The Dark Tower series by Stephen King is a lot. Both in terms of sheer amount of content as well as the themes and the narrative’s construction. There are eight novels, more than a dozen comics and everything from It to The Stand to Salem’s Lot plays a part in King’s magnum opus. There’s no telling just how much the upcoming film might tackle.
That said, there are a few things we can say for certain based on trailers, posters, interviews and the like. Roland Deschain, the last gunslinger, is chasing The Man in Black. A boy named Jake Chambers is along for the ride, and the whole lot of them are looking to get to the eponymous Dark Tower.
So, uh, what exactly does any of that mean? If that’s the question you’re asking, what follows is a guide to help you before or after viewing the film — though probably not during. There’s more to the franchise than this, but for the purposes of the movie, here’s what you need to know.
Roland Deschain (Idris Elba)
Roland Deschain of Gilead is the last gunslinger, and the best hope for saving every reality. He’s a tough, no-nonsense man with grit on top of grit and a soft spot for the weak. It’s impossible to say exactly how old Roland is as time’s funny in Mid-World.
He’s been tracking the Man in Black ever since the fall of Gilead, and he never quite seems to catch up. Why is he hunting the Man in Black? The question never gets a complete answer, but many different reasons are offered. The movie’s marketing indicates that gunslingers have always fought against the Man in Black’s quest for the Dark Tower. For Roland, this means traversing many different worlds. More on that later.
Gunslingers are a hybrid of the sheriffs of the American Wild West and the knights of Europe’s history. They have guns, but they don’t wear heavy armor. Still, chivalry and standing up to evil, and other knightly attitudes, come with the territory. Sometimes they resolve matters like cattle disputes, sometimes they work to stop the end of the world. Or they did, anyway, when there was more than one.
In the books, the Man in Black, Walter O’Dim, seduced Roland’s mother, Gabrielle Deschain, around the time when Roland had first earned his guns. In a combination of grief, rage and illusion, instigated in part by O’Dim, Roland shot and killed his mother. Roland blames O’Dim for that — and everything terrible that’s happened since.
Roland doesn’t have a quick wit, and has trouble finding the right words for the situation, but his vast knowledge of dangers and combat techniques means he’s a good person to have at your side. If he draws his weapon, it’s bad news for bad folks. Roland’s very much a surrogate father to Jake in the books, and there’s a hint of that in the trailers as well.
The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey)
Walter O’Dim is one of many names given to The Man in Black. Marten Broadcloak is another name, and so is Randall Flagg. The Man in Black is a servant of the Crimson King, and while he’s certainly one of the most powerful, he’s not invincible. He’s cruel, petty and willing to do whatever it takes to see the Dark Tower fall.
O’Dim is one of many servants of the Crimson King. There’s also the indication that O’Dim is Roland’s greatest adversary. In the books, the Crimson King is always in the background, moving figurative chess pieces that include O’Dim. So it’s possible O’Dim is one of Roland’s many antagonists.
Like Roland, O’Dim’s age is unknown. There’s a mythic evilness about him that makes it seem like he’s always been causing trouble for people like Roland, and always will. But O’Dim is still mortal, and Roland’s guns can still kill him. O’Dim avoids this problem altogether as he tends to prefer indirect meddling with a side of magic. Why risk his own life when he can risk that of others?
Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor)
There’s no good reason for Jake Chambers to have been sucked into the affairs of Roland and the Man in Black, but such is the way of things. As Roland might say, “there’ll be water if God wills it,” and so it seems Chambers has been willed into Roland’s story.
Jake comes from a version of reality like our own. Specifically, he’s from New York, where he attends school and does normal things. His folks are just about the worst, and he dreams of other worlds. In some cases he obsesses over an insane train, and in others he finds himself in Roland’s world. The movie looks to collapse Jake’s travels to other worlds into a single trip through a haunted house, but there’s still the possibility that his arc plays out as it does in the books.
Part of Jake and Roland’s relationship is that Roland chases the Man in Black and the Tower instead of Jake. Roland lets Jake slip away into the deep in a cavern in The Gunslinger. It’s a dark moment, and may not be one the film wants to tackle immediately. It could be saved for the climax of the film, or its end, to better position a sequel.
Steven Deschain (Dennis Haysbert)
Roland’s father, Steven Deschain, is the “dinh” or leader of Gilead. Basically, he’s the king, and the latest in the line descending from Arthur Eld. (This world’s version of King Arthur mixed with some biblical aspects.) The trailers have so far included a brief look at Steven and nothing of Gilead, so it’s a good bet that any scenes with Roland’s father will be dreams or flashbacks.
Though he doesn’t say so, Roland’s relationship with his father was strained. The books spend a decent amount of time on how Roland never felt good enough in his father’s eyes, and how his decisions might reflect on him and therefore his father. Fathers are kind of a big deal in The Dark Tower.
It’s unlikely that Steven will do much more than show up as a way to lay some guilt on Roland’s shoulders or a grand quest at Roland’s feet.
The Crimson King
The Crimson King is the Dark Tower’s evil MacGuffin. He doesn’t show up until the end, and he’s always dangled out of reach as the person responsible for everything awful. Vampires? Crimson King did it somehow. Slow Mutants? Crimson King’s behind it.
Think of the Crimson King as the bogeyman behind the rest of the bogeymen. He’s the Dark Tower’s version of Sauron.
The Dark Tower
This is the most complicated part of the mythos. The Dark Tower is the lynchpin of all realities, the center of all creation, supported by a series of Beams, which expand from its center like a bicycle wheel. The Dark Tower is like a giant bathtub stopper; if removed, everything drains away.
Both the Crimson King and the Man in Black aim to reach the top of the tower and remake all existence to their liking. That, they topple it. That’s the idea, and it’s what drives Roland forward. The problem is the physical representation of the tower only exists in one reality, thus the world-hopping escapades.
What Roland might do at the top of the tower is hard to say, but he’s got a long road ahead of him before he confronts that problem. (There’s some lore that suggest Roland has already reached the top, but that’s outside the scope of this explainer.)
In the books, the only reason the tower is in trouble at all is because folks replaced the infallible magic of the Beams with technology. That technology did a fine job for a long time, but it wasn’t impervious to decay. At the start of the story, several Beams are broken, and more are in danger. While it’s unclear just how this factors into the film, several scenes appear to include the Beams emanating out from the tower.
The Dark Tower will be released on Aug. 4.