When I was a kid, I thought pulp writers Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of John Carter (and Tarzan), were two of the greatest writers who ever lived. Decades later, I’d still say they were two of the supreme masters of fantasy and SF, even though I now see their weaknesses as well as their strengths.
So naturally, I was eager to see the recent movies based on their works, and in each case, I had a good time at the multiplex. I found things to like about the "Conan" movie even though in many respects, it’s flawed. I enjoyed "John Carter" quite a bit.
But evidently, mine is not the majority opinion. "Conan the Barbarian" crashed and burned last year, and John Carter just had a dismal opening weekend.
What does this mean?
Are the movies in question just plain bad? That’s tricky to answer, partly because I don’t want to review them per se (Airlock Alpha has a crack team of reviewers already in place, and I don’t want to encroach on their turf) and partly because taste is subjective and individual. I will say that in my opinion, they’re nowhere near as bad as the Transformers movies and Harry Potter Goes Camping (AKA Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One), and those movies made tons of cash.
Have modern tastes evolved in such a way that tales by pulp sci-fi writers are no longer capable of appealing to the mass movie-going audience? Should Hollywood give up on C.L. Moore, Henry Kuttner, Leigh Brackett, Fritz Leiber, Manly Wade Wellman, and L. Sprague de Camp before it even starts?
I’d hate to think so, and actually, I don’t. The Captain America and Star Wars movies are no more sophisticated than the works of Howard and Burroughs, and they were hits.
Is the problem, then, that movies like "Clash of the Titans," "Avatar," and "Star Wars" have so thoroughly cannibalized the seminal works of pulp authors that when their stories make it to the screen, they look like the same old thing? Maybe, but again, I’m not convinced. "Wrath of the Titans" is on its way to the multiplex, so Hollywood must think there’s still an audience for heroic fantasy.
Let me suggest a different hypothesis. Maybe "Conan the Barbarian" and "John Carter" would have met with greater success if the filmmakers had stuck more closely to the authors’ original ideas.
Now, in some respects, they certainly did stick closely to them, and a degree of change is inevitable whenever creators adapt a story from one medium to another. Some changes are, in fact, inarguably beneficial. Ciaran Hinds is a topnotch actor and a welcome presence in any flick, but I’m glad Disney didn’t make me look at him naked.
Still, that said ...
In the "Conan" movie, the Cimmerian is out to avenge the murder of his father and the slaughter of his clan. In the "John Carter" film, the hero is a Confederate veteran who lost his wife and child in the war (right, just like the dude in Hell on Wheels) and has come to believe no cause is worth fighting for.
Neither concept comes from the original stories. Howard and Burroughs didn’t weigh the heroes down with emotional baggage. They made Conan and Carter adventurers, and that was that.
Now, I’m a writer, and I understand the conventional storytelling wisdom the screenwriters followed. (In my stuff, I often follow it myself.) Giving the hero a personal stake in the story conflict and/or psychological problems can enrich his characterization and intensify the drama.
But the flipside is that by now, all of us moviegoers have seen the vengeance-driven and/or grieving hero many times. Instead of deepening and individualizing a character, such traits can make him seem clichéd. Maybe movie Conan and movie Carter fall victim to that perception.
Conversely, the adventurer who lacks a tragic past and an emo outlook, who acts heroically simply because he’s got the right stuff, can be charismatic and fun to identify with. In the movies, Indiana Jones, Han Solo, Captain America, James Bond, John McClane, Frodo, and Aragorn are all like this, and Conan and John Carter could have been, too. If they had been, it might have freed up more screen time to devote to world building.
Not that the movies don’t have any. Visually, Conan the Barbarian has a fair amount. There are towns and cities seen from a distance that look very much like my mental pictures of Howard’s Hyborian Age. And John Carter is astonishing. The green men, thoats, Woola the calot, the airships, and many other images absolutely blew me away.
Still, the worlds onscreen seem like thin, dumbed-down versions of the rich universes on the page. The Conan movie conveys little sense of the history of his world or the way in which one region differs from another. You could easily come away from John Carter believing Helium and Zodanga to be the only two civilized city-states on all Barsoom when Burroughs’s novels make it clear there are many.
Perhaps the filmmakers omitted what they did to keep the films moving quickly, and there’s no doubt that, within reason, a fast pace benefits a story. Still, it’s interesting to compare the world building in "Conan the Barbarian" and "John Carter" to that in the more successful Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies. The latter are more willing to slow down occasionally for verbal exposition or a good look at places other than throne rooms, battlements, dungeons, taverns, crypts, ruins, the wasteland, etc. (the standard settings where the big hoo-hah moments in adventure fantasy tend to occur.)
Finally, the filmmakers arguably diverge from Howard and Burroughs by setting the stakes as high as possible. Movie Conan’s quest for vengeance lands him in a fight to prevent the resurrection of an evil deity who will plunge the whole world into darkness. Although he doesn’t tumble to it for a while, movie John Carter is fighting a threat that will eventually exterminate the people of Mars and then move on to Earth.
In fairness, both Howard’s "Conan" and Burroughs’s "Carter" did stave off comparable threats a time or two. But in most of their adventures, the stakes aren’t quite that high. They fight for their own survival, the survival of their loved ones, and/or the fate of a single kingdom.
In this case, the choice the screenwriters made isn’t necessarily conventional storytelling wisdom, but it does seem to be conventional fantasy/sci-fi moviemaking wisdom. In our kind of flick, the whole world is pretty much always on the table, isn’t it? The assumption seems to be that otherwise, we won’t give a rat’s ass.
This notion, I think, ignores the fact that other kinds of adventure movies manage to entertain the audience without threatening to blow up the planet. (They do this by making us care about the central characters.) It also fails to take into account that after decades of genre filmmaking, the whole world in danger is as familiar a trope as the vengeful and/or traumatized hero. Unless the moviemakers handle it well, it’s more likely to inspire deja vu than put us on the edges of our seats. Whereas a somewhat less humongous threat of the sort "Conan" and "John Carter" generally fought might well seem fresher, more interesting, and more believable.
Or hey, maybe not. But if I’m ever tapped to adapt the work of one of the genre’s pulp greats for the movies, that gives you an idea of how I’ll approach the job. Call me, Hollywood!
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