“I was about 8 miles from here when I started to write The Dark Tower” Stephen King said, wearing a cap with the city’s name emblazoned on it. “Bangor is home.” I went to Maine for the first time ever, to see sites and places that have inspired the King of suspense and the supernatural.
King grew up in a little town in southern Maine, “with more graveyards than people,” as he describes it, and no running water. He came to the University of Maine in 1966, and soon he and his wife Tabitha settled in Bangor, with its population of just over 31 000 people.
Taking a tour of the area, with the very knowledgeable and affable Stu Tinker, of SK Tours, you’ll see the influence the area has had on King’s writing – directly or indirectly. From the RM Flagg Kitchen Store on Route 2 – a road King would drive on daily to get to his job as an English teacher at a high school in the next town – to the truck stop that gave him the setting for his short story Trucks, which became Maximum Overdrive, his directorial film debut. The beauty of having Stu as your tour guide is the familiarity he has, as a life-long resident of Bangor.
Stu will tell you that King has never even set foot inside the kitchen store that gave him the name for the overarching evil presence in his books. He’ll show you the exact bench King sat on when he wrote parts of It, in the shadow of the town’s large standpipe. He’ll also let you know if he thinks King will be home as you pull up to the author’s house on West Broadway, with its gargoyle-protected gates and huge lawn.
King wasn’t home when we stopped by, late Tuesday afternoon, to take photos outside Bangor’s most famous house. It’s a stark contrast to the trailer home we’d driven past earlier in the day, where King and his wife first lived, barely able to pay the rent. To see the place where King had written – and then thrown away – the manuscript for Carrie is quite eye-opening. His wife Tabitha fishing it out of the trash is the reason the world today knows him as the master of supernatural and suspense that he is.
We meet King before the cinema screening. He walks into the room, unannounced and unassuming, takes a seat and says: “So I think the way this is supposed to go is that you’re meant to ask me a few questions and I’m meant to sign a few of these.” He takes off the sharpie lid and begins to sign copies of The Gunslinger. The film based on the 8-book-opus has travelled a rocky road to reach the big screen – taking more than a decade and several setbacks to make it. “I never really thought about it that much,” says King, when asked about it. “There were times when people would express an interest in it and then it would go away again, and then interest would come back again when Peter Jackson had success in The Lord of the Rings movie. I thought ‘well, maybe.’ But it never seemed like a movie-movie idea to me.”
King has given the film – and director Nikolaj Arcel – his thumbs up. “It was complex and long, and they’ve done a wonderful job here telling a story that’s coherent and it holds on to the elements of the novel, The Dark Tower. The purists may not like it – I can’t tell about that for sure, because it doesn’t start where the books start. But at the same, they’ll fall right into it because they’ll know exactly what’s going on.”
He believes the film is a chance to look at the novels with fresh eyes. “In the various stories the plots are fairly complex and the characters interact, and they go back and forth, and I think that the screenwriter Aviva Goldsman picked out what seemed to him to be the most accessible and most human relationship – and that’s between this old guy Roland who’s been around for a long, long time, and the kid. And they had wonderful chemistry, and it comes through.”
He’s aware that fans of The Dark Tower are very loyal to his work but that the film is geared towards appealing to others too. “Many decisions had to be made about the film,” he says. “Some of those are related to telling a story that the general public will get, not just the hardcore Dark Tower fans – the guys who show up to the fantasy conventions with Roland tattooed on their arms. Of all the books I’ve written, the fans of The Dark Tower books are the most zealous, the most fervent fans of all, but they make a small sub-group of the people who read books like The Shining or Misery. They’re an acquired taste – they are fantasy, after all!”
Fan reaction has been a constant during the development of the film. When asked about the dissatisfaction some voiced at the casting choice of Idris Elba as Roland Deschain, The Gunslinger, King says he found it problematic. “It’s weird, why shouldn’t Roland be black? Why couldn’t it be a black guy to do this?” King questions. “What I said in a tweet after all that discussion started was that I didn’t care what colour he was, as long as he could command the screen, draw fast and shoot straight. It doesn’t make any difference to me. I don’t even see people when I’m writing, because if I’m writing about a character, I’m behind their eyes. Unless they walk by a mirror or something, I don’t even see what they look like.” He went on to add: “You know what’s weirder than that…you know this show, Game of Thrones? They’re all British! I mean, Westeros is basically England and nobody ever questions that. To me, the idea that a black man would play Roland is minor compared to that.”
King does hope the next iterations of the story becomes R-rated. “I understand the rationale to make it PG13 – you want to get as many people into the tent, but I really think that’s where the movies need to go now.”
As for where he goes next, King is looking forward to touring a book he wrote with his son, Sleeping Beauties. “It’s nice to be able to write a book with your son,” he says. “He told me what to do and I did it. It’s a preview of the old age home,” he chuckles, before putting his Bangor cap back on and exiting the movie theatre.