This is one of those things that’s so easy to get right… and yet, somehow, they keep getting it wrong.
Which is to say, yeah, we saw the new Conan movie.
Now, as I’ve said before in this space, when it comes to Conan, I’m not particularly a Robert E. Howard purist. I like Howard’s Conan stories best, but I think anyone who comes to the character through the comics — whether it’s the Marvel ones in the 1970s or the current offerings from Dark Horse — is by definition less than a purist. If you like the comics you’re already accepting adaptation and pastiche by non-Howard writers. (In point of fact, I think the writers who came closest to evoking the spirit of Howard’s original Conan work were all from comics — Kurt Busiek and Roy Thomas and Tim Truman all wrote better Conan stories than, say, L. Sprague deCamp or Robert Jordan.)
One of the things Howard purists tend to overlook is that Howard himself wasn’t terribly lit’ry in his writerly aspirations, at least not where Conan was concerned. He was like most of the 1930s pulp guys; Howard pounded out the wordage to make a living. He cannibalized earlier stories to create new ones, he padded his word count to bring the rate up, he created series characters in hopes of getting editors to take his stuff on a regular basis.
I’m not saying Robert E. Howard was a hack– certainly not like his contemporaries Seabury Quinn or Max Brand, say– but he was clearly and consciously commercial. Writing was his job. If art happened, it was incidental, a happy bonus, not the point of the exercise. Howard wrote to order… and sometimes even in anticipation of an editorial order. (Those who’ve complained about misogyny in the Conan saga? It might help you to know that Margaret Brundage, the lady who painted most of the Weird Tales covers, excelled at depicting bondage and S&M stuff and her covers were very popular. So Howard generally made it a point to include scenes like that in his later Conan stories, in hopes of getting the cover.)
Which is why I don’t get too knotted up about “the movie changing stuff,” especially in this context. I don’t think Howard was terribly invested in Conan personally, any more than Conan Doyle was in Sherlock Holmes. In fact, if Robert E. Howard were alive today, he’d probably have liked the movie. I think he’d have probably called it “a good enough yarn.”
And, you know, the new Conan movie is a pretty good yarn. There was a lot of stuff they got right.
For example, the casting. Jason Momoa as Conan is so much better than Arnold Schwartzenegger was that I’m tempted to give the whole enterprise a pass just on that alone.
I overheard a couple of the people at the theater grousing about how Arnold was better and I wanted to grab them by the shirt front and shake them. Admittedly, over the course of his career Arnold did eventually get to be a pretty fair actor, but not in his Conan movies. He lumbers through both of them in slow motion, saying each line as though it was Carved In Capital Letters On Mount Rushmore.
By contrast, Jason Momoa can speak and move, and especially, he can move with the “pantherish” quality Robert E. Howard described Conan as having.
Ron Perlman, always good, was also very well cast as Conan’s father.
In fact, the prologue in Cimmeria, Conan’s ‘coming of age’ competition with the other barbarian boys in the tribe, really works, in spite of the fact– maybe even because of it– that you can see young Conan’s surly suck-on-THAT-you-cowards payoff coming a mile away.
And speaking of good casting, Rose McGowan as the sorceress Marique really knocked it out of the park as far as I was concerned.
Marique was the perfect Robert E. Howard sadistic bitch, and she would have been completely at home in a Margaret Brundage Weird Tales painting. She pretty much stole every scene she was in.
Likewise, Rachel Nichols did well enough as the spunky damsel-in-distress. She was no Valeria of the Red Brotherhood, or even the Devi Yasmina, but she sold it.
What else was good? Well, the Cimmerian scenes worked, as I said. (The early ones, anyway — we’ll come back to this.) The plot itself felt very Howard-esque, it had elements from The People of the Black Circle and Queen of the Black Coast and Black Colossus and even a little splash of Iron Shadows In The Moon. Visually it was a treat, all the landscapes were shot with an eye towards giving the story an epic sweep.
So there were things I liked. I wanted to like ALL of it. Despite the uneasy fan buzz surrounding the project and the many rumored behind-the-scenes difficulties, I was rooting for it to be good.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t. It was instead a disappointment on the level of last year’s Jonah Hex, and for the same reason. There was the skeleton of a good movie there, but it got buried in a pile of Hollywood desperation and we were left with a big stinky mess. Once again we have something that probably started out as a well-written story and it got rewritten and fiddled and tinkered with to the point where it was incoherent.
So what went wrong? I’m certainly not privy to what went on behind the scenes, but here are the bad decisions about the movie that jumped out at me while I was watching it.
1. They did an origin movie. This is ridiculous. If you read the originals, you’d know that Robert E. Howard, though he may have kept a pretty detailed Conan chronology for himself, never dealt with Conan’s origins in the stories themselves at all. In Howard’s mind, Conan was just a roughneck from out of town who kept getting shoved into situations that placed him in conflict with the local power structure, specifically “decadent civilized people.”
Howard’s setup for each Conan adventure was ridiculously simple: Conan’s a big strong dude, out-of-towner, a working-class guy with an anger management problem. That’s all we need to know about him. The best of the Conan stories did not have Conan as a point-of-view character. Sure, he was the protagonist, it’s him and his adventures we show up for; but he always shared the stage with whoever the story was actually about. Like the Devi Yasmina in “People of the Black Circle” or young Balthus in “Beyond the Black River” or Taurus the thief in “The Tower of the Elephant,” we start by getting introduced to them and then we meet Conan when they do, we learn what we need to know about him along with them as the story progresses.
Howard’s genius move was to drop a typical Texas roughneck character, the kind of guy he saw around Cross Plains all the time, into an Arabian Nights milieu and extrapolate the reaction to him. It’s all about the contrast and culture clash — rough versus smooth, savage versus civilized, outsider versus insider. If that’s not what you’re doing, then you’re not really telling a proper Conan story. You don’t need an origin for that. Rather, you want to de-emphasize Conan’s origins. The way it usually works is for Conan to show up late in the first act as a big game-changer for everyone else in the story, upsetting the civilized people’s applecart. Appearing almost as a force of nature rather than a character. That’s the storytelling engine Robert E. Howard built.
If you instead design your story around Conan’s own journey and his point of view, as the moviemakers did, you are handicapping yourself enormously because Conan is only interesting when he is the outsider commenting on what the more relatable, civilized folk are doing. If Conan’s your point-of-view character and you spend the first third of the movie establishing his background and childhood, then audiences are going to identify with him as the insider and the city folks will seem like the strange outsiders he has to cope with. That’s getting it exactly backwards.
2. We’d seen the story in too many other places before. Look, let’s just say it — the “you killed my father!” thing is played out. The idea that Conan needs a personal motive to go after Khalar Zym is not at all necessary. The Cimmerian youth-of-Conan stuff that leads off the movie, despite the fun of the coming-of-age scenes and the excellent performance of Ron Perlman, nevertheless shouldn’t be there. It drags everything down. We don’t need to know it. And then when evil Khalar Zym shows up and lays waste to everything it’s even deadlier, because from that point on we know what the rest of the movie’s going to be; Conan’s quest for vengeance. At that point it just becomes a question of how good the execution of a standard plot is going to be. (Answer: just so-so.)
Also? The structure of that vengeance plot is built around the same three acts that I always think of as “Richard Donner’s Superman frame.” That frame looks like this — hero’s youth/origin sequence; training/early adventure/meet the girl sequence; climactic battle/rescue the girl sequence.
Okay. So what, Hatcher? You’re the one that made such a point of explaining that Conan’s just a pulp-action character that you don’t need to take all that seriously, and that Howard wasn’t afraid to use a formula structure with him. Classic structure gets to be classic because it works. Why didn’t it work here?
Because this Conan movie came out in a world where audiences already have seen Star Wars and Harry Potter and about a zillion other revenge-of-the-angry-orphan stories. So when you do that tired story again, and you do it with one of the most overused plot structures in the history of comic-book movies, you are practically inviting the audience to sneer at its familiarity. The movie wastes most of the first third of its time telling us things that we don’t really need to know, using tropes that are thoroughly worn out. Which leads me to…
3. Not enough worldbuilding. The Conan stories work as much or more because of their setting as they do because of the character of Conan himself.
The thing audiences enjoy about sword-and-sorcery is the world itself, the opportunity to escape to “An Age Undreamed Of.” It’s the setting, not the character or plot, that sells it. But the movie hardly spent any time in the glittering decadent cities populating the Hyborian Age. Instead, everything looks sort of scruffy and feudal.
Which, again, kind of misses the point. It couldn’t have been a budget thing, not with all the CGI up there on the screen. Whatever the reason, the decision to pit Conan against, essentially, another muscled tribal chieftain with a magic widget was a very bad choice. There’s no real contrast there. It becomes “barbarian versus slightly older barbarian,” not the classic “barbarian versus civilization” conflict that Howard built the series on. Because of that choice you had a dozen other bad choices that followed and in the end the Conan movie just plain didn’t sell the world, that’s all. Any Ray Harryhausen Sinbad movie does it better.
But none of those flaws are fatal. There are lots of angry-orphan movies with the same three-act structure out there that work just fine (Batman Begins is the first one that jumps to mind.)
No, the thing that killed this new Conan for me was the desperation. Which is to say…
4. The movie people didn’t trust the source material. Even with a script that borrows so many elements from Robert E. Howard’s original stories, it didn’t feel like a Conan movie.
Why? The execution of those elements. The tone was too modern. Scenes were choppy, and moved way too fast. In particular, the fight scenes looked way too much like a videogame — what Roger Ebert and other critics have come to call “chaos cinema” and I just call a mess. CGI up the wazoo, insanely fast cuts, loud pounding anachronistic music… it’s all wrong for a sword-and-sorcery film, it takes people out of the movie. And I really don’t want to ever see the slow-motion climactic mid-air moment SUDDENLY SPED UP TO FASTFASTFAST ever again. I don’t much like it in modern urban crime movies, but it looks completely ridiculous in a Conan-style sword-and-sorcery movie.
Likewise all the gratuitous 3-D staging, the ubiquitous CGI green-screen set pieces, explosions for the sake of explosions, etc., etc. You put all that together with the cliches of plot and structure and it sure looks like something that started out as interesting and was rewritten and beaten down into something a studio executive could understand. “So what’s his motivation? I don’t get it. He needs a reason to be running all over the place after these guys. Maybe the bad guy killed his father or something. You know, ‘this time it’s personal!’ Like that. Also, we need more 3D stuff, the 3D is really hot right now.”
What’s frustrating is that it’s all right there on the page. Conan the barbarian is not a terribly complex concept.
In fact, you could pretty much adapt “Black Colossus” or “People of the Black Circle” straight across to film and get almost exactly the same story elements that are in the movie. Evil wizards, beautiful damsels, big fight scenes with a supernatural element, and so on and so on.
Why not just do that instead of larding the character of Conan onto a tired old you-killed-my-parents revenge plot we’ve already seen? It seems like a no-brainer to me. Especially since most of the comics brain trust that have repeatedly shown how to successfully present Conan to a new audience are available to moviemakers. At the very least it seems silly not to invite Tim Truman or Roy Thomas or Kurt Busiek to come in and pitch a Conan screenplay. They at least understand what it is they’re supposed to be doing.
Instead, we get another failure. What’s especially annoying is the film’s failure will get blamed on the character of Conan, on Jason Momoa not being Arnold (I think that’s a GOOD thing, but whatever), or even on “3-D fatigue”… blame will go everywhere except where it belongs, which is on the shoulders of the movie execs who tried to hedge their bets by trying to front-load their movie with a lot of trendy videogame stuff instead of just trying to tell the story they originally wanted to do. That, in fact, they wanted to do bad enough that they paid to get the rights to it.
Although I have to be fair. Despite everything that’s wrong with this new Conan — and there is a lot wrong with it — they still got closer to Howard with this one than John Milius and company did with the original Arnold one. I tried to watch the 1982 version again in preparation for doing this column, just to remind myself of a few things, and it’s still just a terrible movie.
So there’s that. Hollywood still doesn’t quite seem to get what makes a Robert E. Howard story work, and they keep getting the important stuff wrong, but with Solomon Kane and now this new Conan, they seem to be inching a little closer towards good. Not there yet, but I have a slight forlorn hope that maybe someday… they’ll finally get it right. After all, I keep telling myself, we had to have Satan Met a Lady before we eventually got The Maltese Falcon.
See you next week.
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