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There was a time when even Stephen King didn’t think he’d finish the tale of Roland the Gunslinger and his quest to reach The Dark Tower. It took the near-death experience of getting hit by an out-of-control driver to finally spur him toward a resolution.

Now come rumblings that an ambitious plan by Ron Howard to make three movies and two TV mini-series out of the six-shooter-and-sorcery books — first suggested in April 2010 — may never even begin, as Universal Pictures, NBC and Howard’s Imagine Entertainment try to come to terms on how much it should cost, who pays for it, and what they’ll likely get in return.

For weeks, I’ve heard from the studio, “We’re still working it out,” but Variety‘s story yesterday took a pessimistic turn: “They may not.”

This could well be a move by The Dark Tower team to make fans scream “Nooooo!” in the hopes of making Universal and NBC say, “Okay, okay, yes!” Right now, none of them are saying anything on the record, though they’re still talking to each other, which means it’s not doomed yet. Sources close to the development say pre-production employees have been told to temporarily stand-down, and there is little chance they will make their September 2011 target start-date. But everyone expected this moment of doubt to happen sooner or later. One reason for star Javier Bardem’s protracted negotiations for the role of Roland is that the studio didn’t want to commit to him until they were sure they were committing to this project.

There’s a reason Howard’s multi-platform proposal was unique — mounting an epic sci-fi/fantasy trilogy is hard enough, but throw in a pair of TV shows, and the innate violent/adult nature of the story, and quickly the risks mount while potential rewards seem dubious. Nobody has done this before due to the major commitment required when success isn’t anywhere near certain.

What if the first movie bombs? And then there’s a TV show right on its heels? And then two more movies — and another TV season? It would not only be an expensive project to mount, but an expensive one to stop. NBC’s executives know all too well what it’s like to pay through the nose to make something they don’t want anymore go away.

This hesitation is a studio and a television network looking down a very long, very treacherous road and saying, “Maybe an epic quest isn’t for us.”

But that’s what Harvey Weinstein said about Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings. And Game of Thrones seems to be paying off for HBO.

Luckily, in the case of Rings, New Line Cinema stepped up when the Brothers Weinstein backed off, creating one of the greatest trilogies in movie history. Of course, where is the studio now? It collapsed in 2008, partly because of other high-stakes projects that failed to pay off, like spending $180 million on underperformer The Golden Compass.

That’s the danger of something like The Dark Tower. It’s the kind of project where, if it does poorly, people at the company don’t just say, “Ah well, better luck next time” — they start preparing for layoffs.

Even if Universal — which has had a string of bad luck lately, Fast Five notwithstanding — drops the project, it could still get picked up by another, stronger, more daring studio. Warner Bros. is hungry for a replacement for its Harry Potter franchise, though the boy wizard’s success comes from appeal across age-ranges, and The Dark Tower wouldn’t possibly get the kid or family audiences. Or maybe one of the cable channels, willing to take a chance on violent adult fare (like HBO’s Game of Thrones, AMC’s The Walking Dead, Starz’s Spartacus) would take over the project — something many fans would prefer. (J.J. Abrams tried, and failed, to do that once before, but the project could have better luck if tried again, especially thanks to Thrones.)

Whatever the case, it took a near-death experience for King to finish his tale. Now, perhaps, this project’s near-death experience will lead Hollywood to do the same.

For more Stephen King and movie news, follow Anthony Breznican on Twitter @Breznican

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Game of Thrones

HBO's epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.

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