Thus far, there hasn't been a single Robert E. Howard adaptation in cinema.
None of the five cinematic adaptations ostensibly based on the work of Howard actually adapt any of his stories at all. Some films claim to be Howard adaptations, but all they truly amount to are pastiches, or adaptations in name only. At best, they take a few plot elements and characters, greatly altered, and put them into a new narrative; at worst, they take mere names, and seem to make an effort to warp and distort them from their original iterations.
Above all of the supposed Howard adaptations, however, one stands head and shoulders. John Milius' Conan the Barbarian came into a world where fantasy adventure was viewed as little more than sword-and-sandal nonsense, with no philosophical or thematic resonance, no reason to watch except for the grand guignol thrills of blood and sexuality. Milius infused Conan the Barbarian with Nietzchean references, Kafkaesque storytelling, and his own brand of "zen anarchism" while paying tribute and alluding to the likes of Alexander Nevksy, Kwaidan, Cabiria, and Apocalypse Now! It is a film that was about something. So while this article will go into the profound differences between Howard's creation and Milius' reimagining, Conan the Barbarian deserves respect as a film that sought to bring more than swordplay and sex to the genre.
The Filmgoer's Guide to Conan the Barbarian isn't intended to destroy the film, or to say that it's a bad film, or to allege that anyone who enjoys the film is wrong to do so. Milius deserves a lot of credit for defying the sillier ideas of Dino de Laurentiis (in comparison, look at how Conan the Destroyer turned out when the less confrontational Richard Fleischer came on board), for achieving so much with such a small budget, and risking so much on some pretty daring choices. All the Filmgoer's Guide is attempting to do is show why Conan the Barbarian is different from Robert E. Howard's Conan.
The guide will provide a take on several aspects:
- How Milius' origin story for Conan is incompatible with Howard's stories
- How the film's production design differs from what we know of the Hyborian Age
- How the film's theology, culture, history and technology differs from Howard's Hyborian Age
- How the character and personality of Milius' Conan differs from the original
- How Milius' themes clash with Howard's
- What elements of the film are based on Howard's work, and of those, which are from non-Conan stories
- A discussion on whether Conan the Barbarian truly "elevates" Conan from his "lowly" pulp origins
Hopefully, by the end of the venture, this guide will serve as a resource for Howard fans who are sick of having to explain why Conan the Barbarian's deviations from the source material are far more profound than those of other adaptations, and go beyond the "necessary" changes the process of adaptation from literature to cinema dictates.
Howard fans don't need to know this, they've read the stories. When questioned by someone over why Conan the Barbarian is such a gigantic departure, one could easily just hand over a copy of the Del Reys and say "read that." Unfortunately, sometimes that doesn't work. Sometimes they won't understand even after reading. Sometimes they aren't even interested in reading the stories at all. This is what the guide is for: those who, for whatever reason, cannot see for themselves, and for those who do know to have something to point towards.