Why 'Dark Tower' Couldn't Top 'It'

When the films were in development, it seemed unlikely a movie starring seven kids could top Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey.
Courtesy of Photofest; Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and RatPac-Dune Entertainment

The books of Stephen King have long been a source from which Hollywood likes to pull for various adaptations. Over the last 40 years, there have been more than 60 films adapted from or inspired by King’s prolific novels, novellas and short stories. Thanks to coincidental timing, within the last five weeks, we’ve gotten two new cinematic versions of a couple of King’s biggest, most well liked stories: last month’s The Dark Tower and this week’s It. Both films are essentially adapting parts of a larger story, both have an epic scope, and both have set pieces meant to inspire fear and terror. Only It is generally successful at achieving any of those ambitions.

At some point in development, it might have seemed like The Dark Tower could have a leg up on It. The former film boasts two big-name actors, Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, while It largely relies on a group of seven young actors, most of whom are unfamiliar to mass audiences. Both films depict a battle between good and evil; in the case of The Dark Tower, the fate of humanity rests in the hands of a teenage boy and Elba’s fabled Gunslinger. So why is only It the successful film, at least qualitatively? (The Dark Tower has yet to make back its reported $60 million budget at the domestic box office, whereas It is sure to make at least that much this weekend.)

While It is technically an adaptation of one-half of the King opus, it feels like a whole film. It’s the story of how the self-named Losers’ Club in Derry, Maine — initially just Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff), and Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer) — unites to take down the malevolent evil spirit Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard). Bill drives the group’s search, desperate to find some clue to the whereabouts of his brother Georgie, who he hopes is just missing, not dead. The group eventually includes new kid Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), home-schooled Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), and the tomboyish Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis). All of them are haunted by nightmarish visions, either of Pennywise, an almost cartoonishly terrifying clown, or of their other fears being made physically real. The film, and King’s story, is a panoply of terrors: clowns, dead children, creepy figures from paintings, and fears of physical maturity made manifest.

The Dark Tower is more stripped down — it’s just 95 minutes where It is 135 minutes long, and there are really only three core characters, including McConaughey’s Man in Black. However, there are few moments in The Dark Tower that feel fully lived-in or genuine, let alone exciting and/or terrifying. It (or, as it’s titled at the very end, It: Chapter One, portending the sequel focusing on the adult versions of the Losers’ Club) may be a longer affair. The good news: That allows director Andy Muschietti and screenwriters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman the chance to build the relationships between the kids at the heart of the story.

As much as it’s wonderful to see Elba taking the lead of a major movie, so little of The Dark Tower felt like anything but a rush to build out a franchise in the hopes of audiences wanting more than the flaccid build-up they received. It, on the other hand, tells a complete story within its two-plus hours, one in which each of the septet gets to shine for at least one sequence. Bill, as haunted by his stutter as by the loss of his brother, functions as the leader of the group, but Richie, Stanley, Eddie, Ben, Mike, and Beverly all get time in the spotlight. This speaks to what is arguably the greatest asset that It has: the cast. Nothing against Elba (the sole bright spot of The Dark Tower) or McConaughey, but the seven kids in It are so natural and genuine that the scenes where they’re simply handling school bullies, making fun of each other, or trying to fit in work as well, if not more so, as ones where they’re faced with supernatural terrors. Tom Taylor, as Jake, the child in The Dark Tower, isn’t a bad actor, but the script offered him too little to work with.

If anything, It’s scary, entertaining first installment suggests that the presumed follow-up, about the adult characters in the present day facing down Pennywise again, has a fairly high bar to clear. If The Dark Tower had been equally as successful, the next phase would have included a TV show as well as follow-up films. (It seems a TV show is still going forward, but don't hold your breath on a movie sequel.) Building a universe may make some kind of warped sense to executives, but It benefits from only having to tell one very long story in two parts. The Dark Tower was a case of a studio taking on too large a property in too many disparate ways. That film felt unfocused, where It is assured, straightforward, and all the more successful for not doing more than was necessary.