Monday, April 5, 2010

Conan on the Big Screen

“Milius said my idea was a “feverish dream under acid”,” said Stone of his four-hour opus, which included an intermission and was planned as the first of 12 films, set in the future, with vast armies of mutants and cloned beast-men. “But that’s exactly what it should have been! It’s what arises from the work of Howard–he was a very strange man. The producers sold it short.
Thus spake Oliver Stone on his original script for Conan the Barbarian in the May 2010 issue of the British film magazine Empire, as reported at The Cimmerian. The blog post includes lots of other interesting excerpts from a seven-page article entitled "Conan the Unmade," which discusses the rather poor treatment Robert E. Howard's greatest creation has suffered at the hands of Hollywood.

I'm going to see if I can get a hold of a copy of the magazine, as it sounds like it's a rare example of cinema journalism where the issue of faithful adaptation is treated seriously. Despite the guardedly good reviews of Jason Momoa's appearance as Conan by trustworthy sources, I'm still very skeptical that this upcoming film will be any more true to Howard than was Milius's 1982 Nietzschean opus.

I'd love to be prove wrong, of course.


  1. Letting that hack Stone anywhere near Conan would have been a disaster. "Armies of mutants and cloned beastmen"? Sheesh. Yeh I remember all those in the REH novels. Stone needs to stick to kissing Chavez' and Castro's asses and writing conspiracy crap even more unbelievable than a REH tale...

  2. Back in the 90's, when I was doing an online pop culture newsletter, one of my oft used quotes was "movies based on comic books are created to break the hearts of fans." It was true, nothing Hollywood could do could give us real fans what we wanted. After the glow of the Tim Burton Batman (and it's horrible sequel) wore off, it was clear it was not that good a Batman vehicle, nor even that good a movie.

    Then the Spider-Man film came along. Faithful? Well, not fully. Natural web-spinners instead of gadgets aside, this Spidey didn't really banter with the bad guys like in the comics - his trademark. Sad, but hell, most of the rest of the film was spot on. I grew up on Spider-Man, and the film managed to fill my heart. I accepted it (but not SM3 by any means).

    I feel the same way about the original Conan film. Perhaps Big C's iron trap mind and gigantic mirth were mostly absent (hey, he was still young and new to adventure), the world and the character got presented enough to me for me to feel warm about it. I loved it. Having read the books, I was able to fill in some of the blanks that were not all together there in the film. It worked for me.

    Spider-Man (1 and 2), LOTR, and Conan all got film treatments that I found acceptable. Why? Because I know full well how aweful they really could have been. Hollywood is a sadistic rapist of childhood fanboy dreams. But in the end they were properties that got respectful treatment, and they did not break the heart of the little boy inside me.

    To me, if they do at least as good a job with the new film as they did with the original Conan, it'll be all good. I suspect that after this new one comes out, a lot of Conan fans will be going back to the Ah-Nuld version and rethinking it a bit.

  3. Armies of mutants and cloned beast men sounds pretty cool to me.

    Milius' vision seems to have been that the past was just dirty and scruffy. The Howard stories bristle with sights, sounds, smells, weird opulence and Orientalist degeneracy --- hallmarks of his hero's pulp origins.
    The Stone version can't be worse that what we have had already.

  4. If necessary, I will pick you up a copy and put in the post. Let me know if you need a copy.

  5. Stone talks about this in the Conan: The Complete Quest documentary, and it sounds like he's less of a Howard fan and more of a (shudder) Carter/DeCamp Conan fan. That said, the movie Stone wanted to do still sounds awesome.

    I'm increasingly anti-adaption in general. If something was perfectly realized in the medium for which it was intended, very little is usually gained by reproducing it in another medium (especially one where money is the ruling factor). Why not just make something new? No one would complain about a kick ass, ultra violent film starring Grognar the Mighty or some garbage.

    Finally, anyone who actually suspects that this movie will not be a complete crapfest should check out the remake of Clash of the Titans for a sobering dose of Hollywood's ability to ruin everything.

  6. "Armies of mutants and cloned beast men sounds pretty cool to me."

    Me too, as a Mad Max sequel. Since REH didn't have any of those in any of his tales, it would be yet another attempt by a hack writer and director to prove "HIS" version of Conan is better than the actual creator's version.

  7. >If something was perfectly realized in the medium for which it was intended, very little is usually gained by reproducing it in another medium<

    I dunno Boo, then we never would have gotten films from my top 20 faves such as Clockwork Orange, The Godfather, Goodfellas, Jaws, etc. etc. etc. I love movies like those, and they are incredible adaptations of previous popular books. I'm sure you can think of a bunch you love that are adaptations.

  8. Brunomac:

    I'll concede to those, as well as others. However, I also maintain that they are (by far) the exception rather than the rule. Also, it's no coincidence that all of those films were directed by a shortlist of the greatest filmmakers of the century in which they were made, rather than some dude who did the Friday the 13th and Texas Chainsaw Massacre remakes.

  9. Sounds like we dodged a bullet with that one...

  10. My thinking is that people get too caught-up in titles sometimes. Milius' movie is cinema's most true, best take on the swords & sorcery genre by a country mile.

  11. Seriously, just pretend the protagonist's name is Nanoc or something. :)

  12. Dragonslayer, Ladyhawk even the Sword and the Sorcerer, are better renditions of S&S then what Millius and company could put up on the screen. And none of them hold a candle to Ray Harryhausen's Jason and the Argonauts. There's not one skeletal mini that hasn't been influenced by that film.


  13. Nice article at the Cimmerian. Something that rings true is the Hollywood addiction/fetish for the goddamn "origin story". Holy god I'd love to see one superhero movie that did something nutty narratively like start in media res, or anything other than the ho-hum predictable 1 hour origin story. This shows it's so bad they have to make one from whole cloth, even if it's antithetical to the source material.

  14. "Dragonslayer, Ladyhawk even the Sword and the Sorcerer, are better renditions of S&S then what Millius and company could put up on the screen. And none of them hold a candle to Ray Harryhausen's Jason and the Argonauts."

    I'd grant you the possibility of "Jason and the Argonauts" only.

    Dragonslayer is fantasy, but S&S how exactly? Ladyhawke is plain femmy. Albert Pyun couldn't make a movie to save his life.

  15. "Armies of mutants and cloned beast men sounds pretty cool to me."

    Me too... If it was for a more adult version of the He-Man movie - hell, that would be SO F$#@ING AWESOME! But Tooth Fairies don't exist, radiation gives you cancer - not mutant powers - and Angels don't come down from Heaven to wipe my fat ungrateful ass with silk! All we get are what a bunch of no-nothing suits think what is best for us, or sound cool within the scope of their vary limited though process!!!

  16. the majority of Pyun's films are terrible , But at that one fleeing moment in his career he made a much better fantasy movie then what Milius made.

    S&TS Is pure, unadulterated, pulp fantasy. and in it's own way, pays homage to all the writers we talk about here on Jame's blog without naming names. Also, for my tastes, It's the closest move I've ever felt that captures the more gritty elements of old school gaming.

    This opening scene says it all:

  17. Hi James,

    Through the misfortune of a bad cold over the past couple of days, I've had the good fortune to be able to read the majority of your 2008 entries. I quite enjoy your writing and your thoughts on the history and development of D&D have crystallised issues which I had perceived, but not articulated to any extent until reading your material.

    I came to the game through the AD&D 1e hardbacks (with the original Tramp PHB cover) and have made it a point to try and get my hands on as many of the old school modules and books as I can.

    Thank you for revitalising my interest in this most fascinating of pastimes.

    John Taylor-Hood

  18. I like Milius' film just fine. Jason and the argonauts is great- but to my mind the very best S&S films are The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and The Golden Voyage of Sinabd.

  19. Addendum/PSA- Both of the films I mentioned are available on netflix instant watch...

  20. Brunomac: the thing is, even the comic films are far, far closer to the original source material than Conan was. Sure, Spider-Man doesn't have gadget webspinners and doesn't wisecrack, but just about everything else is present: Aunt May raises him, and Uncle Ben until he is killed as a direct result of Spidey's inaction. He is geeky and awkward, until he gains his powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider. His enemy is the Green Goblin, who is Norman Osbourne gone superhuman and rendered insane from use of an experiment gone wrong, and uses a glider to wreak havoc.

    No, Spider-Man wasn't 100% accurate, but at least it was recognizably Spider-Man. Conan the Barbarian simply wasn't recognizable as Howard's creation in any shape or form. The only things they have in common are a god called Crom, a people called Cimmerians, a land called Cimmeria, and happening to be quite muscular - and even then there's substantial differences.

    Using REH to "fill in the blanks" for you, but it simply wasn't enough for me. There are too many contradictions to his character, history, world and story.

    I go over it all in these posts:

    And I'm talking as a fan of CtB. I enjoyed the film immensely, and consider it a great S&S film, but that doesn't mean I'm going to call it a great Conan film when it isn't.

    Booberry: Why should we want an adaptation? For the same reason one wants any adaptation, be it of Shakespeare, Dickens, or Grisham: because they'd make great films. The Conan stories are so cinematic it's ludicrous that they haven't been translated. It's the same reason we enjoy Frazetta illustrations or comics themselves: because the stories are so great that adaptation into new media would be great in themselves.

    Of course there will be guys like me to pick at nits like Conan's hair length and the exact hue of his eyes, but those are nits to pick. Things like basic character, history, biography and whatnot are not little things, and CtB, as well as this film, get them wrong.

    Will Mistretta: Why should we be too hung up on names? A Conan film shouldn't just be a sword-and-sorcery film, it should be a CONAN film. Sure, we can pretend the guy's called Konahn, worships Krumm, somes from Simaria and whatnot, but why should we be content with that?

    Delta: Glad you enjoyed the article, thanks!