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The Problem with THE DARK TOWER’s Anti-Escapist Storytelling

Warning: The following includes spoilers for The Dark Tower movie.

When we first meet Harry Potter, his life is pretty cruddy. His parents are dead, his aunt and uncle use him as a house elf, and his cousin is the tiny Rod Farva of Little Whinging. Fortunately, he’s a wizard who gets to leave that pedestrian hell hole behind for a world of cool spells, clever Weasley girls, and delicious butterbeer. Sure, there’s an immense dark force threatening him and all he knows and loves with total destruction, but that’s a small price to pay for a life of celebrity, incredible powers, fun friends, and Quidditch team chants.

Harry is hardly an outlier among our favorite fictional heroes. Dorothy escapes to the multi-colored Oz and improves her life tenfold; the Pevensie kids do the same when they stumble upon snowy Narnia; Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon go on a trip to tasty Italy. And then there’s Jake Chambers.

The young hero of The Dark Tower has a magic telepathic power that his parental figures don’t understand. Jake (Tom Taylor) is a Chosen One who faces being shipped off for a kind of psychiatric day camp by his mom’s one-beer-away-from-domestic-abuse boyfriend Lon (Nicholas Pauling). His mother Laurie (Katheryn Winnick) is loving but unable to defend him. She also has no idea what to do with the kid, who responds to being bullied at school with animalistic violence. Even worse, Jake has nightmares every single night of a man in black torturing children. His life on Earth is grim.

But the Stephen King-conceived fantasy land he escapes to is even grimmer. Mid-World is a fallen place where theme parks haven’t been around in so long that no one remembers what they are. Fun is literally dead there.

After jumping shoe-first through a portal, Jake is dumped unceremoniously into the barren desert of Mid-World, incurring the Wide-Eyed Introduction Moment (WEIM) that comes standard with the YA genre. It’s a moment we all know well: when we are welcomed to Jurassic Park, or when Harry sees Hogwarts for the first time or realizes a tent is bigger on the inside (that dude is never not super impressed by magic). The Dark Tower‘s version of the WEIM is this shot:

A wasteland of rocks and two moons floating through a smoggy haze. The shot is not a moment of triumph; it confirms that Jake’s nightmares are a version of reality. It’s a pretty low bar for spectacle, although it’s a mentally affirming moment for the young boy who then has to trudge through nothing until he stumbles upon Roland (Idris Elba), the gunslinger of his dreams. Even then, Roland isn’t introduced as the larger-than-life figure of the books. He’s just a guy with a gun who doesn’t know what a theme park is. Still, if Jake hadn’t found him, he would have escaped his terrible family life only to dehydrate to death in an alien desert.

The Dark Tower’s complete lack of interest in Mid-World is a perfect representation of its brand of anti-escapism. We get to learn virtually nothing about it (there was a war there once) while roaming with a stoic depressive, we learn only one person’s name in the one village we visit (before it’s attacked and set on fire), and then everyone agrees it would simply be better to head back to New York City on crappy old Keystone Earth. That’s like if Harry ghosted Hogwarts to go back to Little Whinging because that’s where all the real action was.

Instead of learning to care about it, we see nothing beyond contextless gloom and destruction in Mid-World. A lot of nameless villagers get slaughtered and their houses burnt down. The only connection Jake makes is to a winking girl whose name he never asks. This is the escapist world we want to leave the oppressive real one for?

But it isn’t enough that the world we visit is a desolate one. That’s straight out of Stephen King‘s ghoulish design. A version of the movie that dropped us into Roland’s pursuit of The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) need not have been anti-escapist. But by placing the YA filter over the story, the filmmakers behind The Dark Tower uses the tropes and structure of escapist fantasy to unconvincingly paint a particularly bleak picture without meaningful payoff or subversion. The suffering Chosen One in our world doesn’t get a yellow brick road or an adorable droid companion; he learns that things are bad all over. As a bonus, the cost of going into the magical realm is that Jake’s mother dies.

The big question is whether this storytelling rewards the viewer. For a story like this, one of the following methods feels required:

  • Clear-eyed look at or parable about tangible problems we face
  • An entertaining distraction

but not…

  • An escape to a world that is just as bad or worse than our own

Oddly enough, the film could have succeeded by helping us care about Mid-World and its people, which would have transformed it into a place filled with people worth fighting for. That would have softened the anti-escapism bent considerably, and transformed Mid-World into a more traditionally troubled magical realm. Instead, the movie uses shortcuts to form bonds (like the little shepherd girl that Jake has to save), and then–once back on our Earth–Jake directly states that Mid-World is already lost, but our world still has hope. It abandons the world of Jake’s dreams and nightmares in order to explore the magical underbelly of Earth.

We’re into dystopias and escapism as much as ever, but The Dark Tower is a dissatisfying mix of the two. Shows like The Handmaid’s Tale and The Leftovers paint extremely bleak pictures of humanity, but their dystopian takes on reality don’t waffle on their connection to current events. Meanwhile, The Dark Tower‘s  world reflects our own in the most generic ways, so the YA-style escape to it feels hollow. When we’re given little reason to care about either world being consumed by evil, it’s too easy to root for the darkness.

Images: Sony Pictures

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