Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Continuity and Tradition, Part V

In a comment on my recent post about the upcoming Conan film, Charles Rice makes an interesting point:
Conan ... has really been a more popular fictional universe, more akin to characters like Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Batman or Superman.

Many authors and artists have interpreted the character, and many of those interpretations have taken root in the general consciousness.

When printing Howard's stories, I think all that stuff (de Camp, Lin Carter, Frazetta, Roy Thomas) should be kept at bay.

When making a movie, I think it needs to be considered, because a certain percentage of the audience will only know Conan from those other sources. [Italics mine - JDM]
Charles's point is interesting on several levels. I actually agree that a great many people, perhaps even the vast majority of them, don't know the real Conan. They've never read a word of REH and probably never will. To them, "Conan the Barbarian" -- a moniker I have come to dislike rather strongly -- is, effectively (or literally, in some cases), a comic book character brought to life by a succession of bodybuilders-turned-actors.

What's ironic is that, whenever an author's work is popularized by Hollywood, criticisms of the liberties taken with the source material are often dismissed by claiming that "by getting X out into public consciousness, it'll draw people back to the original," the implication seemingly that the original material is incapable of succeeding on its own merits or, less strongly, that it's somehow unsuitable to popular tastes. If this line of thinking ever actually bore fruit -- and I welcome examples to the contrary -- I might be willing to stomach it. But, from where I'm sitting, every time Howard (or any other author) gets bastardized under cover of "this will draw people back to the Real Thing," it only reinforces popular misconceptions and makes it that much more difficult for the genuine article ever to enter the popular imagination. Conan is Exhibit A in just the kind of miscommunication I was talking about last week. Who is Conan? I'd wager that a large percentage of the English-speaking world "knows" Conan, who, as Charles rightly notes is now a pop-cultural icon like Sherlock Holmes or Dracula, but is that really Conan? Or is it, as I would contend, a caricature of Howard's creation, a mere shade of a far more complex literary creation that deserves to be better known and appreciated in its own right?

What's so frustrating about this new Conan movie is that it's being made after a generation-long critical re-evaluation of Robert E. Howard as a writer, culminating in his short stories being canonized by Penguin Classics and included in a collection of fantastic tales published by the prestigious Library of America. Freed from the shackles of pastiche (thanks in no small part to the pioneering work of none other than Karl Edward Wagner), Conan -- and his creator -- have finally come into their own, being judged for what they truly are rather than for what others claimed that they are. Conan is not so strange a character nor his adventures so esoteric that they could not be faithfully adapted to film -- or at least more faithfully than we've seen to date. Why, in this day and age, when Howard's writings are more well regarded and critically appraised than ever, must the shadow of L. Sprague de Camp still fall over the Cimmerian?

If asking for a film in which Conan is recognizably the character created by Robert E. Howard and whose plot is drawn substantially from an actual story in which the character appears is "way too high a bar," as Charles suggests, is it any wonder that I'm so down on Hollywood these days?

65 comments:

  1. nice point, James, and precisely the one I have made repeatedly - and without success - to all of those fans of films like Braveheart and Gladiator, which, even if they might 'draw people to the originals,' so distort the mentality of their characters and era as to render them completely unrecognizable to even an amateur historian

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  2. I'm doing my part: just taught "Phoenix on the Sword," "Tower of the Elephant," "Queen of the Black Coast," "Black Colossus," "Rogues in the House," "Beyond the Black River," and "Red Nails" in my fantasy literature class. Can't guarantee that all of the students loved Howard or came to appreciate his complexity, but clearly some did. I suspect the larger problem is that the renaissance in Howard studies is still small peanuts in terms of cultural awareness: the Del Rey collections have been selling, but not at a rate to radically upset the applecart and draw mainstream attention to themselves.

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  3. Perhaps the critical re-evaluation of Howard's stories is the driving force behind the film? Some screenwriter reads Conan, thinks "I can do this better than the other hacks!" and writes a screenplay.

    More likely to my cynical mind is that some studio exec thought: "Conan! We haven't hit up that cash cow in a while! Kids are all about fantasy these days, what with that "World of Warcraft" and "Harry Potter". We can probably sex it up a bit, put in some CGI dragons and some half-naked ladies. Oh, and nothing says Conan like a muscular man in the loincloth. We'll make a killing!"

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  4. I think there are actually two different issues here. First, does a movie adaptation, even a poor one, bring fans back to the source? I think the answer can be yes, but only if the viewer is interested in the source genre. For example, my interest in Conan went from the movie, to the comics, and from there to Howard's originals. My interest in Dracula was similar, having seen many movies of varying quality before reading the novel, but the interest in the novel came from my exposure to the character.

    But in all these cases, I was a fan of the right things. If I were only an action movie buff, my interest in Conan would not have gone farther than the movie. But I am a sci-fi and fantasy fan.

    The second question is, does this excuse bad movie making? Or even good movie making that distorts the character to the point that the source is unrecognizable? To me, the answer is "no". If your goal is to bring someone's literary work to the screen, then do that. What attracted you to that story will attract others. There is no reason to believe that a Conan movie faithful to Howard's writing won't go over well with the fans. The problem is that all too often the makers of these movies don't care about the source material, they just want the name recognition for their movie.

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  5. A big problem, of course, is that movies ain't books. And Conan-loving geeks like myself ain't the general population. A filmmaker has to pitch his movie to producers and other folks with gimlet eyes on the bottom line. "Do I make a movie that will make 10,000 Conan fans happy, or do I make one that will extract cash from a wider segment of the population?" If the filmmaker wants the movie made, the former is not a viable option.

    This is not to say that you can't make a movie that is both faithful to the source material and can please a lot of people. But it is extremely difficult. A very smart person once said, "Movies ain't books." Hey! That was me!

    I am glad that Howard is starting to get more recognition for his Conan stories. But those stories still haven't captured the popular imagination. I love 'em, but so what?

    Finally, because I love your blog (really! I do!), I'm going to snarkily point out that a movie about a burly barbarian communicating telepathically at considerable length with a mutant elephant-man doesn't sound like particularly gripping cinema.

    Cheers!

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  6. "If this line of thinking ever actually bore fruit -- and I welcome examples to the contrary -- I might be willing to stomach it."

    This is a very piercing observation. I would also be eager for positive examples.

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  7. Well, I would love to see a movie about Howard's Conan.

    And actually James, you rather substantially misrepresented what I said in your last paragraph.

    I never said that a movie about a Conan that was "recognizably Howardian" was setting the bar too high.

    What I said was that what you were asking for was setting the bar too high.

    That wasn't a character we would recognize as Howard's Conan.

    What you were asking for was turning one of Howard's short stories into a movie, starring someone that Frank Frazetta or Barry Windsor-Smith would never draw.

    That, to my mind, is as unrealistic as wanting an Iron Man movie to be about Tony Stark supplying arms to our boys in Viet Nam to keep that last domino from falling.

    You can like it or not, but some characters are larger than the stories in which they are born.

    Every generation reinvents Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, King Arthur, Superman, Batman, and yes, Conan.

    This doesn't erase those original stories in which they appeared from existence.

    In point of fact, each reinterpretation is adding to the legend, which is what I think is being missed here.

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  8. One other obstacle to moving Conan to film is that in some sense he's a pretty simplistic character. By contemporary standards he is a pragmatic man with a wealth of skills and physical gifts and virtually no significant weaknesses. This in contrast to Holmes' drug use and social handicaps and Dracula's emotional and physical weaknesses. Conan is more akin to Superman and Tarzan, both of whom struggle to make it to the screen without serious adjustment.

    This is not to disparage Howard but it might suggest that there are better targets for making the jump from pulp to cinema - Khlit the Cossack comes to mind.

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  9. I'm doing my part: just taught "Phoenix on the Sword," "Tower of the Elephant," "Queen of the Black Coast," "Black Colossus," "Rogues in the House," "Beyond the Black River," and "Red Nails" in my fantasy literature class.

    Bless you.

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  10. If you read the reviews of the recent Rob Downey's take on Sherlock Holmes you would notice that this is indeed the problem. Many reviewers complained about the physicality of Downey's portrayal, and that it was too action-oriented. However, if you read the books, you will notice that this is actually closer to the original than the version of him that have become popular in film.

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  11. I'm going to snarkily point out that a movie about a burly barbarian communicating telepathically at considerable length with a mutant elephant-man doesn't sound like particularly gripping cinema.

    Nothing snarky about that at all, in my opinion. Much as I love "The Tower of the Elephant," it's definitely not a short story I'd consider ideal for adaptation to the big screen.

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  12. James: If this line of thinking ever actually bore fruit -- and I welcome examples to the contrary -- I might be willing to stomach it.

    1. Batman- turned into a campy 60's sitcom. Enhanced the popularity of the character.

    2. King Arthur- too many examples of this to name. I guess I'd use Once and Future King and the Boorman film Excalibur as highlights that, while as different as one could ever imagine from Geoffrey of Monmouth, still introduced the character to new generations.

    3. Iron Man- The ultimate cold warrior turned into a modern, foppish jetsetter.

    4. West Side Story- don't even get me started with the license this took. Totally ruined the franchise forever.

    I could go on for quite awhile actually. It's really not that hard to see examples of liberal interpretations bringing in new fans.

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  13. And actually James, you rather substantially misrepresented what I said in your last paragraph.

    In my defense, I think I misread you, but you have my apologies nonetheless. I certainly don't want to put words in your mouth.

    That, to my mind, is as unrealistic as wanting an Iron Man movie to be about Tony Stark supplying arms to our boys in Viet Nam to keep that last domino from falling.

    Here I think you're misunderstanding what I want out of a Conan film. I don't expect there to be no changes, including concessions to contemporary sensibilities. That's a given and one I readily admit. What I don't want and don't think is necessary is a wholesale rewriting of the character and turning Conan into yet another "last of his kind" bent on revenge is just that. The shifting of the timeframe of Tony Stark's arms dealing from Viet Nam to Afghanistan doesn't substantially change his character in the same way.

    Every generation reinvents Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, King Arthur, Superman, Batman, and yes, Conan.

    And some of those reinventions go against the grain of the character rather than merely highlighting one aspect over another. Those reinventions I'd have no hesitation to denounce, as I often have. So far, nearly every indication is that the new Conan film will follow a similar trajectory.

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  14. 1. Batman- turned into a campy 60's sitcom. Enhanced the popularity of the character.

    I'll grant there's definitely some truth to this.

    2. King Arthur- too many examples of this to name. I guess I'd use Once and Future King and the Boorman film Excalibur as highlights that, while as different as one could ever imagine from Geoffrey of Monmouth, still introduced the character to new generations.

    Comparing any version of Arthur to Monmouth's is, I think, unfair, since you're talking more about a "proto-Arthur" at that stage than the Arthur of Romance, which is quite recognizable in both the films you cited, no matter what their individual emphases.

    3. Iron Man- The ultimate cold warrior turned into a modern, foppish jetsetter.

    Perhaps. I'm not an Iron Man fan, so I can't argue this one way or the other.

    4. West Side Story- don't even get me started with the license this took. Totally ruined the franchise forever.

    Now you're being disingenuous. In truth, I'd rather that a new "Conan" film go the route of West Side Story, which at least didn't claim to be Shakespeare.

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  15. Smarch: Finally, because I love your blog (really! I do!), I'm going to snarkily point out that a movie about a burly barbarian communicating telepathically at considerable length with a mutant elephant-man doesn't sound like particularly gripping cinema.

    This is part of the problem for everyone wanting to see a Howard story translated directly to the big screen.

    Howard was not a screenwriter. He wrote great characters and amazing settings.

    This is not the same as writing a great work of dramatic fiction.

    Tower of the Elephant is actually one of the more suitable of Howard's original 17 stories to become a drama.

    But it's not that suitable.

    Similarly, Phoenix on the Sword, another likely candidate (imo), sees the protagonist and the villains circle each other for most of the tale, before their confrontation is short circuited by the surprise escape of Thoth Amon.

    I think one of the reasons we've yet to see an attempt at a "Bram Stoker's Dracula" take on a true Howard adaptation is precisely due to how hard it would be.

    You also have a licensee (the estate) that doesn't seem willing to DEMAND of a movie studio they attempt a true adaptation, as the Tolkien estate did.

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  16. James: Comparing any version of Arthur to Monmouth's is, I think, unfair, since you're talking more about a "proto-Arthur" at that stage than the Arthur of Romance, which is quite recognizable in both the films you cited, no matter what their individual emphases.

    True. On the other hand, is there any "classic" version of Arthur those two works I selected DOES resemble?

    Even if we were to jettison Geoffrey Monmouth's Arthur, it's hard to argue we should jettison Mallory's, and I certainly didn't see a lot of that in Boorman's film either.

    And yeah, the West Side Story reference was my attempt at subtle internet humor ;)

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  17. James wrote:

    Bless you.

    You're welcome. I should return the favor and note that Grognardia has got me seriously considering an Honors Seminar or topics course devoted to "swords and sorcery." Howard's in print now, Leiber's back, Planet Stories has the Jirel collection, the new Elric omnibuses are all available, and so on. Now sure how I'd fit CAS into that lineup, but then I could always deviate to a class on "weird tales," Old and New.

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  18. Even if we were to jettison Geoffrey Monmouth's Arthur, it's hard to argue we should jettison Mallory's, and I certainly didn't see a lot of that in Boorman's film either.

    It will perhaps not surprise you to learn I am not a fan of Excalibur, but, that said, its basic structure is recognizably Mallory's, with some details borrowed from Chretien de Troyes and other sources in the tradition. To my mind, it's a heck of a lot closer to the Arthur of Romance than any film adaptation of Conan has ever been.

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  19. I think the problem with the modern approach to reintroducing famous fictional characters is all about treating character as a brand.

    A brand can be sold not on actual substance but rather on name recognition and vague brand inertia.

    To sum up, a crappy story can make money because of the Conan brand whereas the actual Robert E. Howard Conan character is entertaining and has value because of the writer's actual characterization of Conan and the adventures in which he comes to life.

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  20. Actually, Batman is an example of how holding closer to the original concept is a strong selling point. The Adam West series, while campy, fun, and popular at the time, was also largely responsible for the character being dismissed from being worth serious interest. Batman was relegated to being a joke to anyone outside the comic book world.

    It wasn't until Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns that we saw Batman being seriously looked at outside of comic circles, and then Tim Burton really brought Batman into the public's view. The Batman of Miller and Burton, that worked so well with the public, were much closer to Bob Kane's Batman than Adam West's show was.

    Then the movie franchise was run into the ground, while straying further from the source. But the recent movies have greatly re-ignited interest in Batman, and both new movies have made an attempt to get back to the core concept.

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  21. What is truly remarkable about this conversation is how infinitely more interesting it is than the contract I'm currently drafting.

    Howard was not a screenwriter. He wrote great characters and amazing settings.

    This is not the same as writing a great work of dramatic fiction.


    That was a concise and understandable statement of what I was babbling on about.

    One of the reasons you cast Ahnold as Conan is that the audience can immediately identify with him and root for him (although to be fair, Shwarzenegger was not hugely popular at the time of the first film). In contrast, how would a filmmaker quickly set up Conan's character in such a way as to get folks cheering for him? What do you do to make viewers care about him within the confines of the stories? And quickly?

    It'd be a touch nut to make a Conan movie directly from the stories. The stories are not really stories, they're scenes. Conan shows no growth, makes few choices, and doesn't talk much. That's great for the SyFy Channel. For Universal Studios, not so much.

    The closest analogy I can think to the Conan stories would be the Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns. I'm not sure there is a market for that kind of movie any more.

    Please, let's keep this conversation going so I can keep goofing off at work.

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  22. Ya know, I can't say anymore about this what I've already said about the Conan movie. But I will say this...

    WINTER HAS BEEN GREENLIT!

    http://www.thrfeed.com/2010/03/hbo-greenlights-game-of-thrones-.html

    Back to the discussion...

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  23. REH is one of my favourite authors, S&S my favourite genre, James among my favorite bloggers.

    And by favourite I mean esteemed, not just chocolate-ice-cream-is-my-favourite type favourite.

    But I think you're on your high horse over this one James and I think it's a long way down with very little visible support.

    I'm not hoping to be contentious but Conan a complex character? Really? REH's brilliance does not, in any of his stories I ever read, stem from his complex characterization. His genius lies in other areas.

    And the whole idea that the makers of this movie have some kind of notion (or implicit obligation) to use their film as an opportunity to "bring their audience back to the source" strikes me as nonsensical.

    Yes, Carter & de Camp have made careers producing steaming piles of doo-doo and then sneering at the very author and works they've been living off in so shamelessly and so necrophagically for decades.

    Yes, there are bad movies made. All the time. Because 98% of everything, as Sturgeon points out, is crap. It's just hard to make good art. Sometimes even with the best intentions, shitloads of talent and lotsa time and money thrown at it.

    But the only duty film-makers have is to fill their own personal briefs, whether that's to make a return for their investors or to make the best movie they can or to fulfill their own artistic vision or whatever the hell mix of these they decide it is for this movie.

    They really don't have any obligation to be true to yours or my personal interpretation of their source material, no matter how strong a sense of (ultimately misplaced IMO) ownership we feel over that material.

    So the movie's coming out. Go see it or not, as you wish.

    But why get steamed up over it before you've even seen it? You might be pleasantly surprised. Or at the very least vindicated ;)

    And if you really feel strongly about it, write your own REH script. I'm not being snide. Gird your loins and do NaNoWriMo ScriptFrenzy or something. I'll be the first to yay you on.

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  24. Tom: It wasn't until Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns that we saw Batman being seriously looked at outside of comic circles, and then Tim Burton really brought Batman into the public's view. The Batman of Miller and Burton, that worked so well with the public, were much closer to Bob Kane's Batman than Adam West's show was.

    Well I guess we can agree to disagree on this then, because I think Frank Miller's version of Batman is just as warped a rendition of the original as the 60's sitcom.

    And like the sitcom, Miller's vision of Batman was popular enough that the comics incorporated it into the mainstream, which might be why you perceive it as the "real" Batman.

    I mean, reasonable people can certainly disagree, but I can't see a scenario in which "the real" Batman would try to off Superman, thereby turning him into Quasimodo.

    In fact, Miller's Batman has almost nothing to do with Denny O'neill's Batman, which had almost nothing to do with the campy Gardner Fox Batman which... well, you get the idea.

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  25. Movies that brought the material to a wider audience [not that that's their brief ;) ;)]

    The 800-lb gorrilla: LoTR

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  26. I use Miller and Burton as examples because their Batman was closer in concept to Kane's idea of a dark avenger, and because they developed fans outside of the traditional fan base for the genre. O'Neil's work also follows Kane's in concept, and holds to it much closer than Miller's Dark Knight did, but lacked the cross-genre exposure. That's why I used Miller instead of O'Neil as an example.

    Batman has been too many things to define a "real" Batman, but you can draw comparisons between different versions and what Kane was doing.

    What I'm really going for is that the versions of the character that have the most popularity over the widest base of fans, and that are also profitable, have held closer to the original concept.

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  27. I wholeheartedly agree that a movie that has nothing to do with a book isn’t the way to promote the book. Oh, it will likely do so, but... Well, we all know that isn’t the reason movies are made.

    Is Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian any more legitimate than the generic Conan the Barbarian that has emerged? Maybe. Maybe not.

    What I wonder, James, is why you’d want to see a Conan movie at all.

    My problem with a Conan movie is that I just don’t see the point. Filmmakers: Come up with your own names for your characters.

    Heck, even if someone did a faithful film adaption of Howard’s Conan, it wouldn’t be as good as a non-Conan film inspired by Howard. e.g. Consider the Dune film vs. Star Wars.

    (Sure, Dune wasn’t the only—or even primary—influence, but that’s another factor that makes Star Wars the better film.)

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  28. "the implication seemingly that the original material is incapable of succeeding on its own merits or, less strongly, that it's somehow unsuitable to popular tastes."

    Why worry about implications? To my mind, more Howard readers is a good thing in and of itself. Where they come from is incidental.

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  29. After seeing the original Conan movie and at the time playing a huge amount of D&D i tried to find the original to read. Of course being the mid eighties there was no Howard Conan Collection in the library and no internet to expalin why the Conan books at the library were all writen by someone else.

    I wanted to start with what i thought was the first "novel" of the series and of course couldn't find it because it didn't exist so i am one example of someone driven to the source material from a movie even if i couldn't find it.

    Now after some 13 yearold kids sees the movie and googles it they will get exposed to the true howard easily and with a couple of clicks be able to order the Conan omnibus off of Amazon.

    so even if it sucks it will draw folks to the real deal. Just like the 80's version did for me.

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  30. I still don't understand why "Beyond the Back River" or "A Which Shall Be Born" or whatever couldn't be used as a basis for the film.

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  31. A point that hasn't been brought up is copyright. A studio legal team will counsel against using an REH tale rather than coming up with a "new Conan the Barbarian" story. REH's original tales are acknowledged as having passed into the public domain throughout much of the world. The name "Conan the Barbarian" on the other hand, has been trademarked by Paradox Entertainment. Corporate entertainment entities greatly prefer deals involving exclusive rights.

    If Warner Brother's were to make an REH-based Conan film that was wildly successful, there would be little to stop another entity with its own legal team from releasing their own REH-based Conan film, book, comic, game, etc. versions of the same REH tale.

    A sad state of affairs for a premiere heroic fantasy character and world.

    As for the argument that REH's Conan doesn't lend himself to the film medium due to his lack of character depth, please re-read the original tales then consider films like THE ROAD WARRIOR, LAST OF THE MOHICANS, the various versions of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, the James Bond franchise, the MAN WITH NO NAME franchise, etc. All of these are very successful, primarily plot-driven movies.

    Capture the mood, atmosphere and ferocious energy of REH's stories and you would have a fantastic Conan film.

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  32. the genuine article

    the discussions of Holmes, Batman and Arthur above have done most of the work for me on this. It seems like I've ended up writing an essay anyway, though.

    Those three examples are great illustrations of how the search for the "genuine," "authentic" arche of any story is problematic. It's easier to make a case for a "genuine" Conan because there's a recognisable canon of REH stories and the amount of subsequent layering is comparatively small, but the basic issue is the same: Conan lives as an idea in the popular imagination. Every adaptation moves that idea away from its previous forms. Every adaptation is therefore dangerous to the idea/character, but also becomes an inextricable part of it. One can politick and make arguments for one or another interpretation; one can play the "back to the origin" card, but there is nothing inherently more genuine or authentic about doing so. Sometimes this "redicovery" maneuver gives the pendulum a forceful swing "back," but the result may be no more "genuine:" the Dark Knights of the 90s (Arkham Asylum, Killing Joke et al) were a lot darker and more Freudian than any Kane canon; Holmes' social awkwardness and drug use were pretty small aspects of the character in comparison with Jeremy Brett's paranoid junkie or Downey's Aspergian manipulator.

    The real giveaway here, though, is the use of "proto-Arthur" to describe Geoffrey of Monmouth. This is clear ex-post-facto construction of authenticity: how can one judge, at 6 centuries and more remove, which Arthur is authentic and fully-revealed - properly cooked? Far more than this, through what veils and filters do we read Malory? How does our imagined Arthur compare with his, when we are reading his words? Can we claim to be free of the influences of Boorman or Taylor or Burne-Jones or Scott or Henry VIII or, on the other hand, of Green, Littleton or Ashe? And if we do so claim, what new Arthur are we unwittingly inventing or indulging in?

    I'm not arguing for a complete abdication on the part of readers and audiences to whatever film-makers choose to feed us. We can be critical, and we can prefer what we identify as "original" versions, but I'm afraid the problem of perception is more fundamental and far-reaching than James makes out: Conan really is no longer the character REH saw in his mind's eye, and attempts to freeze him in that form are doomed and probably misguided.

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  33. BTW, I'm all for stomaching fruit. Even if it's a bit cheesy.

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  35. I tend to have little time for people making excuses about Howard being "uncinematic" or "too difficult to adapt". You people must be reading entirely different stories from me.

    Take "The Tower of the Elephant" for example. How can Smarch consider Conan's talk with Yag-Kosha unsuitable for the big screen? I certainly wouldn't. In a film version, I can see this being visualised with Yogah's narration: battles with the Kings of Yag, the flight through space, warring with dinosaurs, all that jazz.

    Second, there's the idea that a Conan based on the Howard stories will not be financially viable. How exactly can we know this, when nobody's even TRIED to make an adaptation close to REH? When somebody makes a close-to-REH adaptation which then tanks, then maybe we could talk about how REH isn't "ideal for cinema."

    Dr Mike: I would dispute the idea of Conan being a simplistic character. He's a man of many contradictions: disdain for civilization, yet willing to explore its mysteries and knowledge, and take advantage of its fruits, as just one example.

    Then there's him having "no significant weaknesses": surely his naivete to civilized duplicity in the thief stories is a pretty fundamental weakness? There are plenty of people in history with wealths of skills and physical gifts will minor weaknesses. In fact, I'd say that artificially creating weaknesses is as bad as having fewer weaknesses.

    I'm in the same boat as James. Changes between medium are inevitable. This I understand and accept. What I don't believe this should extend to is a complete and utter rewrite of the character's history, motivations, characterisation, even appearance and setting. Which is what Conan the Barbarian was, and what the upcoming Conan film really looks like it's going to be.

    Yes, every generation reinvents Holmes, Dracula, Arthur, Superman, and Batman. However, in each case, the new generation is grounded in some measure of the original. Batman's parents are always shot outside a public venue, he always has the Wayne fortune, he always has Alfred and the Batmobile and the Batcave. Superman's always from Krypton, he's always super-strong/fast/has a costume, he's always raised by the Kents in Smallville, Kansas.

    Conan's history changes in just about every iteration. Sometimes his parents die as a child and he's sold into slavery. Sometimes his parents are turned to stone and he has to undo the curse. Sometimes his homeland and parents are enslaved and he has to free them. I fail to see how this makes them in any way close enough to be considered Conan outside of name.

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  36. Chuck, I think while there are some *elements* of Conan stories that would be difficult, I certainly don't see any as hard as Dracula, with its epistolary style and structure. If nothing else, some of the stories are too short, and would need either combining with others, or some expansion.

    Smarch: are you seriously saying Conan doesn't show growth? Conan shows plenty of growth, arguably in a far more natural way: through the stories, not the course of a single one. The naive thief is different from the violent thug, who is different from the savvy mercenary, who is different from the wily adventurer, who is different from the responsible and selfless king. "No choices?" Plenty of life-or-death choices to choose from. "Doesn't talk much"? Hardly loquacious, but neither is he monosyllabic.

    Mr Ferguson, if James is on his high horse, he has a fellow horseman right here. Conan's complexity is subtle and easily missed: the contradictions one could assume to be errors or mischaracterisation on Howard's part are too internally consistent to be written off. Now, that's not to say Conan's Hamlet or Lady Macbeth, but he's certainly not simplistic either.

    Mr Fisher: depends what you mean by legitimate. However, the mere fact that Howard was first (let alone unquestionably the best) iteration of the character puts him on a different level from later. The later Conans are by their definition derivations of the original: while this doesn't mean automatic superiority (no way Bob Kane's Batman is better than early Miller's or Moore's), it does mean a certain amount of deference.

    And, again, how will we know if a faithful REH adaptation wouldn't be as good as a non-Conan film inspired by Howard... if nobody's tried?

    Tony: well, the same could be said for this very production. I'd say if a Conan film is successful, whether it's based on REH or not, there would be little to stop another entity with its own legal team from releasing their own REH-based Conan film/comic/game/etc. I'd welcome it, personally.

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  37. Superman's always from Krypton

    I must recommend Jess Nevins' paper, "Those Who Cannot Remember Doc Savage Are Condemned To Repeat Him: The 20th Century Backlash Against Posthuman Bodybuilders." in mp3 form here. Well worth your time, not only for the footnote that Superman started out as a gang-busting workers' rights defender without a whiff of extraterrestriality.

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  38. Of course, the reason why the Conan origin story keeps changing is that Howard never said much about what Conan did before he left Cimmeria. The Miller/Clark chronology is the only one that Howard vetted and approved:

    Conan, the barbarian, was born into a clan claiming an area in the northwest of Cimmeria. His grandfather was a member of a southern tribe who fled from his own people because of a blood-feud, and after long wanderings took refuge with the people of the north. Conan himself was born on the battlefield, during a fight between his tribe and a horde of raiding Vanir. There is no record to show when he got his first sight of civilized people; however, at the age of 15, he received his baptism of blood at the siege of the border city of Venarium, between Gunderland and Cimmeria.

    -- from A Probable Outline of Conan's Career

    Add to this the reference in one of the Howard stories to Conan's father's career as a blacksmith (I forgot which story this is from), and you've got pretty much every detail Howard himself developed.

    So I'm seeing a 15 year gap between Conan's birth and Venarium that leaves things wide open for the interpretations of subsequent writers.

    Of course, why every hero movie has to have an origin story is beyond me.

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  39. Who is Conan? A character from the imagination of a mentally unstable racist with an Oedipus complex who wrote stories of his barbarian while the shade of Conan 'stood' behind him.

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  40. I know many people who would never have read LoTR who were drawn to it by the movies, which were very successful at this.

    I don't believe that this is important, but it definitely works. And since everyone in the world knows that movie adaptations of their favourite book are inaccurate, they read the original with an open mind.

    I go to movies based on books to see how someone else interpreted what I read. I don't go to complain that they didn't interpret it my way. Who is to say my interpretation of A Wizard of Earthsea is the right one? If it's so precious to me that anyone else's view will offend me, I won't go and watch the movie. I know someone who won't watch Gormenghast because he doesn't want his own view of the book to be coloured by anyone else's interpretation.

    Others' interpretations of a book, movie or comic only ever add to the original.

    Especially for a lot of comics, which were trash to start with and can only ever be trash. If you're taking batman or judge dredd seriously, you need more help than even the best movie adaptation can provide.

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  41. Taranaich: great point and strikes directly to one of my principle hopes whenever I see a great franchise fondled by Hollyweird.

    Richard: great link!

    Any REH story could, and would, have to be adapted to play to the strengths of the new medium. That is the art of cinema or any other medium - playing to the strengths of its presentation without fundamentally changing the story. And that is where I usually find fault - instead of adapting REH's creation, I see wholesale changes. Do we have to see Conan's father to understand the character? Do we really need another dose of pop-barbarian psychotherapy to have a satisfying movie?

    I'd love to see an adaptation of RED NAILS on the screen, but I don't hold out any real hope for it.

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  42. Who is Conan? A character from the imagination of a mentally unstable racist with an Oedipus complex who wrote stories of his barbarian while the shade of Conan 'stood' behind him.

    Mr De Camp? Is that you?

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  43. Of course, why every hero movie has to have an origin story is beyond me.

    You and me both. Origin stories tend to reduce a character rather than flesh him out in my experience.

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  44. To be honest, I'm not that interested in whether the conan movie sticks closely to the original text.

    I'm much more interested in how the movie diverges from the original text and what that says about today's contemporary society and popular culture.

    The cultural history of Conan, like the cultural history of James Bond or G.I.Joe, tells us something about ourselves, what we value, and what we want our heroes/heroines to be

    Each generation reinvents these characters to suit their needs. That's what this is really about.

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  45. I still don't understand why "Beyond the Back River" or "A Which Shall Be Born" or whatever couldn't be used as a basis for the film.

    I agree. I think "Beyond the Black River" would be eminently filmable and a roaring good movie to boot.

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  46. A point that hasn't been brought up is copyright.

    That's an interesting angle I hadn't considered. I'm not sure that is the explanation of what's going on here, but it's intriguing to consider.

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  47. Conan really is no longer the character REH saw in his mind's eye, and attempts to freeze him in that form are doomed and probably misguided.

    It's not about "freezing" him, though, so much as hoping that a filmmaker might be willing to do more than swipe some proper names from Howard and slap them on to characters and stories that have nothing to do with their putative inspirations. I think it'd be possible to come up with original Conan stories to use in a film and I have nothing against such a thing, even in principle. But why must these stories run so counter to the character's Howardian origins?

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  48. Yes, every generation reinvents Holmes, Dracula, Arthur, Superman, and Batman. However, in each case, the new generation is grounded in some measure of the original. Batman's parents are always shot outside a public venue, he always has the Wayne fortune, he always has Alfred and the Batmobile and the Batcave. Superman's always from Krypton, he's always super-strong/fast/has a costume, he's always raised by the Kents in Smallville, Kansas.

    We Howard aficionados should be so lucky as to have Conan reinvented every generation as well as Batman or Superman.

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  49. in re copyright: I thought James' complaint was less about the lack of a screen version of a specific Conan story than it was a complaint about the vision and mentality of the screen Conans, and how they do not come close to the Conan of REH, of whatever period of the Cimmerian's life. If so, then the copyright issue is moot, for one could easily imagine a non-canon Conan story (indeed, there are many potential plots available through gaming and especially the OSR) which accurately represented the spirit of Howard's Conan. [of course to use the name at all, one must have some sort of license]

    Interesting that discussion has mostly focused on fictional characters (see my initial post on the same issues in 'historical' cinema) - but maybe that's just too big a kettle of fish to open.

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  50. Taranaich,

    If you're reading Conan for the character development and growth, IMO you're reading it all, all wrong.

    And that's the point: in my opinion. That anyone would a) be able to, and b) even want to read a REH story for anything other than the raw vitality that leaps from the page is to me incomprehensible. No matter how I try, I just can't see how it can be done.

    But so what? That's your thing, so power to you. But it does highlight the futility of nailing the "true" Conan, much less holding others accountable for adhering to that (i.e. your) truth.

    And for the record: I do think a movie that captures the "elemental" Conan would be a both a very, very cool movie and even a profitable one. Why not? After all, the real Conan has already worked on the big screen as Dirty Harry and John McClane (just to name two).

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  51. I wonder if "People of the Black Circle" would work as a film: you've got a number of sizable female parts in that along with the Black Seers.

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  52. I think we're largely talking past one another here. Imagine that! And on the internet!

    Non sequitur -

    I love Conan stories. Most of the folks who posted here love Conan stories. And yet, this might come as a shock to some of you, but I think it just barely possible -- just barely!! -- that we are an atypical collection of the general movie-going population.

    I stand by my earlier statement that a movie about that elephant thing would not be a blockbuster. Great written tale, sure. But a very weird movie. I also disagree that Conan shows any significant character growth throughout his career. So he gets wise to city folk. Is that growth? I guess so, if you consider not touching a stove after you've been burned on it "growth". Conan is basically the same impulsive barbarian as either King or Thief. And that's great! I'm not reading Conan for character.

    For me, a classic example of character growth through events is Jaime Lannister. By the end of the fourth book, Jaime is a completely different person than the one boinking his sister at Ned Stark's house. He still isn't particularly likable, but he has changed. Conan, on the other hand, is the same person wearing a different hat.

    So here we are, two rabid Conan fans, and we can't agree on fundamental aspects of Mr. Conan's character. I'm not sure a fancy-shmancy Hollywood director would make either one of us happy. Is he wrong to even try?

    Cheers!

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  53. @Paul:

    That gives me a great idea - what if you had a game where Conan, Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins could team up and have adventures in a place that was like World of Warcraft?

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  54. @James:

    Maybe some fans should do a project like the 2005 'Call of Cthulhu' movie?

    Although they had the advantage that it's easier to find fans that are spindly, sick and haunted-looking than ones who move with panther-like grace :)

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  55. "the implication seemingly that the original material is incapable of succeeding on its own merits"

    isn't this always kind of implied when you make a book into a movie? what's special about books is that they make a world out of words. when you ask for a movie based on a book, you're saying, "the words are not enough-- I need some pictures and music to help me see the world."

    I know there's more to it than that- but what? If a faithful Conan movie were made, what wish would it fulfill?

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  56. Those poor Hollywood directors!

    James, why do you oppress them so with your entirely unreasonable and impractical demand for fidelity in adapting Conan to film? Can't you see they're just patriots who yearn to be free of your tyrannical standards?

    Aren't we all tired of the soul-crushing monotony of one faithful adaptation after another? Surely after a century of totalitarian adherence to complete, slavish fidelity to source material, can't someone, somewhere show us the true meaning of freedom by just once making a film that takes at least a few liberties with the source?

    James, why can't Conan be that one, first film to break free? For the love of God, man, in the end have you no decency?

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  57. I have to agree with Smarch.

    "I love Conan stories. Most of the folks who posted here love Conan stories....but I think...that we are an atypical collection of the general movie-going population."

    The vast majority of the movie going populace just doesn’t care. They want a cool action flick with flashing swords and chain-mail bikinis. They aren't there for this theoretical subtle character growth which, because it occurs over several stories, couldn't be portrayed effectively in the movie anyway. A tempest in a teaspoon.

    I made a comment on another post about arm-chair quarterbacking. I still stand by this. The product isn’t finished, the script is - apparently - not set and suddenly the lead is looking better, literally, than previously. I am a staunch Conan fan but I don’t have the emotional investment that others seem to have in this so I’ll wait for the final product before passing judgment.

    Oh, and Prof. Barrett. You rock!!!

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  58. One of the dangers of Hollywood adaptations is it tends to crush the original interpretations of things because apparently audio-visual media is more important than print.

    The biggest pop-culture example of that is Wizard of Oz. The movie takes a lot of liberties with Baum's work. But it's become so ingrained into the public conciousness that when a more faithful interpretation, Return to Oz, came out it didn't do well at the Box Office.

    In many cases, some books are out of print now. You can't buy the Novel for The Falcon and the Snowman at Amazon (other than through some third parties), but you can buy the DVD of the 1985 movie. You can't find the original children's book "The Year Without a Santa Claus" at Amazon at all, but you can get the Rakin-Bass DVD.

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  59. Taranaich: “And, again, how will we know if a faithful REH adaptation wouldn't be as good as a non-Conan film inspired by Howard... if nobody's tried?

    Easy. How many film adaptions of literature have been good? A good adaptation is by far the exception rather than the rule. More often than not, it either tries so hard to be 100% faithful that it ends up being a bad film, or it manages to miss many of the important qualities of the original. It could happen, but I wouldn’t bet on it. ^_^

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  60. Rick Marshall: You're putting up a straw man. Cut it out.

    Anyway, I came into Conan through back issues of Savage Sword Of Conan my library had, and I've always found them perfectly cromulent (pun not intended) adventure stories. I was going to make points about Batman, Iron Man, Lord of the Rings, etc., but they seem to have been made already.

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  61. I'm much more interested in how the movie diverges from the original text and what that says about today's contemporary society and popular culture.

    I can see that as interesting from an academic/sociological perspective, but that's not generally how I approach works of art, even popular art, such as movies.

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  62. Interesting that discussion has mostly focused on fictional characters (see my initial post on the same issues in 'historical' cinema) - but maybe that's just too big a kettle of fish to open.

    Unsurprisingly, I'm rather keen on historical accuracy in film where possible, it should come as no surprise :)

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  63. One of the dangers of Hollywood adaptations is it tends to crush the original interpretations of things because apparently audio-visual media is more important than print.

    Very true! That's a big part of Christopher Tolkien's criticisms of the recent LotR films. Speaking from personal experience, there are some movies whose imagery was so powerful that they actually changed the way I viewed characters/events from books I'd read prior to seeing the movies. That's a very real danger and one that I don't think should be dismissed out of hand.

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  64. Rach's reflections: You're right, and I will cut it out.

    There are times when James takes a surprising amount of heat for reasonable opinions. Some people agree with him and say why, some disagree and say why, and both of these advance the discussion. Other repeated comments suggest the posters would not be satisfied unless James publicly repudiated his position.

    If it doesn't bother James, I shouldn't let it bother me. No more straw men.

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  65. I agree with Charles. This is why it's of pre-eminent importance that Christopher Nolan draw more influence from Adam West's Batman in his next Batman film.

    ... or perhaps not.

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