From the “The Dark Tower”: On Race and Adaptations

By: Dan Grant

Earlier this week, Stephen King confirmed a massive piece of news for his Cujo-esque fanbase: Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey have officially signed on in the starring roles for the first ever film adaptation of King’s epic The Dark Tower series.

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Other plot points are subject to speculation at this point, but McConaughey is set to star as an iteration of King-verse villain Randall Flagg, while Elba will be taking on the role of the gunslinger himself, Roland Deschain.

*Mild spoilers to follow in regards to the Dark Tower books, film speculation and somewhat surprisingly, the Robert Ludlum penned Bourne trilogy*

The two casting decisions have made waves across the web for months now, for very different reasons. McConaughey’s casting was leaked long ago, with chatter that ‘the McConaissance’ gave him such clout that he was offered his choice of either role, ultimately deciding on the man of many faces, Walter (a.k.a. Flagg), who at the crux of things, is essentially a psychotic demon.

For those unfamiliar with the deeper nuances of King’s work, he often crosses over elements of his stories; characters, settings and plot devices from one novel can appear in another, sometimes in a major role, sometimes as an accent or a whisper. Flagg appears in no less than ten of his novels in a variety of forms and identities, and there are debatable remnants of his bastardry elsewhere. He first appeared in 1978’s The Stand, and was described as such:

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, a face to make water glasses shatter in the hands of tired truck-stop waitresses, to make small children crash their trikes into board fences and then run wailing to their mommies with stake-shaped splinters sticking out of their knees. It was a face guaranteed to make barroom arguments over batting averages turn bloody.

Stephen King- The Stand

While there has been some debate about whether or not McConaughey is the right choice to play Flagg, a creature of such pure, lecherous evil, the talk has always generally been limited to his acting ability. The man once known as Wooderson just rubs some people the wrong way, and that’s alright (alright, alright). The debates here are at least civil for the most part, at least as far as Internet comments sections go.

mcconaugheymaninblack

Can McConaughey pull off the Man in Black?

The debate in regards to Idris Elba has been less so.

Elba has been cast in the titular role, and for many of King’s fans, this seems to be an affront akin to a tramp taking a dump on their grandmothers gravestone.

Why you ask? Why is there such a backlash against casting this devastatingly and objectively handsome man, this rumoured James Bond candidate, this star of The Wire, Luther and Beasts of No Nation?

Why, because Idris Elba is black.

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Adaptations are difficult. I vividly remember the first time one disappointed me.

In the summer of 2002, I was about to be a Grade 12 student. I was consuming fiction of all kinds with the hunger and fury of a blast furnace, and I had recently discovered the easy thrills of genre fiction, mainly crime, spy and fantasy; I ate and drank John Grisham, Robert Ludlum and Terry Brooks. Funnily enough, this was right around my true introduction to King himself, the self-described ‘literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries’. I think I read The Stand for the first time later that summer.

The first spy stories I really loved was Robert Ludlum’s Bourne trilogy. By now, you’ve probably seen Matt Damon portray Jason Bourne, the assassin who wakes up without a memory but an uncanny ability to do lots of badass things. When I found out they were making the first book into a movie, I was extremely excited. This was a new experience for me, and I was a fan of both Damon and action movies. The Internet wasn’t the spoiler minefield it is today, with every adaptation and reboot announced two years in advance. I think I heard about the movie a couple months before it came out and before I knew it, I was watching it on the big screen.

damonbourne

‘What have you DONE TO JASON BOURNE?’ 17 year old Dan raved.

I can’t remember ever leaving a movie flat-out angry, before or since. It was probably because I was 17 and therefore a stupid idiot, but still.

If you haven’t read the novels, some mild spoilers will follow here, but basically what it comes down to is that they changed the entire damn thing. Other than Bourne waking up with amnesia and gradually attempting to figure out his identity, every salient plot point was different. The main villain, Carlos the Jackal, was completely excised from the story. To make it worse, they kept character names and other small details the same, so there were constant reminders that this story was wrong. I was livid. Various things I raged about over the next few months included:

How could they get rid of Carlos?! In the book, he was Bourne’s very reason for being!

They killed his girlfriend?! She’s supposed to become his wife! She’s the centre of the plot in the second book! And Carlos is the centre of the third!

They’re doing a second movie? Based on what?! 

And so forth, and so on. Good god that must have been boring to listen to. You’re probably bored right now. I’m sure you’ve heard a friend rage about something similar and thought about faking kidney failure.

I didn’t see the second movie, even when friends told me it was good. I couldn’t get past my hangups. They’d taken something I greatly enjoyed and changed it. How dare they?

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Idris Elba is black.

idriselbagunslinger

Is Elba the right choice for Roland?

For many fans of the Dark Tower, this a huge problem.

Not because of the quality of Elba’s acting, they protest, but because Roland Deschain is not black.

He is never fully described in the books, but various facts about his appearance are summarized thus:

Some of his hair is gray or white, but some remains black. His facial features are described as rough (although Susannah once compared them to that of a tired poet; Eddie frequently refers to him as “old long tall and ugly”), and he has light blue eyes, often referred to by characters and Stephen King as “bombardier’s eyes… Roland is also unusually tall; at 14, he stood taller than the 16-year-old Susan, and, as an adult, his height exceeds that of his father. In The Dark Tower he is described as having reached an adult height of roughly 6’3. 

That doesn’t sound so problematic, does it? Idris Elba is a tall drink of water. The blue eyes thing might be difficult, but is that such a big deal? And if for some reason it is, I mean… this is a post-apocalyptic world where magic is the norm and demons roam the countryside. Would a black dude with blue eyes really be the bridge too far?

Expectations are the biggest complication with adaptations.  There actually has been a set of Dark Tower graphic novels, and Roland is depicted as you might expect:

rolandgraphic

He’s 1970 Clint Eastwood, basically. Maybe a little early Gary Cooper thrown in there, but more rough around the edges. Fans have debated for years who should play him; the first novel in the Dark Tower series was published in 1982, after all, and King’s books have been adapted into movies ever since the original Carrie.

Javier Bardem was once attached, but dropped out. Russell Crowe was apparently attached or interested or declined, depending on who you ask. Josh Holloway gained traction when Lost was at its height.  There were dreams of Viggo Mortensen. Some particularly masochistic creative fans have repeatedly suggested Scott Eastwood, son of Clint, despite the fact that he’s only 29, and has so far displayed as much range as the cinder block that stops the tarp from blowing off my barbecue. It all comes down to the same thing: fans want what they expect.

Look, I get it. I remember how the Bourne Identity made me feel. I’ve been there. I love the Dark Tower, just like you.

But Roland Deschain absolutely does not have to be white.

Beyond the above description of his character (he is also compared to Terminator-era Arnold Schwarzenegger in one adventure — though via complicated circumstances — and to King himself at various other points, further confirming his whiteness), there are key plot developments that involve Roland interacting with a Depression-era black woman who rabidly mistrusts all white people. The development of her relationship with Roland, whom she grows to love and trust, is one of the touchstones of the series. Some fans are distressed that without the racial tension between the two, the relationship won’t have the same gravitas, that it will throw a wrench in the works of the whole damn thing.

Without going too deep into the story, this is complete malarkey.

susannahwalker

A depiction of Susannah

The racial tension between Roland and the character called Susannah is indeed essential to the plot. But it’s not essential because it’s racial, it’s essential because it’s tension. Susannah is a broken woman living in post-slavery America, a woman who has been brutally mistreated, particularly by whites, and especially by white men. So yes, Roland being a white man immediately gives them a steep and treacherous hill to climb together, one that resonates deeply with the reader, especially when they reach the top. But that hill isn’t destroyed by Elba playing the character. If that same reader can’t see how that tension is easily transferable — Roland is still a man, Roland is a black man who dresses and speaks like a white man, Roland is in the company of a white man (Eddie, a third character) — then their problem isn’t imagination, it’s obstinance.

“It’s not that it CAN’T be changed, it’s that it SHOULDN’T be changed,” some will cry out. “This is PC nonsense!”

To that kind of close-minded garbage, I really have no response. That logic says to me that you’d rather an inferior actor played the character, just so that the optics of the story remain exactly as you imagined them to be. If you’d argue a search should have been made for a “superior” white actor, well, I imagine it was. Do you think that with a property this massive, a story this beloved, an adaptation this long in the making, that every eligible and willing actor in Hollywood wasn’t vetted and considered?

Idris Elba was the best eligible and interested actor available and he got the part. Not because he’s black, but because he’ll do the best damned job. He’ll be able to do that because the producers, director and writers have determined (quite rightly) that race doesn’t define the gunslinger, that it’s not essential to his character and that they’d rather have the most talented person available, race be damned.

To those screaming ‘ROLAND DESCHAIN IS NOT BLACK’, I’d scream right back at you: ‘ROLAND DESCHAIN IS NOT REAL’.

Maybe that’s blasphemy for a true Dark Tower fan. But I don’t think so.

I really believe that if after you have some time to adjust, some time to let things sink in and consider how this will work, you still have a problem with the choice? You have forgotten the face of your father. Unless your father was also a dick.

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A couple years after The Bourne Supremacy came out, a friend of mine whose opinion I greatly respect, heard me whinging about it and told me that they’d never read the books but that they thought the movies were great. They recommended I give them a second chance, and pretend the books didn’t exist. Twenty-one by then and obviously much older and wiser, I acquiesced. And what I found was this: I had gotten over it. And this was because the movies were actually very well done, and surprisingly, stayed closer to the general spirit of the story than I remembered. I had been so bogged down in minutiae the first time that I completely missed the overarching theme.

When The Bourne Ultimatum came out the next year, I went and saw it with friends and had a great time. What a novel concept!

That’s what it comes down to. If the movie is good, none of this will matter. If it sucks, people will hate it, regardless of who plays the characters.

You can’t convince everyone. But I will leave the final word to the man himself.

King-katet

If you still have beef, maybe you have your own journey to embark on, your own Man in Black to chase across the desert. If you’re a real fan, you’ll know exactly what that means. Eventually, I hope you’ll realize, as I did, that adaptations are meant to be enjoyed independently from the source material. Sure, there will always be comparisons to be made. But a cookie cutter reproduction serves no purpose. As long as the adaptation stays true to the spirit of the story and the production is entertaining, that’s all a fan can rightfully expect.

If you can’t wrap your head around that?

Go then. There are other worlds than these.

darktower

 

If you 

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4 responses to “From the “The Dark Tower”: On Race and Adaptations

  1. I guess when I read Stephen King I have a clear picture in my mind of what each character is supposed to look like! I usually create that character based on how he/ she is described by the author! When a beloved book is made into a film, I am very nervous about watching it because I expect my characters to match the characters in my mind!
    Example, Gone With the Wind, the movie stayed true to the book. Even the actors were perfect! But Not 50 Shades of Grey or even the Twilight series for that matter!
    In my stubborn opinion I don’t think a “black” gunslinger is a good idea, no matter how great an actor he is! The story is just NOT the same!!

    • Mary,

      But why not? What about his race is so key to the story for you? If you’re so attached to the picture you’ve developed in your own minds eye that you can’t appreciate another interpretation of the material, I fear that you’re doomed to be disappointed by most, if not all, adaptations of your favourite works. Your expectations are unreasonable.

      If your goal is to be an obstinate defender of your own interpretations of another’s work, well, carry on. But if your goal is to enjoy yourself, maybe relax the stubborn opinion (and the exclamation points) and give things a chance before judging.

  2. The fraught racial relationship with Susannah, where she is calling him a “honky mofo” is only half the problem with casting Idris Elba as Roland. We also have Jake Chambers, an 11 year old boy from an upper-middle class 1970s New York family who is pretty clearly not black based upon the NYC interactions King writes…who in the context of the later adventures is mistaken for Roland’s *son*. How does *that* work theatrically? Or are we going to lose that too?

  3. I think it has to with messing with and established character.
    I would be just as upset if they made any pre established black character white, or asian, or whatever. Messing with the eatablished setting opens doors to changing what made the original work so good. Like the Bourne trilogy did for You.
    Elba is a great actor, I hope he does just as well in this film as he has done in the others.
    My personal fear is that in changing the character’s race, they have already beem forced to change the interaction with Susanah. What else will be needed? Suddenly the “Dark Tower” isnt the one the fans know, its something different.
    Still excited to see it. I hold judgment till it comes out.

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