A few days ago, the comics site Bleeding Cool put up a link to some press notes for the new Conan the Barbarian film, which had appeared on the web site for Lionsgate Entertainment. I read through them; they seemed pretty standard. Like most press notes, they’re relentlessly upbeat, and give strong lip service to the importance of fidelity to the source material for the production. Who knows? Maybe it’s honestly meant. But the more closely I looked at the notes, the less convinced I was by the approach they suggested the movie was taking, or by the reading they presented of Howard and Conan.
I understand the need to change elements in the process of adapting a work from one medium into another, but there comes a point where you wonder what the point of an adaptation is; what is it about the original work that the adaptation is seeking to convey? Or, conversely, would the work have been better served without the framework of the pre-existing story? Personally, I don’t see the character of Conan as I recognise it in these notes. I’m not a Howard scholar, but I’ve read the stories, and to me they were fairly consistent in the depiction of Conan across several decades of his life. That character isn’t in these notes. The film may still be good, of course, but if so I doubt it’ll be because of any fidelity to the themes of the source material.
For example, the notes tell us:
A quest that begins as a personal vendetta for the fierce Cimmerian warrior soon turns into an epic battle against hulking rivals, horrific monsters, and impossible odds, as Conan realizes he is the only hope of saving the great nations of Hyboria from an encroaching reign of supernatural evil.
That begins well, but by the end of the sentence it’s stopped sounding like a Conan story. Or, at least, I find it difficult to imagine a Conan motivated by a realisation that he’s the only hope for “the great nations of Hyboria.” A powerful encroaching evil as an element of a Conan story, yes; as a key driver for the character, it’s difficult to grasp.
A personal vendetta expanding to a larger scale seems to me to be more Howardian. But references to a warlord who gives a young Conan “a real dose of what pillage is all about” and kills Conan’s father sound uncomfortably close to the 1982 movie as opposed to Howard’s own sense of Conan’s youth. Certainly, as this warlord seems to be Conan’s main enemy in the movie, the implication is that Conan’s vendetta is to kill said warlord; and that seems an unnecessary addition to the barbarian’s backstory.
More generally, I think, to judge by these notes, the movie’s adopting an approach to character at odds with Howard’s. The actor who plays the young Conan says:
My scenes explain how Conan became so hard-hearted and hardcore … He goes through all of this trauma when he’s little and it transforms him into how he is when he’s older.
That’s a fairly standard way of thinking about character; one is definitively shaped by one’s early experiences, and so the movie becomes about struggling with those formative influences to grow into something other. But Howard never really described much of Conan’s background. One might say that character growth was not the point of Conan. What makes him work is that he is who he is; he begins the stories fully formed, and we really don’t need to know the ins and outs of his early days.
On the other hand, Howard allows us a few elliptical comments about Conan’s youth, giving the barbarian moments here and there when he reflects on Cimmeria or Crom or his people. A lot can be inferred from the way Conan thinks about these things. It’s a different approach than presenting a life-long revenge plot, and I think more powerful.
But I think the film notes also suggest a reductive approach to the character himself. They say:
… [Conan] has become a bona fide cultural icon, capturing the public imagination as an idealized vision of unbridled masculinity, a tough, imperturbable hero with no allegiances and the ability to overcome impossible odds with brute strength and a seasoned warrior’s skill.
“I think the appeal of Conan is that he doesn’t conform to anybody,” offers director Marcus Nispel. “He’s not politically correct. He’s not living by anyone else’s moral standards. He’s a barbarian who depends on no one but himself.”
There’s some truth to this, of course, but it doesn’t really distinguish Conan from Kull, or Bran Mak Morn, or even Thongor of Lemuria (or for that matter Wolverine). I think it leaves out some of the core elements of who Conan is; the craftiness of the character, for example, and the way he seems to be both drawn to the worlds of gods and magic and yet also repulsed by them. James Maliszewski had a wonderful point on his Grognardia blog about a mention in “The Tower of the Elephant” of the young Conan spending hours listening to philosophers and savants; Howard’s Conan is the sort of man who has the curiosity and complexity to do that.
I think this analysis also comes off as confused because it mixes a description of Conan with the filmmakers’ sense of why the character’s popular. And I frankly think it’s problematic to discuss Conan as an image of masculinity for the general public, because as the filmmakers describe it here, that image is a cartoon. To present Conan as an archetype is to shortchange him as a character. Nispel’s comments, in particular, seem to go only part of the way to capturing Conan, saying what he isn’t (politically correct, a conformist, and so forth) rather than what he is. Moving away from the generalities and banalities of archetype and toward the specificity of individual identity is necessary for the creation of a memorable character. I find that in Howard’s depiction of Conan. I don’t really get a sense of that anywhere in the notes.
I think the strength of Howard’s stories was often in the ambiguity with which Howard presented Conan. Obviously there is in his work a considerable romanticism of the idea of the barbarian. But there’s also some hesitancy. When Howard describes civilisation as “the natural state of mankind,” it’s actually, in context, a statement that Conan’s actions during the preceding story were futile. And in general I think that’s part of what makes the Conan stories gripping; Howard had his Hyborian chronology worked out in some detail before and after Conan’s life, so the tales of Conan’s adventures are actually the stories of a phenomenally gifted figure wrestling with history. He can conquer a kingdom, even a great kingdom; but it’s destined to fall. And generally I think that use of fatalism as a contrast to grandeur and the fantastic, thus deepening the impact of the story, seems absent in these notes.
Consider also these comments:
“We live in a very artificial world,” says the director. “We spend most of our day in front of computers, borrowing knowledge, borrowing real experiences. Conan gets you into a world where you still get dirt under your fingernails and where you don’t have to ask everybody for permission. You can go about things in a more primal way.”
“People are drawn to the kind of passion that Conan has, about making things right in the world and fighting for what you believe in,” [Producer Danny] Lerner says. “CONAN THE BARBARIAN gives people the opportunity to live out those impulses in a fantastical, mythical place.”
I think that approaching the creation of a fantasy story with the idea that the fantasy world is wish-fulfillment, or escapism, typically results in an uninteresting story. I think it’s a facile approach, and a shallow way of thinking about fantasy. It also seems a peculiar way of thinking about Conan — it’s hard to see Conan as a character trying to make things right in the world. Nor do I think the idea of a “more primal way” is necessarily a strong component of Conan’s world. Of Conan himself, yes. But the point of the stories is that they contrast Conan’s primal nature with the often-decadent civilisations around him.
Nispel goes on:
“We’re going back to the mythological Conan as he’s described in the Robert E. Howard stories … But at the same time, we can’t deny that the popular consciousness has changed and things have shifted. People’s [sic] demands of who Conan should be have changed, and yet there’s a certain amount they wouldn’t want us to change. So the mantra in making CONAN THE BARBARIAN is ‘give people what they want but don’t give them what they expect.’”
There seems to me to be a significant contradiction in these statements. Nispel begins by saying that they’re going back to Howard’s Conan, but then refers to “popular consciousness” and the “demands of what Conan should be.” If he really wants to go back to Howard’s stories, then these things are irrelevant.
Or consider this, from Jason Momoa:
“When you see those drawings, they just they [sic] speak to you … Our goal has been to capture the hero featured in Frazetta’s pictures. That was our aim.”
I’m not a Frazetta fan (heresy in some circles, I know), and vastly prefer Barry Windsor-Smith’s take on the character. But whether you like Frazetta’s work or not, he’s not Howard. And what Momoa’s saying here is that the production’s basing itself on an interpretation of the character that isn’t Howard’s own. One thinks of the way Sherlock Holmes was identified for so long by the deerstalker cap and Inverness cape that Sidney Paget drew and that Arthur Conan Doyle never mentioned, such that cap and cape became visual shorthand for the character even when it made no logical sense for him to be wearing it — so Frazetta seems to be afflicting Conan, always shirtless, never wearing armour.
Here’s Momoa again:
“Conan speaks through his sword. He’s got to because he’s not one for words.”
Looking on the bright side, this suggests an accurate awareness that the fight scenes in the movie can’t just be flashy visuals and athleticism, but must reveal character and advance the plot and themes of the story — which is what happens in the best of Howard’s tales. But I’m worried about the suggestion of a tongue-tied Conan. This is not a characteristic of Conan I recognise from the stories. Sure, there are moments where he’s at a loss for words, but it’s not a dominant element of who he is. I’d say he’s rather more sharp-tongued than not, on the whole. Schwarzengger’s wooden portrayal of Conan I think suggested that the character was not only close-mouthed, but actively inarticulate; so again I get the sense that the production’s been influenced by non-Howard material, the 1982 film, as opposed to the more complex and more intriguing original version of the character.
I don’t see much in the notes describing an actual specific dramatisation of anything Howard wrote. There is a mention of Conan’s mother dying in battle, so that Conan is born on a battlefield, as Howard described it. But beyond that, the hints about the plot and characters don’t seem to come from any specific Howard story. It’s true that Howard wrote series fiction, which is difficult to adapt into a single film. But it shouldn’t be impossible to take elements from various stories and mix them together into a new whole. I think that’d have a greater likelihood of capturing whatever it is that makes the Conan stories work than taking a few names from Howard’s work and trying to write an original non-Howard Conan tale.
Ultimately, there’s nothing in these notes that really excites me about the movie. I realise this is just a publicity package that may not be a true representation of the film, but I still come away feeling that they’re describing a movie much more generic than Howard’s writing. They give the sense of a story that’s structured in a very conventional way, with a main character lacking in any individual specificity. Again, this may be the limitations of the notes. But they’re not encouraging to me. I’d like to see a Conan film that tried to get at what Howard was doing; something that actively engaged with the man’s writing, even if it challenged the suppositions of the original text. Maybe that’s what the upcoming film will be. But nothing in these notes leads me to believe it.
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His blog is Hochelaga Depicta.