Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came – a word on adaptation


In college, one of my closest friends had a room in a very popular boarding house in the small mountain town where we went to school.  The house was well known as a tourist attraction.  It was a beautifully restored Victorian structure 3 stories tall and had once been the county hospital.  My friend’s room was on the top floor.  The slopes of the ceiling matched the steep pitch of the roof.  Despite the incessant hissing of the steam radiators, it was fairly common for a thin bit of frost to form on the inside of his windows on the coldest winter mornings.  His walls were decorated with number of John Howe “Lord of the Rings” prints.  In that room we’d speculate for hours about what Tolkien’s story would be like should it ever be adapted as a film.

The topic provided hours of invigorating discussion because we held passionately divergent views on such a project.  It was the early 1990s and digital film making technology was just being conceived so there was serious debate about a live action or animated adaptation.  We debated casting choices.  Should Sean Connery or Patrick Stewart be Gandalf?  It was endless.

Years later, when New Line announced the Peter Jackson was doing the film adaptation, we picked up those discussions with renewed vigor.  We would’ve talked more about it if our jobs, marriages, and children weren’t always getting in the way.  As Jackson’s projects progressed, we surfed the internet endlessly for tidbits of information, insight, or just gossip about the coming celluloid joy.

When the first trailers were released we were like cavemen staring at fire for the first time.

When rumors about what scenes/characters were being cut, reworked, or rearranged hit the web we were furious.  No Tom or Old Man Willow?  Arwen at the Ford?  Sean Astin from “The Goonies” as Sam?  What the hell?

It seemed as though Tolkien’s sacred text was being burnt asunder by the massive entertainment machine so that sugary cereals could be sold in even greater quantities.  Have you had your Frosted Orcs today?

I won’t speak for my friends, but I saw myself as a kind of self appointed Guardian of Tolkien.  Given all the rumored changes, I was openly skeptical about the movies and secretly determined to not enjoy them.

Wow.  I don’t think I could’ve been more small minded, self righteous, and just plain wrong.

In the opening scenes of “Fellowship of the Ring” when Gandalf is driving up Bag Shot Row, I cried.  I cried when he pulled up to the big green door.  I cried again when he fell at the bridge in Moria.  I cried for Boromir.

I was overjoyed so many folks had come together and made an incredible movie with such obvious love and devotion for the source material.  I was overjoyed when “The Two Towers” was released and again a year later for “The Return of the King.”  Their work brims with integrity and dedication.

Anyone who knows the books can recognize the profound differences between Tolkien’s written works and Jackson’s films.  And all those changes make a whole lot of sense given the differences between a novel and a movie.

As powerful a lesson as that was, I have to admit I had similar feelings when NBC/Universal announced that Ron Howard and Imagine Entertainment would be doing the film/television adaptation of Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” books.  I tried to justify my feelings by saying that I felt the way I did because the Dark Tower was a series a very literally grew up with.  When I read volume one, I was a high school senior who had never been on an airplane or ridden in an elevator (it was a really small town).  By the time the 7th book was published, I had graduated from college, started a career, got married, got divorced, become an uncle 3 times over, and got married again.  The characters in the Dark Tower where folks who I’d known through all those experiences and as they were on their quest to the Tower, I was on my own quest navigated my own life.

The truth is that I was trying to inject myself into King’s story – to try and make a claim to ownership over something I didn’t own.  In both cases, I thought that my love of the thing granted me possession of that thing.

Put it another way, Tolkien’s and King’s respective stories do not exist because I love them.  They just exist and I happen to love them.  There isn’t a causal relationship between the two.

Ultimately art has always been a business – adaptations of novels and comics are an avenue to generate revenue.  The upside is that stories that are adapted into other mediums get revitalized and can find a wider audience.  Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” brought Middle Earth to life for fans of Tolkien’s work and for people that had never of the books.  “Guitar Hero” introduced a whole mess of classic rock acts to a generation of music fans that had never been introduced to the power and sex appeal of the electric guitar.

I look forward to films and television series that will chronicle Roland’s quest to the Tower.  It will be a new way to experience a story that I’ve loved since late adolescence.   I have faith in Howard’s talent and ability.  And if I don’t dig it, the books will always be there for me.