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In the Teeth of a Hostile Universe
The Failure to Adapt Robert E. Howard’s Fiction to Film


I have read Robert E. Howard since age 13. As Americans are generally inclined, I have always wanted to see my favorite author’s stories adapted to film. In this I have been vastly disappointed. Conan, Red Sonja and Kull where all done poorly; converted from the enigmatic protagonists of gripping short stories into comic book superheroes with overwritten back-stories fumbling through a save-the-world-from-banal-evil epic. The characters were not bad, the actors all well-selected for their roles. I have tended to blame the screenwriters. But really, it is the modern American idiot that is the problem. The modern reader’s and moviegoer’s inability to appreciate episodic fiction in the Howard style is symptomatic of a vast cultural emptiness and is generally dependent on three stifling crutches:

1. The Need for a comprehensive back-story

2. Explicit rather than implicit characterization

3. Heroes must save the world

1. Back-story. The way in which readers and moviegoers usually prefer to interact with fiction is as a fully informed expert on the protagonist. Howard’s protagonists were enigmatic to the core. If you want to appreciate a Howard character in film, watch Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance in Predator. That is a Conan story, the character becoming known through what matters—his actions. But modern Americans want to know if his mommy was nice to him, and why he hates authority figures. Conan was an asshole! Howard made no excuses, just let Conan be an asshole and be cool doing it. But America cannot have that.

2. Explicit over implicit characterization, or “gross artifice” as charcter. Modern readers and moviegoers have zero imagination—jerks like me get paid to provide that. Therefore, they cannot get behind a character en masse unless he exemplifies either classic Hollywood good guy characteristics, is mindlessly rebellious [for youth appeal], or is a conflicted pussy, like them. Solomon Kane, the literary character, was a dark, vengeful persecutor. He was the Osama bin Laden of his day, a religious fundamentalist who believed in sending people to Hell the hard way. Solomon Kane the movie draws only the character iconography [hat, pistol, sword, cloak] from the comic version of Kane, and comics are only concerned with the above mentioned iconography, super powers [which the movie Kane has but Howard’s Kane did not], and back-story [which the movie spends 70% of its time on and Howard intentionally obscured]. The movie was so alien to the literary character I cannot review it objectively, although I found it mildly entertaining. If you would like to enjoy a Solomon Kane-like story on film, view Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter. That is Solomon Kane softened up enough to get an American to swallow it.

3. World-saving. Having a Howard character save the world from evil is ridiculous. Howard’s best characters hated the world; saw the world as an evil unfulfilling place. Standard fantasy like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis presents the heroic setting as a child’s escapist fairytale. This fairytale land is threatened by darkness, and is then rescued by heroes who are good, either because their ancestors were rich [Aragorn], or because they possess the innocence of children—Tolkien’s hobbits and Lewis’ entire cast. Howard’s fantasy settings suck just as much as ours as far as misery and injustice goes, and on top of that, have intrinsic supernatural horrific elements. His characters succeed only in keeping these evils at bay enough to carve a temporary path for themselves and perhaps some lucky associate, and they do so because they possess a defiant mindset and what writer Jack Donovan would call the ‘tactical virtues of manliness’. In other words, Conan, Bran Mak Morn, Kull, Cormac, and Wulfere the Skull-cleaver would be running multinational drug cartels if Howard were writing today about today. And Kane would be hunting them down, not because he was a good guy, but because he had a problem that only had one illusory solution…

Tragically Triumphant

Solomon Kane the movie was not a bad movie, just the same movie that comes out four times a year, every year, about a conflicted, reluctant hero saving the world as part of a vaginally inspired quest for redemption. Some scenes from Conan stories were thrown in for spice. It amounted to a fun two hours of mud, blood and fire, with murderous witch-killing Christian Puritans replaced with passive Amish-style pilgrims hunted by medieval mutants and sorcerers running around Elizabethan England with battle axes and slave wagons left over from a Game of Thrones set.

The fact is a Howard story cannot be done through a comic book filter. Because everything that matters in Howard’s style of pulp literature is subsumed by the monolithic tropes and soap opera level back-story demands of the comic industry. Kane was the character that best reflected Howard’s dark form of storytelling. His stories matter in that they depict defiant individuals striving selfishly and selflessly in a corrupt world. I am of the opinion that such stories cannot be profitably sold in our world.

Howard’s fiction, taken as a whole, depicts the tragically triumphant. He does not give us the hope-crushing Iliad, or superheroes saving the banal world order, but something in between. In every major Howard hero there is a strong strain of Achilles, but tempered with modern sensibilities driven by an energy more primal than the fatalistic passion of the classic tragic protagonist. Howard’s heroes are too busy staying alive to worry over such trivia as obsess the modern hero, yet they are not so distant from us as Gilgamesh, Odysseus and Beowulf as they strive in the teeth of a hostile Universe.

Rather than wrangle over Howard’s literary corpse as it is scavenged by modern media, I have decided to review his work piece by piece. I do not yet posses it all, but have enough of his stuff to make you gag. When Howard wrote his famous Conan cycle, the stories were related out of order, in the manner an actual adventurer would tell his tales. I shall review Howard’s body of work in the same wandering fashion, rewriting those reviews and essays I have previously posted under other collections to fit the thematic construct of A Well of Heroes

Add Comment
deuceApril 25, 2016 3:29 PM UTC

@ Shep:

Willocks is an avowed REH fan and also a martial arts enthusiast. I love both of his Tannhauser books. Even-handed, well-written and bloody.
Sheppard ClarkeApril 22, 2016 9:06 PM UTC

There's a pretty cool book called The Religion, by a guy named Tim Willocks. It starts out with a definite homage to Conan by introducing us to a mercenary who runs a bar/knocking shop down on the docks. A confrontation with an Evil Wizard (agent of the Inquisition) ensues. After the opening chapters, the book takes on a different tone as Romance is introduced, but it's still a pretty good portrayal of the defense of Malta by deVallette against the Muslims.

The opening scenes are worth the price of purchase for Conanophiles.
bradApril 21, 2016 9:43 PM UTC

The closest modern movie character to the literary Conan is Riddick, played by Vin Diesel. In particular 'The Chronicles of Riddick' which actually ends with some inconography from the first Conan movie. The character is an unsympathetic killer who is indifferent to the plight of the world, and is simply pursuing his own revenge fantasies. Three movies were made, the first and the third are verbatim repeats. The middle movie is the best and has the best story arc.