (MRC) whereby either studio could kill the project if they disliked any aspect of it, might have doomed the project from studio interference. Between them, they spent an additional $6 million on reshoots, as well as moving the eventual release from February to August 2017. Had it made the February release, it would have been exactly 10 years since the project was first announced under JJ Abrams.

The reshoots, interference, and ‘advisors’ did little to help the film at the box office, only earning a total of $113 million against its production budget of $66 million. Bear in mind that production budget is only for the eventual film, and it does not include all the money associated with developing the film for either Warner Bros or Universal in prior attempts.

Critics were, if anything, even harsher than audiences, with the film drawing largely negative reviews. There was some praise for the performances and action sequences, but the film largely landed as a damp squib.

In subsequent years, both King and Howard claimed that the film’s failure was down to toning down the source material for a PG-13 rating (where have I heard this one before?) Howard in particular said that they should have leaned more into the horror elements of the work rather than a “Boy’s Own adventure”.

Stephen King and Idris Elba. According to King, the film wasn't a success because it was a "major challenge was to do a film based on a series of books that's really long, about 3,000 pages. The other part of it was the decision to do a PG-13 feature adaptation of books that are extremely violent and deal with violent behaviour in a fairly graphic way." (Quote from interview on Digital Spy).

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

What if The Dark Tower had been made earlier, appropriately epic in scope, and leaning more towards the R end of US film classifications than PG-13? First of all, which version of The Dark Tower makes it to production? The next step for the creators of Lost? The original Howard/Goldsman version to Universal and NBC? Their later attempts with Warner Bros and HBO?

As the fate of the project at Universal seemed intertwined with Del Toro’s At the Mountains of Madness and having speculated on that film making it to production in a previous article , let’s consider that version makes it to production. Let us assume that the person at Universal who showed the chutzpah needed to take a chance on a period-set, genre-blurring, R-rated tentpole film adapted from pre-World War II pulp fiction decides to double down and agreeing to an ambitious, quasi-Western-set, genre-blurring, R-rated tentpole film intended to be produced as a trilogy linked with multiple seasons of television.

The Dark Tower is now to be adapted as a trilogy of feature films linked by television series during its off years. That is a long-term commitment for all involved. If they were to be released year after year from 2013, that would put the first television series in 2014, the second film in 2015, the second television series in 2016, and the final film in 2017. Ironically, if that is the release schedule, the final film would be released around the same time the historical adaptation flopped at the box office. Would the multi-part, multimedia adaptation have been more successful? Likely so, but if only because the first film would be helmed by an experienced director committed to the project, with more money committed to the project, and not having to condense King’s epic novel series into a single 95-minute feature film.

The early 2010s were a time when older and more diverse ways of making and releasing films in Hollywood had not yet given way to a complete lack of innovation. Though the Marvel Cinematic Universe was well underway and very successful, the rest of Hollywood had not yet become a cargo cult to their success. It is telling that in 2011, negotiations broke down between Del Toro and Universal over whether At the Mountains of Madness should be rated R or PG-13; whereas a half decade later, the question never seems to have been a point of contention for The Dark Tower. This despite both Howard and King later admitting that it should have been.

What a successful adaptation of The Dark Tower as a combined film trilogy and multi-season television work might prove is another way of making what might be called a shared universe. That is, one with a distinct end goal and finish in mind rather than churning out projects forever more. Almost a bridge between what New Line Cinema had done with The Lord of the Rings and what Marvel would later do with their Cinematic Universe.

Given that King’s works already exist within an interconnected multiverse, it might also open the door for other adaptations in a similar vein. For instance, around the same time Universal was passing on The Dark Tower, both Warner Bros and CBS were looking to adapt King’s epic novel The Stand (1978). It too fell into development hell going from a single feature film to television miniseries to two-part film adaptation to back to a single film to a limited series eventually released in 2020.

With The Dark Tower as an example, it is possible that The Stand makes it to production earlier, possibly as a similar mixed film/television project. The same model might also be adopted for an adaptation of King’s It, which also had a long production during the 2010s.

It eventually made it to the big screen as It (2017) and It Chapter Two (2019), far more successfully than The Dark Tower, it should be said. Much as the It duology revitalised interest in adapting King’s horror works by Hollywood studios, it is possible that this begins several years earlier with successful adaptations of any combination of The Dark Tower, The Stand, and It.

As originally envisioned, an adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower would have been an ambitious and unique combined film/television project. As eventually released, it was so like everything else that was being released at that time as to be bland and uninspired.

Considering the current existential crisis of theatres compared with television and streaming options, perhaps a project released on both film and television in alternating years might have been the Trojan Horse needed to keep audiences going to the cinema for the main event but able to view the undercard at home. Would this model be more sustainable than most big releases trying to ape Marvel? Thanks to Universal’s hesitancy, we’ll probably never know.

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Ryan Fleming is the author of the SLP book Reid in Braid.


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