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Friday, January 5, 2018

The Eyes of the Dragon

Well, gang, it was a year and a half ago that I typed the words "Next Up: Eyes of the Dragon!" And finally, finally, here we are.

The Eyes of the Dragon is generally considered one of the lesser works of King's canon by Constant Readers, and I can kinda understand why. It's his only out-and-out High Fantasy effort (or, perhaps I should say, his only published high fantasy effort, as I think some of the unpublished material we've learned about over the years have been other attempts at the same) and yet, it's too Stephen King for fans of fantasy and too fantasy for fans of Stephen King. I'm tempted to say that as a major fan of both fantasy and King, I enjoyed it on both levels, but the fact is that this really isn't any more of a fantasy novel than, say, The Stand, aside from the rather standard fantasy setting. Sure, there are kings and princes, castles and towers, an evil wizard, and as the title implies, a dragon. But it's still very much a King story, just not one that we're used to.

The story is actually kind of straight-foward. It's set in the kingdom of Delain, ruled by the well-meaning but oafish King Roland (and yes, it's the same name as King's most famous hero, but there are absolutely zero other common elements; this is emphatically not the same character). I don't know what Roland's family name is, but I like to think it's Flakfizer. When we meet Roland, he's reluctantly getting married despite still having child-like feelings toward the idea of women.

Roland is not a very smart man, and most of the major decisions in his rule are decided by his chief council, the wizard Flagg. If that name sounds familiar to CR's, it should. And yes, this is very much the same man. King's favorite demonic figure, already having walked through a version of our Earth, and the Gunslinger's Mohaine Desert, and now here he is, whispering in Roland's ear and taking control of Delain. It is through Flagg's influence that Roland ends up marrying a quiet, soft-spoken young woman named Sasha.

Flagg's chief problem is, more or less, that evil cannot comprehend good. He thinks Sasha will be as  easy to manipulate as Roland, due to her quiet nature. However, she's anything but, and over time, Flagg begins to realize she has to go, but only once heirs are produced. The first heir, Peter, is born after Roland kills the last dragon in his kingdom (for all his flaws, Roland is a superb huntsman) and Peter begins to grow up a polite, yet very kingly, young man who takes after his mother. His younger brother, Thomas, born of what is essentially drunken rape when Flagg decides Peter won't do for his plans at all, is more like his befuddled old dad.

What are Flagg's plans? Why, to utterly take over, then destabilize and ultimately topple the kingdom. Why? That we're not really told. He's evil and that's all you need to know. I'd be more dissatisfied by that if we didn't already know that Flagg walks through many worlds, taking on many identities and that he does a lot of things we don't know the reason for, all for his master the Crimson King. That's not touched on in this book, but having read King's other stuff, I already know Flagg and know that he's a bad guy with mysterious plans.

But Flagg can be defeated, and it doesn't necessarily take a wizard of equal power. Sometimes all it takes is a person with some form of power who won't take your bullshit. Peter is that person, so if he becomes king after Roland, he'll cause problems for Flagg. So, Flagg hatches a brilliant plan to get rid of Roland and Peter at once, and ingratiate himself with Thomas in the meanwhile, so that once Thomas takes the throne, Flagg will be his most trusted advisor.

And that's all I'll say about the plot, to avoid spoilers, but I will say more about this book, the kind of book it is, and its place in King's canon.

First, and this should be obvious by now, but this is very much a chapter in the saga of King's multiverse and the Dark Man's attempts to bring it down. It might not be a super-important chapter, but the references here are impossible to miss for those CR's who have read and enjoyed the Dark Tower series. Considering that series touches umpteen different seemingly non-related King books and stories, I seriously recommend reading that series just to see the myriad ways it ties everything together.

This book contains the first references to the kingdom of Garlan and Rhea of the Cöos (known here as Rhiannon of the Coos) and also makes clear that in Flagg's wanderings, he's visited HP Lovecraft's world and stolen the Necronomicon. These references to a larger universe that we can read about in King's other books are, I will confess, a major part of why I enjoyed this book.

But I also just simply enjoyed reading it. I can't really explain why; the story is quite standard and the characters are nothing we haven't seen before. But I couldn't put this down, either the first or second time I read this. The first time was back in my mid-twenties and I was again surprised at how little I had forgotten. It's a very pleasant read, with a narrative style King would grow to use more often, which is that the narrator seems to be an actual character, rather than just a function. Often he gives us his opinion and even at one point wishes us goodnight when a character goes to sleep, as if King knew that many of us would be reading this before bed. Which, as it turns out, I was. More on the narrator later.

Is this really a good book? That's hard to say. I know the geekier half of me truly loved the connections with The Dark Tower and the story actually was engaging enough to keep me turning those pages. What probably gets this story a bad rap is that it's thought of as High Fantasy from the master of horror, so really, King could have gone absolutely crazy with this, but instead he's given us a relatively tame and tidy story that one could almost read to their kids.

And, really, that's what it is, and what it was supposed to be. King wrote this for his daughter Naomi, apparently because she liked faerie tales. And that's what this is; it's a faerie tale. Think of it like a modern take on the Brothers Grimm. Do that, and suddenly it becomes a sterling example of the genre!

The question is whether or not this could make a good movie. I think it can, because the story is very straightforward and would require little to slim it down to a coherent 100-minute film. But it has to be marketed correctly. It can't be sold as a High Fantasy story because then people will be expecting swordfights, orcs, magic battles, et al. There's very little of that. It definitely can't be sold as a horror story because it's very much not a horror story. I think it should be somewhere in the middle, like make it look like a costume drama with a trailer focusing on a wrongfully accused prince and the evil sorcerer trying to bring a kingdom down. A tagline could be "A Dark Magic...An Imprisoned Prince...A Kingdom in Peril!" This also might be a good film to keep King's name in small print among the credits, rather than right in the title or prominent on the poster.

I'm gonna select Kenneth Branagh and his team to script/direct this, because he knows how to make this kind of thing and make it very good. This will be one Branagh himself will not star in, although I flirted with him playing King Roland. But Branagh is not known for taking supporting roles in his films; he either doesn't act in them at all or he's in the lead. Odd, but true.

I'm gonna start with Flagg, despite him being the villain of the piece and not the central role. Again, this is the same man as Randall Flagg from The Stand, and Walter/Marten/Etc. from The Dark Tower series. There are rumors he's also He Who Walks Behind the Rows from Children of the Corn and King has openly written in The Stand that one of his names is Nyarlathotep from Lovecraft's mythos (probably how he got ahold of the Necronomicon). I've heard some readers say that this Flagg is nothing like the character from The Stand or The Dark Tower and thus, it almost seems like King just thrust the name on this unrelated character. I can't agree. This Flagg is implied to be several millennia old, he has a habit of coming to, leaving, then returning to, kingdoms and large cities and ingratiating himself with its rulers, sometimes taking different names and sometimes keeping his name the same, working to either bring the various places down or at least secure his control over them, he wears a dark cloak with a hood over his face, he can make himself "dim", he's got the Necronomicon...honestly I don't see how this character isn't reconcilable as the same man from those other books. Sure, it sorta implies that this Flagg can be hurt by conventional means (at one point he catches a cold), but that's always been part of Walter/Flagg is that he's often more human than he wishes he were, but less human than he seems. He even does the same thing he will later do (earlier do? we really aren't told when this takes place compared to The Gunslinger) with Roland Deschaine, and try to get rid of him as a child because he sees him as a threat to his plans. So, yeah, our regular Flagg is back, none other than Lee Pace, that actor who can go from charming to frightening with ease. I will have all of this character's humanoid guises played by him, but with different clothes, hair, possibly make-up, et al, as a way of showing the viewer that he's the same person. This time, let's give him Snape hair.

Then there's Peter, the wronged prince. This character is a natural leader and generally good man, but he spends a majority of the story locked in a tower plotting his escape. In a way he's almost not the lead but merely the most central plot device. That's one of the strange things about the story; the two characters most often regarded as the leads don't actually do much for the majority of the story. We come to know them as people and we like them, but on film, it's hard to know how that will translate. In Peter's case, adding more scenes where he gets to talk to someone might help. In the book he has a lady love we never meet (and thus, I won't be casting her). Maybe in the film she can come to the tower. In the novel Peter isn't allowed visitors, but that can be changed for the film. In the novel, he ages from 16 at the time of his imprisonment to 21 by the time of his escape. I'm aging him up so that the passage of time won't require quite so many different actors to play him. I chose Douglas Booth, who really is a better actor than he's usually given credit for.

Thomas, the younger prince who becomes King after Peter's imprisonment, is a character that absolutely has to be played by someone we naturally feel sympathetic toward. In the book, Thomas spends most of his on-page action time either drunk off his ass (Flagg keeps him that way on purpose) or bitter and angry that his father seems to love Peter more. He's described as sullen and sour-faced, and at one point beats a dog to death because he's angry at his brother. But, as the narrator keeps insisting, he is not a bad boy, and I certainly did see him as a sympathetic character. There's a scene, for instance, involving a toy boat that makes me weep for him. I think it would be a good idea to have a scene shortly after he's crowned where he openly disagrees with Flagg about a new tax or law in front of the other court officials, which causes Flagg to start plying him with drugs and alcohol, as a way of showing that Thomas wants to do good, but Flagg makes him his creature. Who's more sympathetic than Spider-Man? Tom Holland will be my Thomas.

Anders Peyna is the kingdom's Judge-General, a layered character who believes utmost in the process of the law, and he judges Peter wrongly to be guilty, only to later understand the truth. I wanted a proud, stern older actor who conveys absolute authority. And no one does it better than a starship captain. Patrick Stewart is our Anders Peyna.

The role of King Roland is larger than you might expect given that he spends a majority of the story dead. Roland is described as short, squat and bow-legged, though a description of his chest as "scrawny" makes me think he isn't supposed to be fat, just kinda dumpy-looking. He's not the most handsome of men, and he's actually a bit childlike. Again, he should be sympathetic, even if he's a bit of a dullard and kinda mean sometimes without meaning to be. It was hard to think of a suitable actor for him, but I eventually settled on Timothy Spall. Roland, in the story, ages from mid-50's to early 70's, and Spall could play all those ages convincingly.

Another character from the prologue is Sasha, the young queen who is responsible for the kind of boy Peter turns out to be. She has a few very important scenes, and we need someone who can communicate her power in an understated way that might be mistaken for meekness. Also she'll need to go from quite young to somewhere in her late twenties, and that sounds like a job for Jenna Coleman!

Dennis Brandon is Peter's butler, who eventually becomes Thomas's butler, and through whose eyes a major truth is uncovered. A major truth, for that matter, that gives the novel its title. He's young, but I think he's meant to be older than Peter, and he's very much a salt-of-the-earth working class feller. For some reason, I pictured him with a Scottish accent, and that led me to Dunkirk's Jack Lowden, a Scot who is probably the tallest and sturdiest of the young men in that film.

Peter's best friend is Ben Staad, a lower noble who never believes in Peter's guilt and sets out to free him. The role isn't very proactive, but he does have a lot to do in the finale, so a few more scenes establishing their friendship will probably be called for. I chose Luke Bracey, mainly because he's young, handsome and blonde, like Ben.

Ben is aided by a farm girl who keeps sled dogs named Naomi. Her part isn't large, either, but she's the character King named after his own daughter, and she's one of the few active female roles in this story. So I chose Kaya Scoledario, for no other reason than that she's beautiful and still young while being believable as a tough girl of action.

Those are the main roles, but there is one more pretty sizable role I want to cast, namely the narrator. This is the first time I've ever decided that the narrator needs to actually be present for the film version, but this narrator, like I said, is pretty much a character. He doesn't need to be there for all scenes, but there are some lines and quotes of his I'd really like to keep. Who is the narrator? He's clearly not one of the characters in the story, as he knows things he could not possibly know, but he isn't just a passive storyteller, either, but someone as invested in the goings-on as we are. That needs to be included as it was one of the reasons I greatly enjoyed reading this. Could this narrator be...Gan? Maturin, even? I don't know, but I want his narration here with us. Christopher Lee and Peter O'Toole are dead, but Ian McKellen is still with us, and I haven't used him yet, so he's our narrator.

Another small role I'm casting is the royal stabler, Yosef, mainly because actor Rab Affleck would fit the part like a glove.

Finally, two minor roles I'm adding will be played by two actors Branagh nearly always uses, composer Patrick Doyle and character actor Jimmy Yuill.

Doyle can play the small but memorable part of Peyna's butler, Arlen.

Yuill can play Beson, the tower-keeper:

Man, it feels good to be doing this again! I'm glad to welcome you back to the SKCU and now it's on to taller and darker things as we rejoin the last Gunslinger at the edge of the ocean. But fore-warning you now, before I do a post on that story, I think I have some things to say about the recent Dark Tower movie that may very well require its own post. So that will be next, but as far as castings go...

Next Up: The Dark Tower: The Drawing of the Three!


  1. Lee Pace! Hell yeah.

    I've never heard of Douglas Botoh, but based on that photo, (a) I hate him and (b) he is CGI.

    1. He's a pretty boy, true, but he'd be a fine Peter.

      When I first read The Gunslinger I pictured Gary Oldman as Flagg and once I realized the Man in Black was supposed to be a different character (until he wasn't anymore), I pictured Tim Roth as Walter. Then I realized he was also Randall Flagg and got confused.

      The first time I read The Stand I pictured Billy Bob Thornton as Flagg.

      What did you think of the other actors? Spider-Man as Thomas, etc.