Friday, January 01, 2010

Ruining Conan

I caught up with the amusing The DeCampista Awards posted by Al Harron from a proposal by Mark Singleton, which takes up the very worthwhile pursuit of calling people to task for spreading lazy and inaccurate notions about Robert E. Howard and his work. For those unfamiliar with the crux of this issue, I highly recommend "The De Camp Controversy" by Morgan Holmes, which I previously linked in my post Thongor.

Then I found Harron's Conan the Rehash.

Are you kidding me?

Sadly, I know he's not.

Now, I'm generally a Howard purist, although not too much love Conan the Barbarian by John Milius or enjoy many of the Marvel Conan comics by Roy Thomas et al, so I'm willing to meet a creative person halfway, if they show some effort.

The "big" issues brought up in this article, such as it being more racially insensitive than the original works, which were written by a man who grew up in small towns in West Texas during the early years of the twentieth century, are all things that could be fixed by a single rewrite by a moderately talented writer.

But frankly, it's not only the purist in me that wonders why everyone feels the need to walk away from Howard's stories when trying to bring the Conan character to the big screen.

Seriously, if there was ever a writer whose prose stories were custom made for movie adaptation, it's Howard. They have nice three-act structures, plenty of action and spectacle, glorious imagery and compelling characters.

The criticisms of his work generally center around his skill as a writer in a literary sense, and are sadly still too often built on an understanding of his writing based on re-edited versions, posthumous "collaborations", pastiches and adaptations, all of which were done long after his death.

Even so, all of the things for which he receives the most praise are exactly what's required of a kickass adventure movie and all of the supposed vices he's accused of are irrelevant to them. There's no call in this to reinvent the wheel.

Supposedly this animated Red Nails will come out eventually. Won't it? The most recent news on their web site is over 2 years old. That would be the first direct adaptation of a Howard Conan story to be filmed and the best idea anyone's had in terms of making a Conan movie.

As Howard biographer Mark Finn writes in An Appeal To Paradox, "Look at Casino Royale. Batman Begins. Pirates of the Carribean. All of these films took dead characters, dead franchises, and dead genres and reinvigorated them by not playing it safe. Even fans of Conan the Barbarian don't want a rehash of that. We are twenty years older now, and we need something more sophisticated. Bryan Singer learned that the hard way with Superman Returns. This can NOT be a nostalgia project."

A good Conan movie could make everyone happy. It could be, like the projects mentioned above, and I'd add Iron Man, a major commercial, critical and popular success.

The movie described in "Conan the Rehash" could be marketed to make a lot of money and get some half-ass "popcorn movie" praise, but it couldn't be those other things nor would it be a tent pole on which one could build a lasting and profitable series upon.

Frankly, though, if the IMDb is correct and Marcus Nispel is attached, then the script, even a terrible, trite and even racist script, is the least of its problems. On the other hand, if the casual reference I heard to Neil Marshall being attached instead is right, then maybe, just maybe, there is some hope...

BONUS: Here's Revenge of the Barbarian adapted from Howard's Black Vulmea's Vengeance by Thomas, John Buscema, Alfredo Alcada and Marie Serverin and hosted by Diversions of the Groovy Kind (which also hosts a number of the better Howard comic adaptations). I wouldn't argue it's the best comic adaptation of the Howard stories, but it gives a hint at what a really kick ass Conan movie could be like.

(And, yes, I recognize the hypocrisy of using a pastiche adapting a non-Conan story into a Conan story as my example.)


Taranaich said...

Ahoy good sir, I'm Al Harron, the writer of the post.

I can't claim credit for The DeCampista awards: that would be Mark Singleton, REH internet guerilla, who often posts on countless websites around the net, under the name Amsterdamaged.

I agree that the racial insensitivity is minor in terms of script time: however, it's one of those things that's frequently blown out of proportion. The fact that Thulsa Doom in CtB is black isn't made a big deal of in the film itself, but many commentators comment on the idea of the Aryan Ubermensch killing the charismatic black demagogue: Roger Ebert being the most notable.

The problem is that people will latch on to things like that, and make them into big issues: what's more, they'll use it as an excuse to criticize Howard for elements he had nothing to do with. I agree that a rewrite would resolve them: I guess I just don't have faith in whoever they have cleaning up Doppenheimer's script.

You're 100% dead on about the craziness with Howard adaptations. Even the Fenners of the world admit two things: that Conan was a great character, and Howard was a great storyteller. Ergo, his character and stories were great. So why the hell would you change them?

Finally, sad to say, Marcus Nispel is officially attached, as from the horse's mouth at Paradox. I was initially hopeful that Nispel was the sort of guy who'd do as he's told, and not insert his own Milius-inspired ideas. Unfortunately, there's nobody attached to the project, at all, that inspires confidence. The only one that remotely looks a decent idea is the hiring of the 300 creature guy.

Neil Sarver said...

Howdy. Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate the comment. I have adjusted the credit on the DeCampanista post.

The racial thing really peeves me. The racial criticism of Howard's work is one that's impossible as a modern person to ignore, despite the fact that, as is pointed out in Blood & Thunder, it's much more complicated than it may seem on first reading. But there's no reason an adaptation has to have that issue.

(Ok, a Solomon Kane movie that had N'Longa, honestly one of the most appealing characters Howard ever wrote, in my opinion, would have to face it head on.)

But there's certainly no reason to exacerbate that. I think you're right in noting that Milius walked into that, but then I also think his idea of Thulsa Doom being from a long lost race is interesting, even if I agree that it's not the perception that comes across to the average person.

I also have to say I'm discouraged overall by the fact that the evidence more than suggests that 300 will be the model rather than The Lord of the Rings. As you note, "It’s often said that one of the things which sets Howard’s fiction apart from other fantasy is the 'realism.'" I liked 300 pretty well, and would be happy to see more movies attempt things like that, but the model of The Lord of the Rings, and even, in that regard at least, Conan the Barbarian, would much better capture, I think the feel and texture that works for Conan stories and has made them stand out for all of these decades.

Thanks for stopping by.

Taranaich said...

That's the thing: while there are plenty of cases where racial issues jar with modern viewers, there's also plenty of anti-racial stuff in Howard. "Wings in the Night" in particular: though the Aryan Barbarian line is often trotted out, I find Kane's expression of grief for the death of a little African village to be one of the most moving moments in any story. The race issue is noted, but to Kane, it doesn't matter: they were human, and they would be avenged, as surely as that little white girl in "Red Shadows" would be avenged.

THAT's the "racial" aspect people should concentrate on with Howard. Accept Howard's assertions of race as a fundamental division, but highlight the times that such divisions can be stripped away to show a truth that spans them all.

N'Longa, I think, would be a very pleasant surprise, especially if they combine "Red Shadows" and "The Hills of the Dead" into a film, anthology style: there we see N'Longa use pidgen english like some cooky daft stereotype, only to realise he's far smarter than he looks, and finally displays his immense wisdom, intelligence and power by the end of "Hills." It'd be a hell of a character arc.

Though I hate the fact that Milius changed Doom, I do quite like what he did with him. The combination of straight hair, green eyes that never blink (seriously, I don't think we ever see him close his eyes throughout the entire film) with his black skin make a subtly alien appearance.

It's a catch-22, though: if black people are ancient, that gives the impression of them evolving at a slower rate than white people. Yet if you make blacks a "young" race, you give the impression that they were late to evolve. You can't win.

"Realism" as I see it, is what we saw in CtB and the better parts of LotR: a sincerity and grounding, in that despite the fantastic elements, there's a sense of possibility. The opposite, I think, would be something like a Jackie Chan film: no monsters or fantasy creatures, but the stunts are so patently ridiculous that one gets the sense you're watching a cartoon. I love Jackie Chan films, but you wouldn't call them realistic.

300 is basically a Jackie Chan fantasy movie: the monsters are no more or less real than the OTT actors making twenty foot leaps and cutting through a million-strong army. Howard wasn't like that, and the 300 approach is the absolute worst way one can go about it, in my mind.

Neil Sarver said...

I think there's something more honest about the way Howard addresses race issues than the way Hollywood does, and seems likely have been a reason why he was seemingly able to expand his views over time, to ones that were at the very least more complex than the ones he started out with. In most cases, I'd say adaptations should ignore them... although I do say, and agree, that a Solomon Kane story that adapted those stories would indeed be a good way to make not only a ripping good movie but a nice comment on the character and audience expectations of him.

And we definitely agree on the styles.

Frankly, if it was a big budget sword and sorcery movie that we were discussing, I might be holding some cautious optimism that I'd enjoy it in spite of the issues here.

Unfortunately, that style is not the right approach to Conan, and since we're discussing what it seems will be the Conan movie of a generation, it's too bad they're going in a direction that goes so far astray of the specific appeals of the original stories.

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