While analogues regarding individual authors in their epoch tack towards the absurd, it is not unheard of to compare Stephen King with Charles Dickens. As Dickens was a romantic genre author par excellence in the epoch of the Industrial Revolution, a point mentioned in some biographies of his contemporaries Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, so King also has operated by such literary norms and modes in his career as a scribe heavily impacted by the 1960s and its New Left politics, brought home most evidently in the fact he named one of his children Joe Hill. In a century he will perhaps be pointed to as a sort of Dickens of neoliberal late capitalism from English language North America.
As such the new adaptation of his Dark Tower series invites a particularly intriguing type of film criticism that can only be informed by those familiar with both his bibliography and that of New Left politics. While it would be a blasphemy to equate his novels with the work of Thomas Pynchon or even Gore Vidal, there is a certain enchanting, magic quality to his proletarian pulp fictions that are in many ways clever representations of the social and economic degradation of our neoliberal epoch. The horror and depravity of Steve Bannon’s white nationalism is indebted in no small part to the frightening former death camp commandant Kurt Dussander from the novella Apt Pupil. When Trump proclaims that he wants to ‘Make America Great Again’, it is very clear he refers to the early time period portrayed in It or the 1960 summertime when four boys go on a walk in the woods looking for a dead body in a story adapted into STAND BY ME.
Such analysis of a film about the Dark Tower, the monolithic ebony structure that defines the quest of a lonely Gunslinger named Roland, therefore begs an introductory dealing with the genesis of the series. King has previously stated in his writings that the original story, written when he was nineteen, was influenced by his reading of Robert Browning’s 1855 poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, his love of Sergio Leone’s THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY, and the popularity of Tolkien that was hegemonic in the hippie heyday. Leone’s films were part of a revisionist Western sub-genre that evolved out of a certain repudiation of the classical Western narrative. Beginning with stories about cowboys who were not as gallant as John Wayne or Ronald Reagan (HIGH NOON) and headed in a direction that would eventually embrace sympathetic portraits of American Indians fighting back against genocide (LITTLE BIG MAN, DANCES WITH WOLVES), these films remained imperfect in that admittedly the genre itself almost by design depends on at least a tacit celebratory attitude about that genocide. However, as films produced in Italy and Spain by men who were steeped in the political and social currents of the Communist-led Partisan resistance to Mussolini and the 1948 elections that had been rigged by the CIA, not to mention neorealism (Leone actually worked on De Sica’s THE BICYCLE THIEF, released seven months after Uncle Sam and De Gasperi stole the contest from Togliatti), Spaghetti Westerns like THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY could be be said to carry a certain neo-Marxist aesthetic. This aesthetic was despite, as King has pointed out “The fact that Leone knew jack shit about American geography (according to one of the characters, Chicago is somewhere in the vicinity of Phoenix, Arizona)”, not to mention the obvious misogynist moments in the picture. In this sense King’s book series that is a source of this film carries layers upon layers of imperfect American Left wing political currents and agitation, a kind of collage of Che Guevara, Black Panthers Party, Ho Chi Minh, and antiwar posters lit with a blacklight and featuring a soundtrack performed by The Beatles (at one point in the first novel a honky tonk piano at a saloon plays Hey Jude).
The source book series, properly speaking, is the meta-narrative that unites all of King’s fictions. While there are eight books proper in the sequence, in fact every King novel is actually also a novel about the Dark Tower. They provide a centrifugal locus point upon which the King literary universe is built as a singular unit. King’s overall aesthetic, a fusion of pedestrian magical realism, Lovecraft, Poe, and the more obviously political elements of 1940s pulp fiction, particularly the parts of Asimov’s novels indicated by Charles Elkins to be informed by the Stalinist presentation of historical materialism, is a strange post-apocalyptic world that has “moved on”, leaving behind relics of an American civilization where a children’s carnival circa 1985 is beside a mining encampment circa 1865. The Gunslinger as a character is part cowboy, part Arthurian knight, possessing six shooters that are forged from the iron of Excalibur itself.
And so what to make of this new film?
I find the negative criticism of the picture somewhat merited but also ponderous. On the one hand, this is not an adaptation of the first novel King wrote in the series, instead it is actually a sequel to the seventh book, released in 2004. Due to the cyclical nature of the story, a viewer can jump in blind and perhaps take in a comprehensible story that introduces them to the universe. But in all honesty this film is not about that as much as a gigantic collection of moments that will make longtime King fans giddy. Every minute of the film is saturated with references to other King books and adaptations. If you don’t blink you can see the carnival that is named for the monster in It, the poster featuring Rita Hayworth from THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, and a dog that very well could be named Cujo. The major motivation for the actions of the antagonist played by Matthew McConaughey, the Man in Black aka Walter o’Dim aka Randall Flagg of King’s other massive epic The Stand, is a harnessing of the Shining telekinetic powers from captive children so to create a weapon to collapse the Dark Tower. In other words, by trying to be something for everyone I understand how it might not succeed and in fact might fail miserably at both (though I admit I enjoyed it all immensely).
But what is truly interesting is the casting of Idris Elba in a part that was quite obviously and intentionally written to be Clint Eastwood circa 1966, when Leone’s THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY hit theaters. The responses here have been informative in that the geek fan culture types who have reviled such casting betray their own latent alt-right tendencies that may yet come into fuller bloom. The responses, which have included claims that it makes “no sense” from a fan point of view, is demonstrably untrue. The truth is that, in internet geek circles, if this character was played by a European actor, there would be far less outcry had Roland been a played by an actress, a dwarf, or a deaf person. From my standpoint it makes perfect sense that Roland’s repeated cycle of search for the Tower, the final revelation of the last volume in the story, would therefore dictate he be reincarnated in different bodies, including Black male bodies, every time he goes around the wheel of ka, the life force indebted to Buddhist karma, Calvinist election, and the Force in STAR WARS that propels the individuals characters and the entire King universe forward in the multiple volumes.
This fan behavior recalls the instance in October 2015 when there were howls of “white genocide” over the revelation of John Boyega’s casting in the sixth entry of the STAR WARS series. These repeated instances of white nationalist convergence with the internet geek culture is becoming more pronounced and disturbing of late. I am a queer Commie pinko geek and this offends me to my core. What casting Elba seems to do is rather dialectically offer an ontology opposing the white settler-colonialist male with a Black masculinity to be accorded just as much reverence as John Wayne’s was by the Greatest Generation. In the era of Black Lives Matter/Movement for Black Lives as well as Dr. Tommy Curry’s philosophical critique of feminist notions regarding Black masculinity in The Man-Not: Race, Class, Genre, and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood, Elba is a heroic black man with a gun and a code of honor descended from Camelot. Whether such a construct is able to stand on merit is ultimately a matter determinant in the parameters of the genre. Can we see a Black cowboy as a substantial counter to white settler-colonialism? Is it even desirable to be trying to engage in such substitution when European masculinity is part of the ontological root of all evil in the settler-colonialist system and that instead Frantz Fanon suggests a wholly new and different male ontology to emerge from the destruction of settler-colonialism? Would a dialectical counter to the white cowboy instead be presented as a Black single mother who is able to assert control of her body and her agency before leading a revolt against settler-colonialism?
I am also forced to confront the fact that the Romantic heading under which Westerns, science fiction, and fantasy are found is not just inclined to racism but in fact the very logic and grammar of settler-colonialist imperialism itself is Romanticism, end of discussion. Efforts to subvert such things, be it in the works of Octavia Butler or the MATRIX series or by casting Idris Elba in a role that was intended for a man who once had an extended monologue with an empty chair at the Republican national convention, are guaranteed to be rejected and cause a financial failure. In order to best define the hegemonic nature of white supremacy in Romantic genres, I’d paraphrase another early neo-Marxist Romantic film and tell you to forget it, it’s Chinatown.
So I must ultimately give our beloved Comrade King a Lenin Prize for his meritorious contributions to building a praxis of class consciousness. Let’s give him the credit for trying to turn a genre filled with the xenophobia and racism of Lovecraft in a more Left direction. But we also need to accept that such efforts are limited by the very nature of Romanticism and, just as there are no good Germans, there may not be any way to create a good Gunslinger. It remains clear in the works of Pynchon, whose Against the Day most clearly grappled with Romanticism, that pulp fiction and settler-colonialism are not just complimentary but one and the same edifice, less a dialectic and more different aspects of a singular thesis that Lenin called the highest stage of capitalism.