Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"Dark Tower" Adaptation Kaput?

I wonder if I'm one of the only ones who is actually relieved that Universal decided not to go forward with the ambitious plans to adapt Stephen King's "The Dark Tower" series. As announced last year, "Dark Tower" would have been told over the course of three feature films, with each film linked by a season of a "Dark Tower" television series. It would have been a bold, unconventional experiment, and I was initially very intrigued with the possibilities of using both film and television to tell a single ongoing story. The filmmakers had gotten as far as the casting stage, and Javier Bardem was in place to star as the hero Roland Deschain, before Universal decided that the project was too risky and the project collapsed.

Why am I relieved? The filmmakers behind "Dark Tower" were director Ron Howard and writer Akiva Goldsman, and I remain unconvinced that these are the right people for this franchise. Both are Oscar winners for their work on "A Beautiful Mind," but their track record with genre films hasn't been so stellar. Howard was responsible for some solid fantasy films in the 80s, like "Willow" and "Splash," but over the last decade it's become clear that he's much better at more intimate prestige pieces like "Cinderella Man" and "Frost/Nixon." His recent fantasy films include the awful "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and the hamfisted "The Da Vinci Code," the latter written by Akiva Goldsman. I hear that Goldsman has been improving lately, with his work on "Fringe." But going by his recent credited films, including "I, Robot," and "I Am Legend," which were both watered down considerably from their original source material, I still have deep reservations about his ability to handle genre material. I'll grant that I did mildly enjoy the last collaboration between Howard and Goldsman, the "Da Vinci Code" sequel "Angels & Demons," but nothing in the film suggested that the two of them were ready to tackle something on the scale that they were proposing for "The Dark Tower."

Maybe I'm being a pessimist here, and Howard and Goldsman were really the perfect writer-director team for this franchise. Many "Dark Tower" fans, excited at the prospect of the long-awaited adaptation, accepted that they were good enough. Both filmmakers are certainly successful and well-respected in Hollywood, and "The Dark Tower" stood a much better chance of actually being made with them involved than it would have with other names attached. And yet, I can't help thinking that a cinematic version of "The Dark Tower" could be so much more interesting if they gave it to someone like John Hillcoat or Frank Darabont, who has done some of the best Stephen King adaptations like "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Mist." Why would you settle for a mediocre version now if there's the possibility of a better one later? Looking back over the production histories of some of the biggest, most successful film franchises, they're riddled with false starts and wrong turns. The Beatles almost made a musical adaptation of "Lord of the Rings." An 80s version of "Spider-Man" would have had Peter Parker turn into an eight-armed mutant.

With great films, it all depends on the right convergence of talent and financing, and timing is so important. With "The Dark Tower," the talent felt like a mismatch, and didn't seem to be on the same page with the studio. After earlier clashes over budgeting issues, it came out that Universal wanted no part in the three-films-and-two-TV-serials approach that Howard and Goldsman were proposing, but were only willing to commit to one film to start with. Considering how risk-averse and cost-conscious the studio has been lately - canceling Guillermo Del Toro's "At the Mountains of Madness," among other decisions - I don't think it came as a surprise to anyone that Universal would try to scale the project down. And though I admire Howard and producer Brian Grazer for sticking to their guns and trying to hammer out a deal for multiple pictures, I wonder about their approach. Why not just start out adapting "The Gunslinger," the first book in the series, see if the audience likes it, and go forward from there? From what I gather, "The Dark Tower" is episodic enough that this should be feasible. Sure, the cross-platforming is an interesting idea, but hardly a necessary one for success. Why not just do movies like "Lord of the Rings"? Or a series like "Game of Thrones"? In light of the risks of crossing the streams, I'd have applied the brakes too, and a lot earlier.

In the aftermath of the cancellation, Ron Howard has already been attached another project. He'll direct "Under the Banner of Heaven" for Waner Brothers, which will examine the early days of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Akiva Goldsman still has "Fringe," and a development slate as long as my arm. Their version of "The Dark Tower" isn't totally dead yet, but it's unlikely the filmmakers will find anyone else ready to shoulder the cost of the project. Warner Brothers might bite, as they're looking for a franchise to fill in the void left by "Harry Potter," but that's purely speculation. Fans may have to wait a good while longer to see Roland Deschain on either the big or small screens.

But in the end, that may not be such a bad thing.

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