Robert E. Howard is credited with single handedly creating the genre of sword & sorcery, so, thankfully, he wrote well before it became a genre, IE, a watered down rehashing of old ideas by folks cashing in on an addiction, with little feeling or knowledge for their material. Howard was a successful popular writer during his all too short ten year career, wrote as many westerns as he did S&S pieces.
While most remembered for his Conan stories these days, he also created such memorable, if less successful, heroes as King Kull, Bran Mak Morn, Red Sonja, and Solomon Kane, and championed “feminist” heroines long before the concept of feminism needed a name. His work had sensitivity, sparkle and a sense of historical accuracy missing from his many imitators. He wrote exceptional dialogue and narrative, given that he wrote “popular” adventure fiction. So why, when films are made about Howard’s Conan, do the makers merely borrow the shadow of the character and none of the memorable stories themselves? Why must film studios make Conan epics, when Howard’s work, unlike J. R. R. Tolkien’s work a generation or two later, was clearly period pieces, often set in imaginary periods based upon history and mythology?
Will anyone ever make a film true to the material, or will Howard’s work continue to suffer indignities similar to those heaped upon H. P. Lovecraft, whose work is inevitably ruined when turned into Hollywood fare?
To be fair, the latest entry into the list of Conan disasters has much to recommend it, when compared to its predecessors. Jason Momoa’s Conan is truer to the material, the bloodletting and the bare breasted women are as well. Ron Pearlman as Conan’s father, and Lee Howard as a young Conan steal the show early on, lending what little credibility there is to be had.
Others try, as the film degenerates into a cluttered vision belonging to somebody who has either not read the original or who has been given marching orders to the effect of “bring in the fanboys.” Case in point: the village where Conan was reared contains an eye catching mill with a spectacular water wheel—so far, so good. But the damn thing is well away from the water, and there are no wheat fields anywhere in sight. Picky-picky or a symptom of the larger problem? Everybody is freshly scrubbed, the costumes all look as if they were dry cleaned the day before, which they were—this in an age of questionable hygiene, never mind the perfect dental work of most of the characters with a few notable exceptions. There are no less than six amazing castle/fortress/city set pieces: one for the pirates, one for the thieves, one for the villain, two for the heroine (one for each end of her journey,) and one for the penultimate confrontation between Conan and the main villain. If only the story warranted such beautifully elaborate sets.
Howard’s Conan tales typically take place in and around one of these, with the emphasis on the characters, not the sets. Why can’t someone make a film of, say “Red Nails,” or “The People of the Black Circle?” The material warrants a PBS period piece treatment, not another half assed full blown parody. There is a reason why Howard’s work “inspired” so many imitators, beyond the obvious financial motivation. There might be a real audience for it were it aimed beyond the fickle socially impaired of the dungeon-and-dragon, star-trek-convention set, were it given the respect it deserves. As it is, almost nobody went to see this one.
© Paul Bates, 2011