“Go Then. There Are other Words Than These.” Why You Don’t Have To Read The Dark Tower Books Before You See The Movie

The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed.

The first line in The Gunslinger (the first chapter in Stephen King’s sweeping Dark Tower saga) was filled with more enchanting storytelling potential than any words I’d read before or since. Originally published in 1982 (and then revised in 2003), The Gunslinger was the first of seven books (the eighth title-The Wind Through the Keyhole-was a standalone tale that didn’t effect the core saga) that told Roland Deschain’s quest to find the mythical, omnipotent Dark Tower. But as readers soon learned, Roland and the Dark Tower’s story weren’t just confined to that series.

King’s sprawling magnum opus spanned much of his vast career, touching dozens of other novels, short stories, comic books and novellas. Readers flocking to bookstores recently in an effort to binge read King’s massive saga before the movie hits the silver screen this Friday have often looked discouraged when faced with the enormity of the Dark Tower tale and everything it encompasses.

You could understand if some simply quit before they even started and forgot the movie.

But one other line from The Gunslinger is burned into my memory with as much clarity as the first. It belongs to Jake Chambers (you’ll meet him in the movie), who says it when he realizes Roland has chosen his quest for the Tower over Jake’s life. “Go then,” he says as he falls to his death, “there are other worlds than these.” And that sums up why you don’t need to read the books before you see the movie.

To tell you why you don’t need to read the books to understand or appreciate the movie, I’m going to have to reveal a sizeable spoiler or two, so if you’re currently reading the books or you’ve just started and are racing to the end or if you have any intention of tackling the series in the future STOP READING HERE.

Because here there be spoilers.

The movie, while based on the Dark Tower books, is not a direct adaptation of the story King told because it doesn’t need to be. In fact, the story the seven books told was actually just one chapter, one cycle, of Roland’s ancient quest to find the Tower.

The Dark Tower is a nexus of both Time and Space, something Roland and his growing Ka-Tet discover when they not only visit different times and places, but also different realities. Parallel dimensions that are mirror images of each other, some separated by small differences while others are shaped by more significant ones. Roland draws allies (and makes enemies) from across centuries and realities and even meets King himself (sorry, you’ll have to read the books to understand that nugget). And at the heart of this cosmic design is the Tower, a living, breathing mechanism that helms all of creation and it is under constant attack.

Which is where Roland comes in.

Roland is consumed by one overpowering obsession: he needs to find the Dark Tower. It is his sole purpose in life and he allows friends to die and commits morally questionable acts, all in the name of finding it. And in the process of finding the Tower, he protects it from those seeking to destroy it, something he has done over and over again.

Roland has found the Tower hundreds of times and he is old beyond reckoning (at one point, one of his companions-oblivious to the truth about Roland’s relationship to the Tower-wonders how old he is and muses that not even Roland himself can remember). Because every time he finds the Tower, after vanquishing foes and sacrificing friends to do so, the Tower robs him of his memory and sends him back in time to the same place in the desert where we first met him.

It is Roland’s own personal hell, repeating his quest endlessly, living with all the loss and suffering and tragedy over and over and over again. Unknowingly searching for redemption and driven by an obsession bordering on madness, he is the Tower’s relentless guardian, playing a game older than measure. And the final line of the epic is the same as the first.

The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed.

I would recommend reading The Gunslinger if you can. It is a nice introduction to Roland and his world (not to mention a taste of the obsession that drives him), but reading the rest will just prove redundant. Because while the scenery and the leads remain the same and the plot has the same ending in it sights, the movie has it’s own story to tell and its own way to get there.

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