There are some tales that grow in the telling. And then there are other tales that start out incredibly big, only to shrink down to a more manageable size once the tellers realize that’s the only way they’re going to be able to finish the dang thing. Such is the case with the screen adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, which was originally planned as the first installment of a gargantuan multi-platform franchise, but now arrives in theaters on Friday as the rare 90-minute summer blockbuster. (Call it the Shrinking Tower of Sony.) It’s the end result of more than seven years of development, which saw multiple delays, casting changes, and changing release dates. Let’s look back on the fantastic journey of the project that once seemed like it would be this decade’s Lord of the Rings.
April 30, 2010
Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, and Akiva Goldsman nab the rights to the Dark Tower series, seven books — an eighth would come in 2012 — about a gunslinger named Roland hunting an evil sorcerer known as the Man in Black through a fantasy-Western universe. Even by the standards of the author, it’s a very big, very complicated story. (At one point in the narrative, King himself shows up as a character.) The rights had previously been held by J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof, but the pair abandoned the project in 2009 because they were, as Abrams put it, “terrified of screwing it up.”
September 8, 2010
Universal and NBC announce that they’ve picked up the project. The plan is incredibly ambitious: Three movies, with two seasons of TV airing in the gap between them. Howard will direct both the first movie and the first season of the TV show, while Goldsman will write the scripts. Goldsman’s screenplay credit on the final film is basically the only part of this press release to actually end up happening.
October 29, 2010
The first film is set for May 17, 2013. Had everything gone according to plan, the movie would have opened against Star Trek: Into Darkness. Everything will not go according to plan.
May 6, 2011
Getting second thoughts about the size of the project they’re developing, Universal puts preproduction on hiatus. A week later, the studio asks the filmmakers to cut the budget, and pushes the start of production back six months.
July 18, 2011
Universal decides that actually, they don’t want to go through with the incredibly complicated scheme and cans the project. It’s theorized that the giant piles of money the studio sank into Battleship play a major role in their decision.
October 25, 2011
Brian Grazer tells MTV that HBO has agreed to make the TV portions of The Dark Tower. He also assures any studios listening that he and Howard have indeed cut the budget. “We’ve lost $45 million out of the budget,” he says. “When people say no to you enough, then you have to lose money, which we’ve done without harming the scope of the film.”
March 12, 2012
Deadline reports that HBO’s corporate sibling Warner Bros. is in talks to make the movies.
August 12, 2012
Just kidding, Warner Bros. decides that they won’t make the movies. The HBO deal never materializes, either.
August 20, 2012
Indie studio Media Rights Capital picks up the project. It will languish without a distributor for two-and-a-half more years.
April 10, 2015
Just as everyone had started to assume the adaptation was never going to happen, Sony agrees to distribute and co-finance the project, one of the first major pickups by new studio head Tom Rothman. Though the original concept of three movies and two seasons of TV remains technically on the table, it will exist in a strange kind of Hollywood limbo as everyone waits to see how the first film performs.
July 10, 2015
Danish filmmaker Nikolaj Arcel signs on to direct. In early 2016, Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey sign on to play Roland and the Man in Black, respectively, parts that had been linked to everyone from Javier Bardem to Russell Crowe.
March 1, 2016
In an interview with EW, King confirms that the movie is close to production, with some changes: Instead of drawing from the first book, The Gunslinger, it will actually begin “in medias res,” though he declines to say exactly which books in the series the movie will be based on.
July 14, 2016
More details on the project emerge from EW: It turns out the movie will actually be a sequel to the book series, not an adaptation. (It’s complicated, but the quick answer is, there’s a time-loop thing going on where the heroes have to keep completing the same quest.) Also, Roland’s companions Susannah, Oy, and Eddie won’t be in the movie — bad news for Aaron Paul, who had publicly lobbied for the latter role — though the door is open for them to appear in the sequels, should the sequels happen.
September 21, 2016
MRC says that plans for the TV show are still on, despite the fact that no network or streaming service has picked it up. The series will reportedly be a prequel based on the fourth book in the series, Wizard and Glass, following a younger version of Elba’s Roland. The plan is for Elba to make brief appearances in a framing device, while McConaughey may be recast.
November 3, 2016
The film’s release date is pushed back from February 2017 to late summer, after the filmmakers realize their postproduction schedule had been too ambitious. (Considering the film had released nary a teaser, it’s not a huge surprise.) The film’s budget is also revealed — $60 million, relatively cheap for a would-be tentpole.
May 3, 2017
The film’s trailer finally arrives.
July 18, 2017
According to the British Board of Film Classification, the finished film officially clocks in at 95 minutes, a whole 30 minutes shorter than the average summer blockbuster.
July 31, 2017
In an interview with Indiewire, director Nikolaj Arcel is still bullish on the prospects for the TV show, which he says will be much more faithful to the books.
August 1, 2017
Days ahead of the release, Variety publishes a detailed story about the film’s allegedly troubled production, painting a picture of a project plagued by too many decision-makers: MRC and Sony reportedly both had veto power over major decisions, as did King. The mag also says that the movie performed so poorly at test screenings that the studios considered hiring another director to reedit it. (All the major players deny this, saying that the creative clashes never rose above what’s typical on a big-budget film.)
August 3, 2017
Despite the bad reviews, the show must go on, as The Walking Dead’s Glen Mazzara comes on as showrunner. THR politely notes that the series “is considered to be independent of” the film.