Thursday, April 29, 2010

Lovecraftian Serendipity

I am regularly amused by how, just as I am about to make a post about this or that subject, someone else does so. I am sure other bloggers experience this as well. In many cases, this phenomenon is perfectly understandable, because all the posts in question are in response to some bit of news of interest to our common readers.

Had Miguel Martins's post at The Cimmerian only been about the latest trailer to the upcoming black and white film adaptation of HPL's The Whisperer in Darkness (by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society), I'd probably not have given it much thought. After all, the new trailer was just released, so it makes sense that aficionados of pulp authors would all take notice and start chattering about it. That's what we do.

What's odd is that, just two days ago, I re-watched my copy of the Historical Society's earlier film, the silent movie version of The Call of Cthulhu, inspired in part by the comments to my post on August Derleth and optimism in the face of the Mythos. I'd watched the movie a couple of times when I first bought it shortly after its release and was impressed by it, but I hadn't seen it since. In doing so, I found myself not only deeply impressed by it as a film in its own right but also by how it is quite likely the best (the only?) direct cinematic adaptation of a story written by H.P. Lovecraft, which is a real feather in the cap for the Historical Society as well as yet another black mark against Hollywood.

This in turn got me to thinking not just about the paucity of faithful Lovecraft adaptations but about the even shabbier way that Robert E. Howard has been treated in film. Like Martins, I can't help but be amazed, in a dark sort of way, at the fact that, to date, no one has managed to produce a film based on a Howard story as faithful as what the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society did with The Call of Cthulhu. All the more amazing is that, in the same year when a new Conan movie is currently being filmed in Bulgaria, the Historical Society is scheduled to release yet another adaptation of Lovecraft, which, if the trailer is any indication, will beat the tar out of Hollywood's Conan when it comes to fidelity to its source material. How the heck is this even possible?

Anyway, enjoy the trailer to The Whisperer in Darkness and imagine a world in which a Robert E. Howard Historical Society produced an adaptation of, well, any Howard story that was even half as faithful to its origins as this fan-made film looks like it'll be.

34 comments:

  1. The cup of serendipity o'erflows. I discovered this yesterday following a line of clicks that had nothing to do with the OSR. Came THIS close to posting the thing but then figured that everyone else already knew about it.

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  2. That looks great. I have the Call of Cthulhu already and enjoyed it immensely, it's one of the few genuinely creepy films I've ever seen and the brilliance of the original story really shines through.

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  3. beat the tar out of Hollywood... when it comes to fidelity to its source material. How the heck is this even possible?

    My sincere response is: it's not only possible but inevitable because of the difference in the amount of money involved and the number of people required to raise it who feel they deserve a creative return on their financial investment. You can't pitch a major motion picture to Howard or Lovecraft fans because not enough of them will turn up to return the investment. Also, aiming to guarantee a marginal success (at least making back what you spent) is better than taking a risk on what might be a massive success, because nobody can afford the cost of it flopping. So you have to "widen the market appeal," which means hiring as experts people who've made money on movies before, precisely because they are not attached to the material, and are therefore (theoretically) better able to make dispassionate decisions that translate into well understood revenue models.

    But you know that. So I'm wondering why you ask...

    veriword: brielo. The product of a revenue model that predicted cheese-buyers would also like wobbly desserts.

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  4. But you know that. So I'm wondering why you ask...

    Mostly, because I'm hoping that someone with a deeper knowledge of how movies get made can provide me with a sliver of hope that the usual answer is wrong, or at least somehow inaccurate.

    I'm actually greatly cheered by the fact that we're seeing more excellent fan-made films like this. I just wish that, along with their appearance, we'd see Hollywood abandon their own supposed treatments of these subjects and have the decency to just leave Howard alone if they're not going to do him the courtesy of taking his work seriously.

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  5. Their adaptation of "Call of Cthulhu" was marvelous. It's become a regular Halloween feature, along with Welles' radio version of "War of the Worlds." I'm very much looking forward to "Whisperer."

    BTW, the HPLHS also makes excellent play aids for CoC, in the form of fonts and PDF documents on DVD for use as props.

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  6. have the decency to just leave Howard alone if they're not going to do him the courtesy of taking his work seriously

    This is the first time I've ever seriously wondered how devout Christians received Charlton Heston's turn as Moses.

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  7. Honestly, I'm looking forward to some of the HPL inspired films in the works just because you have some really talented people involved in a few projects. Namely, Ron Howard who's company bought the rights to the "Strange Adventures of HP Lovecraft" last year and Guillermo Del Torro has been developing "Mountains of Madness" for a number of years and has said he would like to do it after he's done with the Hobbit. In fact, if you watch Hellboy II with the commentary on, del Torro mentions, two of the monsters walking in the background are a pair of old ones from MoM. And there's the Alien prequel being directed by Ridley Scott. It's not a HPL film my name, but certainly will be in it's influences.

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  8. *craps pants*

    That trailer is incredible! Can't wait!

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  9. Although there was a quite faithful adaptation of Howard's story "Pigeons From Hell" made for television.

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  10. Interesting how nobody has mentioned one odd and unexpected addition to the Whisperer adaptation: Charles H. Fort as a supporting character!

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  11. This is the first time I've ever seriously wondered how devout Christians received Charlton Heston's turn as Moses.

    Or, more immediately, devout Jews.

    I suspect it wouldn't be hard to find information about their reactions at the time the film was released, if you're really curious. For all that it matters, the movie is not included in the 1995 "100 best" list compiled by the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications.

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  12. Guillermo Del Torro has been developing "Mountains of Madness" for a number of years

    I am ambivalent in my feelings about this project. Del Toro has said a number of encouraging things about his plans and he's taken on S.T. Joshi as a consultant, but I also understand he plans to set the movie during World War II and deal with competing teams (one of which is made up of Nazis) trying to reach the city of the Old Ones in Antarctica. I'm not sure how I feel about that. Del Toro has a very vivid imagination, but I worry if it might be too vivid for a story like this, which demands subtlety to be effective.

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  13. Although there was a quite faithful adaptation of Howard's story "Pigeons From Hell" made for television.

    Really? You have any details?

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  14. Interesting how nobody has mentioned one odd and unexpected addition to the Whisperer adaptation: Charles H. Fort as a supporting character!

    It's hard to say from the trailer if that's literally meant to be the Fort or not. I suspect it's more a nod to Fort, whose books are referenced in the story, much in the same way that the moderator of the debate is named Mr. Bradbury.

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  15. I'm a huge fan of the the books of Moses, and old movies;I have today the reason the 10 Commandments didn't make the top 100 might just be because it sucks. I watched it couple of years ago, and it reminded me of a high school play.

    Also The Lovecraft trailer is awesome. Some one stole my copy of the CoC film.

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  16. I watched it couple of years ago, and it reminded me of a high school play.

    I agree; it's not a great movie. In fact, thinking on it, the whole thing rather suggests that Hollywood was just as bad back in the 50s as they are today.

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  17. I think that is probably correct. It's the good movies that tend to get remembered, and Hollywood, for all its faults, manages to produce a couple of those now and again. Multiply that by several decades and your going to have a decent stack of movies.
    The bad one's don't bother me so much, though, as no one makes me see them.
    Well, okay, Jackson's King Kong is not only the most unnecessary remake of all time but also a crime against god and man. Aside from that, though, I'm cool.

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  18. "It's hard to say from the trailer if that's literally meant to be the Fort or not. I suspect it's more a nod to Fort, whose books are referenced in the story, much in the same way that the moderator of the debate is named Mr. Bradbury."

    Well, the actor portraying him bears a very strong resemblance indeed, so there's that.

    As for Pigeons From Hell, it was a 1961 episode of Thriller: A horror anthology tv show hosted by Boris Karloff.

    This Dutch site has the whole thing streaming:

    http://www.123video.nl/playvideos.asp?MovieID=388817

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  19. "Really? You have any details?"

    It was an episode of the 60s anthology show, Thriller, which was hosted by Boris Karloff. I've never seen the episode but it's by all accounts very good.

    About Lovecraft adaptations, my enthusiasm for Del Toro's Mountains of Madness dried up a bit partially because I think the HPLHS stole his thunder with their Call of Cthulhu, and partially because I was disappointed with the liberties Del Toro took with Hellboy while knowing that he plans to be similarly loose with Lovecraft's story. I think he's a wonderful director but I'd rather see him continue to make movies from his own imagination.

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  20. @Andy: I agree completely. The Devil's Backbone is a masterpiece, but when Del Toro works on other people's properties I'm much less satisfied with his work. The first Hellboy has many lovely visuals, but it jettisons Hellboy's scholarly qualities, reducing him to his brawn, leaving me disappointed and ambivalent.

    I felt no such ambivalence about Hellboy II, which leaves the real character even further behind. I actually couldn't finish the movie and turned it off halfway through, which would amaze you if you knew the dreck I often watch for my research into horror films, but I expected so much better from Del Toro.

    I worry that Del Toro's directing style is becoming less conceptually imaginative as it becomes more visually imaginative - something that also happened to Tim Burton over time - and that bodes ill for both The Hobbit and At the Mountains of Madness. I hope I'm wrong, and I will doubtless go see both movies in that spirit.

    By contrast, I loved the HPLHS's CoC, and this trailer for Whisperer is delicious.

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  21. Will: I've heard about the TV adaptation of "Pigeons from Hell," but I've not seen it.

    James! Thanks for the shout-out. Great minds think alike. ;)

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  22. The obvious (apparently) needs to be restated: fidelity to source material is not equivalent to quality in a movie.

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  24. >The obvious (apparently) needs to be restated: >fidelity to source material is not equivalent to quality >i

    And maybe even more important is a film should not be judged solely on the merits of it's a good adaptations or not. Even Just the act of reading alone and the images being played out inside your head when your reading a novel, short story or even a comic book, will always be different then the guy sitting next to you. So you can only imagine how different it will be even more when you have people like editors, directors ,cinematographers, actors, studio heads all trying to put something together to be watched on a big giant screen.

    It's near impossible to say the least and unless you can separate one from the other, and realize your favorite book or comic books doesn't look the way you FEEL it should, you'll always be disappointed no matter how good the film actually might be.

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  25. "fidelity to source material is not equivalent to quality in a movie."

    Fidelity to *quality* source material generally is.

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  26. As for Pigeons From Hell, it was a 1961 episode of Thriller: A horror anthology tv show hosted by Boris Karloff.

    Thanks for turning me on to this -- and for the link. It was indeed a very good adaptation, especially for its time, though I notice that it soft pedaled the racial issues present in Howard's original tale, which I suppose isn't surprising.

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  27. I worry that Del Toro's directing style is becoming less conceptually imaginative as it becomes more visually imaginative - something that also happened to Tim Burton over time - and that bodes ill for both The Hobbit and At the Mountains of Madness. I hope I'm wrong, and I will doubtless go see both movies in that spirit.

    This closely mirrors my own opinion on almost every front. I worry too that Del Toro has become a successful enough director that no one dares tell him "no" when he gets wacky ideas, often to the detriment of his films (Hellboy II showing this principle in action).

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  28. The obvious (apparently) needs to be restated: fidelity to source material is not equivalent to quality in a movie.

    This is true, but, by the same token, one wonders why filmmakers bother to name check famous authors/stories when making their films if they aren't going to both to get even the most basic details right from their so-called "inspirations."

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  29. And maybe even more important is a film should not be judged solely on the merits of it's a good adaptations or not.

    The real issue for me is not so much whether a film is slavish in following the plot and/or dialog of its supposed literary inspiration so much as that it not contradict those things. If a director isn't interested in presenting something that's at least consonant with his supposed source material, why bother make reference to the source material at all? Why not just create a wholly new film?

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  30. why bother make reference to the source material at all?

    I've had this dilemma with Flash Gordon (albeit not in a commercial product), and one answer is that sometimes the source material does a load of work for you, or gives you a frame of reference to riff off, without which your idea either wouldn't communicate so easily or wouldn't work at all. cf Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Shakespeare in Love, Young Frankenstein. All fine works that refer to other works but have nothing necessarily to do with their spirit. Also, for that matter, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, which appropriates the storm-tossed, fatalistic, ingratiating Everyman of RFB's translation and turns him into an action hero (perhaps more like RFB, but that's another issue).

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  31. "it soft pedaled the racial issues present in Howard's original tale"

    I'd both agree and disagree. Certainly, the explicit racist *language* is expunged. However, the average audience member is obviously given to assume that the cruel treatment by Celia Blassenville of her servants was only tolerated by her neighbors because of the racial dynamics involved. And the ultimate denouement is still the oppressed blacks taking gruesome revenge on their white tormentress (and, by proxy, the system that tolerated their abuse).

    I find this very true to the original tale, and this is why I credit Thriller's "Pigeons" as an excellent adaptation. Howard's casual racism is often remarked upon, but ultimately I feel he sympathized with the oppressed underdog before anyone else, race aside. His story "The Dead Remember" is another great example of this.

    Ultimately, I'd argue that the pedaling wasn't really *that* soft, and that even soft peddling in a year like 1961 was much better than not pedaling at all.

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  32. I've had this dilemma with Flash Gordon (albeit not in a commercial product), and one answer is that sometimes the source material does a load of work for you, or gives you a frame of reference to riff off, without which your idea either wouldn't communicate so easily or wouldn't work at all. cf Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Shakespeare in Love, Young Frankenstein. All fine works that refer to other works but have nothing necessarily to do with their spirit.

    The difference between those films and adaptations is Shakespeare in Love was not intended or presented as an adaptation of "Romeo & Juliet," and Young Frankenstein was not intended to be an adaptation of Shelley's novel.

    Generally I'm in agreement with James. If a film is adapting a story to a medium, it seems nonsensical to render it unrecognizable from the source material upon which it was based. Otherwise, there seems to be little point in adapting it at all.

    It's near impossible to say the least and unless you can separate one from the other, and realize your favorite book or comic books doesn't look the way you FEEL it should, you'll always be disappointed no matter how good the film actually might be.

    That may be true, but it's not justification for making big changes. Just because you can't make an adaptation that will please absolutely everyone is no reason to say "screw it" and do whatever you like.

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  33. The Haunted Palace is one of Roger Corman's "Poe" series, named after Poe's work "The Haunted Palace". It is in actuality an adaptation of Lovecraft's "Charles Dexter Ward". On one hand, just having the name Poe attached was valuable enough for the studio to insist that it be advertised as a Poe film; on the other, the material that Lovecraft provided was useful enough to use even if it wasn't going to be advertised as a Lovecraft adaptation.

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