Warning: Those of you who have never read or heard of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, in any of its several forms, will likely have no idea what I’m talking about.
So Idris Elba is the Gunslinger. It’s official. The cameras are rolling. After years and years of false starts, rejected scripts, departing directors, and Hollywood production hell, it’s happening. I’m…cautiously optimistic. Hollywood has broken my heart too many times for me to work up anything approaching outright enthusiasm, but I’m hopeful. But it took me a little while to come around to that. Let me explain.
I have to admit, Idris Elba, at first glance, is an odd choice. Let’s address the elephant in the room right off the bat, shall we? Idris Elba is an excellent actor. He’s a bad-ass. I have no doubt he can carry the role of Roland of Gilead, and truly make it come alive. The thought of him spouting some of Roland’s lines in his low, gravelly voice gives me shivers.
But he’s black, and Roland is white. Let me say right upfront, that doesn’t matter. Does it? I don’t think so, but it took me a couple of weeks to make up my mind. Let’s discuss.
There are some movies where the casting is almost supernaturally good. The Lord of the Rings, for example. It felt like the casting director just peeled my brain open and scooped the characters out onto the screen. It was eerily perfect. Not so Idris Elba. In fact, Elba is jarringly different than what Roland of Gilead looks like in my brain. That’s a fact, for me, and for millions of Dark Tower fans. It’s disingenuous and deeply unfair to call Dark Tower fans racist if they’re having a problem with it. After thirty years of the main character of the series looking one way, in the novel’s descriptions, in Michael Whelan’s wonderful cover art and illustrations, in the dozens of graphic novels, now, without warning, Roland is someone completely different. There is nothing wrong with anybody having a knee-jerk reaction to that.
What if they remade Blade with a white guy? What if they remade Kill Bill with a man? What if they remade Ghostbusters with a bunch of women…oh, wait. Ugh, nevermind.
But anyway, it gets to the heart of the question, how much ownership do fans have over the fantasy worlds they love? We’ve seen, most of all with Star Wars, that owners of an intellectual property are free to make sweeping, unilateral changes to their respective universes, and the fans don’t have a say. I mean, thirty years worth of Star Wars extended universe canon was obliterated with the stroke of a pen. Millions of voices crying out in agony, and then silenced… And I understand why they did it, I do. But it’s a blow when you have such emotional investment in something, and then someone comes and nukes it. It’s rather like renting a home. You get comfortable there, you think you have some say over what happens to it, then one day you find out that you really don’t at all. It can sting.
But it’s not just that, there are story issues as well. Perhaps the most obvious issue with Elba’s casting is that it indicates significant plot revisions. Detta Walker, The racist, wheelchair-bound black woman who features prominently in most of the books, just ain’t going to work if Roland is also black.
But the more I think about it, the more I realize that the Detta you see in the books would never make it to the big screen anyway. Let’s be real. A crazy, violent, racist black woman, spouting vile epithets while she tries to kill the protagonist by virtue of his skin color? This was a character created by Stephen King 30 years ago, likely at the height of his substance abuse problems. The world has come a long way since then. I don’t care who is playing the Gunslinger, if you think the original Detta Walker would make it into a major motion picture in 2016, you’re crazy. You’d likely be hard-pressed to find a self-respecting black woman who’d even agree to play the part.
Detta’s character is an ugly, hurtful stereotype that needs to die. I mean, let’s play the switcheroo game here for a second. What if (due to the casting of Idris Elba as Roland) they made Detta Walker into an ignorant white-trash wheelchair bound racist with Aryan Nation tattoos, screaming “n*gger” at Roland? Her character, of course, still wouldn’t fly. Mark my words: No matter who plays Roland, that entire subplot and character arc is going to be severely revised or axed altogether. And that’s not a bad thing. So, get used to it. And if Detta’s character doesn’t have that particular arc, then Roland’s race truly doesn’t matter to the story. Gilead seems to be a pretty progressive place, after all.
So, the only thing left to worry about is whether the movie is going to suck. Like I said earlier, I’ve been burned too many times to get my hopes up. But I think I can safely say that if this movie does suck, it’s not going to be because of Idris Elba, and certainly not because of the color of his skin.