Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Conan the Missed-Opportunarian

So I watched the new "Conan the Barbarian" film last night, prepared to really hate it.  I got a little surprise because I actually found it fairly entertaining and not the hopeless piece of shit I expected.  It's much better than the 1982 version (which I enjoyed when it came out but now find unwatchable).  And it actually does capture a certain amount of the spirit of the stories and even the character, though not perfectly.

Still, the thing that bugs me (or more specifically, the frustrated film-maker in me, I suppose), is that it would be possible to make a truly outstanding Conan-based film, if someone just cared enough to do it right.

Allow me to elaborate -  my requirements for doing a proper Conan movie:

I. Casting

1. Cast an Actor as Conan - do not cast a bodybuilder, a pro-wrestler or anyone else whose background isn't in acting.  You don't need Laurence Olivier here, but you do need someone with the ability to emote and deliver a few lines with conviction.  Cast for acting ability - not physique.  Jason Momoa actually wasn't bad - much better than ol' Arnie's leaden performance in the first film - but when he opens in his mouth I hear a 21st Century American Dude - not a Cimmerian from a prehistoric world.
2. Conan Does Not Need To Be Musclebound - he needs to be big, imposing, and muscular.  He does not need to be huge.  Actually, again, I thought Momoa was just about right on this score, too - muscular and fit but not enormous.  Again, cast an actor - bulk him up in the gym before filming if you have to!

II. The Character

1. Drop the "Origin Story" - Conan does not have an origin story.  Howard never wrote one.  It isn't necessary.  All you need to know about Conan is pretty well established the minute he walks onscreen.
2. Conan Is Not Seeking Revenge for His Parents Murder - used twice now and it was stupid the first time.  Conan is seeking adventure and a few niceties of life (very few).  He's not Batman.  He doesn't have Daddy issues.

3. Conan Is Not A Clod - so don't portray him as one.  He's a man of action.  He's not unintelligent.
4. Get His Name Right - Conan's last name is not "Barbarian," and his middle name is not "The."  It is not necessary to have every character he encounters point out his "barbarian-ness" or call him "barbarian" in case we forgot.

III. The Story

1. Read the Howard Stories - or re-read them if you haven't,
2. Now Read the Howard Stories Again - in case you didn't get it the first time
3. Ignore All Conan Stories Not Written By Howard and Howard Alone - if it says DeCamp, Carter, Nyberg, Roy Thomas or anyone else - forget about it.  Go back to the source.
4. Ignore all Comic Books, Cartoon Series, TV Series, and Especially the Schwarzenegger Films
5. Adapt One of the Best Stories (and Do So Respectfully) - look, "Beyond the Black River," "Red Nails," "Rogues in the House," "People of the Black Circle" and "Queen of the Black Coast" - any of those stories gives you all you need to shoot a feature film.  You could practically work without a script, needing little embellishment and no trimming.  There's five possible films right there! You've got your whole series!  (Sadly, an animated film of "Red Nails" was started but apparently never completed, and Karl Edward Wagner wrote a screen treatment for either the second or the unproduced third Schwarzenegger film which also went unproduced).

The thing that people keep missing, I think, is this: Conan is the least interesting aspect of the Howard stories.

There, I said it.  I mean it.
Oh don't get me wrong - he's a good enough character, obviously.  But there's not much to him.  He's big, he's tough, he's occasionally funny in his sarcasm and to-the-point approach.  But really, almost the only thing Conan himself ever does that I find memorable is the hilariously over-the-top machismo of biting off the vulture's head in "A Witch Shall Be Born."
What makes the Conan stories memorable is what happens around Conan.  He's the eye of the hurricane, so to speak, as this fantastic world and events swirl in circles around him, and he observes and reacts.  What sticks with me about the Conan stories ---

* The demon in the woods in "Beyond the Black River"
* The opening of "Conan the Conqueror" with the magicians performing their sinister rites
* Valeria terrorized by the skeletal figure that emerges from the catacombs of the underground city in "Red Nails"
* The broken and dying Yag-Kosha in "The Tower of the Elephant"
* Conan stalking (and being stalked by) Thak through the halls of the Red Priest's home ("Rogues in the House")
* The black, winged figure launching itself from the trees, the disturbing realization that the handholds of the altar were not meant for human hands, Conan's eerie black-lotus induced dream, and, finally, Conan waiting in the temple ruins for a final (for one of them - and the point is it might well be for Conan) confrontation with the degenerate, evil demon  - all in "Queen of the Black Coast."

These are what stays.  It was never Conan, but Howard's ability to evoke his primitive, ancient, sorcerous world so vividly, that made the stories so memorable.  And that's what the films so far have missed.  Maybe someday.  It took three tries to get Tolkein right, after all.


  1. Aside from thinking the 1983 movie is far better than the remake (a sentimental attachment--growing up I watched the heck out of that movie), I wholeheartedly agree with everything you say regarding the making of a "proper Conan movie."

    It's so irritating! I can't imagine the makers of that film read a single R.E.H. story. On a side note: the film version of Solomon Kane was pretty good. There were moments--particularly when Kane is thrown into a pit of vampires by a demented priest--where I felt like the aesthetic effect I associate with R.E.H. was being channeled. But over-the-top CGI near the end of it ruined it for me. Lots of folks agree that Solomon Kane was more true to the R.E.H. spirit. It was a major financial failure, though. Which makes me think: a proper Conan movie would probably have to be a low-budget affair released by an Independent Studio using subtle, more visceral special effects. No blue-screen. No 3D. Just flesh, steel, and blood.

  2. Thanks Jason.
    I would love to see someone do what you describe. If I were a filmmaker, I would definitely make a film of "Queen of the Black Coast." The "mind-movie" I have for it is great!

    Haven't seen "Solomon Kane" but I'll have to check it out. Did you ever see the adapation of "Pigeons From Hell" they did for "Thriller" in the early 60's? Not typical Howard but probably the best adaptation of any of his stories to film that I've ever seen.