Movies

Director Nikolaj Arcel On Why ‘The Dark Tower’ Is So Hard To Adapt To A Movie


Getty Image / Sony

The film adaptation of The Dark Tower, based on the popular series of books from Stephen King, has been in development for literally 10 years. At one point J.J. Abrams, who was going to bring Lost showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse along for the ride, was involved. Ron Howard was tapped to direct at one point (he’s still a producer). One by one they all dropped out, each offering their own excuses of why this particular story just wasn’t quite right for them to adapt.

Finally the job came down to Nikolaj Arcel, a Danish filmmaker best known for 2012’s A Royal Affair and for writing the screenplay for the original Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the one with Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist, not the one with Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig).

I met Arcel at his Midtown Manhattan hotel. When you meet him, he’s incredibly affable and it’s difficult to not immediately like him. He knows he’s taken on a project that means so much to so many people, but also is aware of why this particular property is so hard to realize as a feature film.

The Dark Tower film is a sequel to the book series, which Arcel explains will be evident to anyone who has finished the series, but won’t hinder the understanding for people who haven’t read the series. It’s a short movie – at 95 minutes it’s almost shockingly short for a film that we’ve been told over and over might be too dense to film. Arcel explains why it’s so short and tells us how all this ties into the proposed television series and future films.

So this is a sequel to the books?

Yeah.

That’s an interesting thing to do.

It’s odd and it’s really… Here’s what matters: For the true fans of the novels, it makes sense and they know. They’ll recognize certain elements and they’ll understand what it means when it’s the last go-around, the last time around. For the non-fans, it doesn’t really matter. Because for the non-readers, it’s a film. It’s a story, right?

Doesn’t it matter a little? The Gunslinger, it’s a little more obvious now why he’s so frustrated, but I didn’t know at first…

Yeah, of course.

It’s one of those things I kind of wish I knew.

I mean, I think the trick in the novels is that he doesn’t know. It’s subconscious. So it’s like a Buddhist thing – and if you don’t learn to walk on the right path, you will never reach the heightened, you know, whatever. So that’s the idea behind the novels, at least.

Why is this story so difficult to make into a movie? I went back and I read old interviews with Damon Lindelof and everyone sounds so frustrated…

Well, the first answer to that is “seven, eight novels, 4,000 pages.” And an extremely complex mythology – extremely complex sort of way of telling the story of almost changing the genre for every book. And so it’s not one thing, it’s 50 things. So many characters, so many ideas, so many plots, so many things you’ve got to remember from book one to be able to follow book five. And so, that’s part of it. And also part of it is that I think it’s also just like can we gamble – you know, do we take the gamble on this thing, this unknown thing which is obviously not unknown because it has millions of fans, including myself.

From the outside looking in, it doesn’t seem like that big of a gamble. I mean, it’s a very popular book.

Yes, exactly, they are. I think the problem is with these other films – like that you mentioned the other versions – is that they were these big budget, massive films that were really trying to get everything in there. And what attracted me to this was that it was a sort of more intimate. It’s not your usual blockbuster budget. It’s intimate. It’s more lean. The script is more tight.

Well, lean is a good way to put it. The older version looked like it was going to be a four-hour movie…

I read some drafts that were like 200 pages long.

Was this designed to just be 95 minutes?

Yeah, this was a 100-page script, which usually ends up 100 minutes. Or in this case, 95.

That is a surprising running time for a story that, like you said, is so rich in depth.

Exactly. Yeah. You’re right, it is. But again, this was always meant to serve as an introduction to the saga. It’s a huge saga.

Even though it’s a sequel to the saga.

Yeah. Don’t go there, but you’re right. You’re right. But it’s an introduction to the people who don’t know. And it’s kind of like, here are the characters, here’s the world, here’s what it’s about. And now, the long journey: You almost feel that at the end of the film the long journey may be about to begin. And so, it’s the first leg of the long journey.

I get the sense that making a Stephen King novel into a film can be difficult because Stephen King is very protective of his work.

Yeah.

And sometimes, what might make sense for a movie, he doesn’t always go along with.

Yeah.

Is this an accurate statement?

I think that’s very accurate because he’s usually just he just sells his ideas for one dollar.

But then he has complete control.

He has control.

Okay, not complete, but he has a say.

He definitely has a say. But here’s the interesting part about that: For me, this was the easiest part of making this. You know, I kind of reworked the script a little bit. It was Akiva Goldsman’s script originally. I reworked it a little bit. Not a lot, some. I sent the script to Stephen. They all said, “Oh he may say ‘no.’ He’s done that many times before.” Immediately, he was like, “I totally get this, let’s go.”

So there was never any moment where you were like, “I want to do this,” and he said no?

No. Even the casting, everything, all the ideas. Like everything he was excited about, happy about. He saw the final film two weeks ago and he emailed me, “You remembered the face of your father,” was what he actually said, which is the best thing that he could ever have said. So it’s been just so respectful and nice and collaborative. But he has opinions, but his opinions are great and they matter and they are intelligent. Very useful, obviously, because he’s Stephen King.

Stephen King hates The Shining. He’s been very clear about this.

Yeah.

That seems like a lot of pressure when he hates one of the greatest movies of all time.

Yeah, exactly. But the weird thing is being such a King fan, I understand exactly why he hates The Shining. I think that what it is is that The Shining is a masterpiece of cinema, but it’s not his novel. I think that Stephen King has said this himself: the main character in The Shining is a very, very normal, likable, nice guy who gets haunted and gets crazy. In The Shining film, immediately you have this feeling, here’s a kind of an odd person. So I get why he didn’t feel that it was his novel.

We agree The Shining is a cinematic masterpiece. But you could make a cinematic masterpiece and he might not like it.

Of course. But again, I feel that since we were collaborating and since he was involved throughout the whole two years, I never felt that he would suddenly, you know, turn around and say, “Hey, by the way, all the things I said don’t matter. I don’t like it.” He was never going to be that guy. He was so supportive throughout and I never felt that was ever going to be a thing. I mean, obviously, the first time he saw the first cut I was very nervous. But even then he was like, “We were happy. My wife loved it.” You know, he was just generous. Generous and made me feel safe.

How long was the first cut?

I think the first cut was probably like 110 or 112 minutes something like that.

Was there anything that got cut out that you were opposed to cutting out?

No, nothing I was opposed to cutting out. I think there’s going to be like three or four scenes in the deleted scenes on the DVD which are fun, which we just like for pace and other reasons, we took out. But it wasn’t something that I was against taking out. It was just something like, let’s take it out because it doesn’t work in the flow of it. But they’re cool scenes and I’m sort of excited for people to see them on the DVD. And there might even be like an unrated longer cut at some point where we put them back in. But no. I mean, it wasn’t like we cut out big chunks of the film at all.

What happens now? So this is the the sequel to the books. So what would the sequel to this be? And I know there’s a TV series. This sounds very complicated.

Yeah.

Is it complicated?

It depends on how you see it. If you see the film as fairly non-complex, it’s a story about a kid. Basically, what happens next in the movie-verse, if you ask me, is that you go on to what’s basically the second novel, which is called The Drawing of the Three. So the second novel is the addition of some very popular characters, some very beloved characters, and then the final group will be formed and will be ready to journey onwards towards the Dark Tower. So that’s the plan. The TV show, which I’ve also been working on the writing, that takes place in Roland’s youth when he’s 17, because book four is actually entirely about his youth, Wizard and Glass. So that’s actually based on the novel.

This is all very fascinating and very complicated.

It’s deep.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.

×