Ever since a film version of The Dark Tower has been actually worked on, actors are coming up connected to the lead role of Roland Deschain, the Gunslinger himself. There might not be a more hotly debated character, nor a casting process more contentious, than the one circling around this one.
Several names have risen to the top only to be struck down. Javier Bardem apparently was cast by Ron Howard, but Howard's off the project and so is Bardem. Russell Crowe was another who apparently came close. Other contenders that were mentioned to be "in talks", whether or not that was ever true, include Viggo Mortensen, Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale and Daniel Craig.
And now, there's a new name to surface. One Idris Elba.
Roland isn't one of them. And I'll get right to the point. I don't think Roland should be played by a black man.
I know, I know. How racist of me. It's 2015, and if I don't like the idea of changing a character's race I must be a nasty racist, right? Isn't that how it works?
Obviously I don't have a problem with the changing of a character's race, as I've done it, several times already on this blog. I understand that the main reason most of these characters were white is that King wrote these stories in the 60's and 70's and was a white man himself, and thus, he wrote what he knew, and wasn't nearly as concerned with diversity as we've become in the 2010's.
To be honest, I think we're all a little too concerned with diversity, to the point where people start crying "racism" when a historically white character, such as Spider-Man, gets cast with a white actor. I'm serious that when Tom Holland got cast in the role, there were people saying they would boycott the film because they had a chance to make Spider-Man black and refused to do so. But that's all I'll say on this subject.
Also, I don't think this situation is analogous to Morgan Freeman playing Red in The Shawshank Redemption when this character was written as a red-headed Irishman, nor does it compare to various comic book characters who were traditionally white being played by black actors.
Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption was one fourth of a collection of novellas that were celebrated by readers and critics, but Red the character was hardly a near-mythic character who represented not just one aspect of one story but sort of the personification of King's mythos in general.
Roland is probably one of the favorite characters of any of King's works. He's certainly the one they take the most seriously. He's not just a character in a story to readers of The Dark Tower and King's canon in general. He's a mythic figure. He's gained cult status. There are people who think of him as the figurehead to King's universe.
You don't screw with characters like that.
Let's compare Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption to another character in another King film; George C. Scott in Firestarter. Morgan Freeman played Red, a white red-head, while George C. Scott played John Rainbird, a Native American character. One went from white to black, the other went from Aboriginal to white pretending to be Aboriginal. And in neither case was it due to either actor's race. George C. Scott was hired to play Rainbird because he was George C. Scott. Morgan Freeman was cast as Red because he was Morgan Freeman.
Idris Elba is not yet at a point where if he's available and willing, you hire him no questions asked. He is not yet at a point where having him in your movie automatically lends it an air of respectability it might not otherwise have. I'm sure he'll get there some day, but right now he's just a popular, and very talented, actor.
Some characters are just characters. Others are icons. Spider-Man is an icon. So is Superman. When you adapt characters like that to the screen, you change as little as possible, because millions of people have grown up with these characters and know how they're supposed to be.
Roland is that for Constant Readers. He is not someone you go changing just because you can. I know people want to make it a race thing, but to be honest, really none of the actors courted for the role of Roland have been actors I would have approved of. I might--might--have been okay with Craig or Jackman, because Jackman sorta looks like a young Clint Eastwood and Craig has the seamed, lined, not-handsome face that Roland from the books has. But I would strongly prefer an unknown, or lesser-known character actor who can embody the role rather than a big star. Doubtless if negotiations don't work out with Elba, they'll move on to DiCaprio or Downey, not because they'd be any good but because they're big stars.
Then there's the changes it would make to the story. Nine times out of ten, when a character is changed from white to black there's no real reason not to. I didn't mind Ossie Davis playing the Judge in The Stand or Andre Braugher playing Matt in 'Salem's Lot because neither role has anything to do with race.
But in the Dark Tower series, race does matter. In Book 2, The Drawing of the Three, Roland uses the mysterious "drawing" power he's been given to enter the mind of Odetta Holmes, a black woman with a split personality that she is unaware of. Odetta is reasonable and educated while Detta Walker, her other personality, is a psychotic criminal who hates white people. When Roland draws her into his world, she is an immediate liability because her hatred of whites causes her to work against them on principle.
I've seen comments on various web sites that say things like "Big deal, so she won't be able to call Roland a honk mahfah, does that really change things?" Well, yes, it does. Because making Roland a black man requires changing Detta Walker's character, causing her actions to not really make much sense. I suppose you could say that the fact that Roland more or less kidnapped her might be motivation enough, but then you've got the Odetta personality, who's willing to listen to Roland's reasons for drawing her away from her world.
Even Susannah has the occasional talk about racial issues with Roland and Eddie, and feels that neither can understand where she's coming from because they're both white. This all goes away if you make Roland a black man. The contrast and compliment are needed here. Otherwise you're screwing with the story for no other reason than so you can have a black man in the lead role.
And of course, this sorta kills me because this series' female lead is a strong black woman with a brilliant mind, who's an interesting character to boot. This is one of the few early King books in which there's already a prominent black character. I don't care if there's more than one prominent black character in a story, but in this case she's more than a token. She's a black Civil Rights activist from the 60's and her race and stance on race relations is a critical part of her character, a part that is underdone by putting more of "her people" around her. She's supposed to feel out of place, because she feels that herself. She's initially uncomfortable with her feelings for Eddie because he's a white man.
My point is, this is one story King wrote that's hardly lacking in race awareness, and yet producers apparently feel the need to race-lift the lead character for diversity's sake. And not just any lead character, but the focal point of King's entire universe.
Of course, the producers of this movie aren't thinking about Odetta/Detta/Susannah at this point, because she doesn't show up until the second book, and they, so far, are only filming The Gunslinger. Likely they haven't spared a single thought toward how the future films are gonna go, because they don't even know if this one will find an audience. Heck, they already seem to think it won't, since they've already decided to release it in January.
Now, of course, Roland isn't the only role in this film they seem to be determined to miscast. They've also got Matthew McConaughey tapped to play Walter, the Man in Black.
|Yes, they want this actor...|
|...to play this character.|
I've already mentioned in my last post that Walter and Randall Flagg, the villain from The Stand, are the same character but a different persona. Without going into too much detail, Walter is an at least partially demonic being with many names that he uses for various guises. It's implied that the Walter persona from The Dark Tower is about as close as we've come to seeing his real personality, and it's also implied that Walter is in fact his real name. But he uses multiple aliases, and alters his personality for each one to various degrees. We're told in The Stand that he's been both a White Supremacist and a Black Rights activist, using different names but all with the initials "RF". His Flagg persona is supposed to be a sort of generic all-American, so McConaughey actually wouldn't be a bad choice to play that role. But McConaughey can't turn off his southern twang, and there is no way you can convince me that Walter, who is more like a Saruman-esque evil wizard, speaks with that twang.
In fact, the more I hear about casting for this thing, the more I hope this project folds. No, I don't insist that there be no changes whatsoever, but the way things are going, this is going to be so different that I won't even recognize it.
EDIT: It has come to my attention that Stephen King himself has tweeted about this and more or less given Elba his blessing. To some, that settles the matter. If the author doesn't care, why should we?
Well, really, there are only three possibilities here.
1. Stephen King has forgotten everything about the racial dynamics of the Ka-tet and why they matter within the story. (this is the least likely)
2. King, like many, is afraid of appearing racist for objecting to a black actor. I believe this one is at least partially right. Without getting too deep into it, we live in very thin-skinned PC times, and it takes almost no effort at all to call someone a racist these days. When you read stories about the San Bernadino shooters' neighbor saying he saw suspicious activity but didn't report it because he was afraid of being called racist, that tells you what kind of world we're living in.
3. At this point, King is probably in "whatever, let's just get this done" mode, and might have stopped caring about who plays Roland as long as someone does.
What I do not accept is that at no point while writing the character did color matter to him. As my friend over at The Truth Inside the Lie aptly points out, Roland is based on the classic cowboy image, specifically the type of character that Clint Eastwood used to play. While there's no reason a cowboy can't be black, This does mean that King created this character as a white man, and he definitely is written as one, what with Detta hating Roland for being a "honk mahfah".
King knows what side his bread is buttered on, and I'm sure has no interest in saying anything that might delay this production longer. But did the color of the Gunslinger ever matter to him? Of course it did, and I don't know who he's trying to kid by suggesting otherwise.