It seems like all the white whales are surfacing this week. Yesterday the web was abuzz with the news that Stephen King's "Dark Tower" books are coming to both the large and small screens. The plan is to turn the fantasy novels into a series of three films, with two seasons of corresponding television episodes linking the pictures. This is by far the most audacious and ambitious project to come out of Hollywood in a long time if the creators can get away with it. Ron Howard and Brian Grazer are going to be helming the first film and television series for Universal, with Stephen King along for the ride as a producer. Akiva Goldsman, who I'm trying very hard to dissociate from "Batman and Robin," and "Lost in Space," will be scripting.
Though I'm familiar with a good portion of King's work, I haven't read any of the "Dark Tower" books. However, their fans are a vocal and skeptical lot, and there's a lot to be skeptical about here. They've been quick to point out that the dark, Western-flavored multi-verse-spanning "Dark Tower" books bear little resemblance to anything that these creators have done before. Howard is known for safer fare like "The Da Vinci Code," and "Apollo 13." Also, the proposed multi-platform rollout is utterly unique. The closest thing I can think of to compare it to is the first "X-Files" movie that came to theaters while the television series was still on the air, and may have contributed to the franchise's decline. Or "Serenity," the follow-up to Joss Whedon's cult favorite "Firefly," which many were hoping would lead to more episodes or films. And of course there's the usual practice of creating elaborate premieres for new television shows that are more or less feature films. But nobody's ever tried to put one in theaters before.
The really interesting part is that this experimental new format presents further evidence of the erosion of the traditional boundaries between the movies and TV. Or as George Costanza might say, "Worlds are colliding! Worlds are colliding!" There's no longer any distinction in quality between film and television productions. A.O. Scott over at the New York Times bemoaned the decline of film's influence on the popular culture just yesterday, noting that the two media had swapped places sometime over the past decade. Now television is home to daring, critically beloved popular entertainments like "Mad Men" and "Treme" that get a lot of press and a lot of discussion, while movies have become more conservative as a whole, and the most ambitious and critically praised titles are getting more and more inaccessible. I agree, as a cinephile who is still impatiently waiting to get her mitts on 2009 releases "The Secret in Their Eyes" and "My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done."
Still, the logistics of the proposed "Dark Tower" project are boggling. How long would the wait be between the film and the television series? Would it be better to wait for the movie to come to DVD so new viewers can catch up before watching the series or push ahead earlier to build off the buzz? What if the first film doesn't do well? And should the series air on premium or pay cable? Or on network in order to build up the audience for the next film? How would the foreign distribution be handled? There's so much risk and uncertainty going into this, I have to give Howard and Grazer kudos just for trying. This could be a disaster of epic proportions, but if they succeed, this may open the door for other similarly complicated or difficult genre works to be adapted. I could see the approach working for Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time," Anne McCaffrey's "Dragonriders of Pern," or even something like Stieg Larsson's "Millennium" trilogy, which was originally done as a series of made-for-television-films.
I can't help speculating that this is a reaction to other forces at work in the mediasphere. Are film and television joining forces due to the influence of the Internet perhaps? Certainly the web has played its part in equalizing the two media in terms of digital age distribution, and a significant portion of the intended audience of "The Dark Tower" will probably end up watching installments online in some fashion. Of course, this kind of cross-platforming also presents an amazing marketing opportunity, resurrecting that old buzzword "synergy." Plenty of spin-offs and revamps have crossed media before, but never as part of a single product, and never so directly linked. We may be on the brink of a revolution or a catastrophe. The only way to find out is to get in the ticket line - and stay tuned.