Saturday 26 June 2010

"Faithfulness to the Source Material does not a Great Movie Make."

Behold, another target for the HMS Taranaich.

Honestly, I'm tired of people bitching about Milius' Conan being unfaithful to the books. I'm a fan of Howard's writing, but let's not get pretentious about it. He wrote gory sexy adventure stories, not important works of literature.

And even if they were, faithfulness to the source material does not a great movie make. Greystoke has very little in common with Burroughs' Tarzan, but that doesn't change the fact that it's the best Tarzan film ever made.

Source fidelity can take a flying leap, for all I care. Make a good movie. That's all that matters.

First of all, let's ignore this idea that we're being "pretentious" in wanting a film adaptation that respects an author who is in the Library of America, Penguin Classics, is about to have an academic study published, and has been critiqued in more fanzines and independent scholarly journals for decades than any other fantasy author save Tolkien.  Apparently, that doesn't matter, since everyone knows Conan's just puerile adolescent wish fulfillment.  That said, this does accurately reflect the old Lancer approach of being "just a story."  Also, kinda hard to view the foundation stones of an entire literary genre as "not important literature."

Second, the Greystoke comparisons.  No, Greystoke does not have "very little" in common, it has a lot in common with the original Burroughs novels.  Here's the major difference: Greystoke is still recognizably a Tarzan movie.  It's still about an English boy named John Clayton, the heir to the Lordship of Greystoke, being lost in the dark jungles of Africa after his parents are slain by a wild beast, where he is raised by apes and becomes the dominant male of the group, learns language and survival quickly, and is brought home to civilization as an adult.  Even with the radical departures in the second half, it's still Tarzan.  What of Howard's Conan is even remaining in Milius' film outside a few snippets of his life cannibalized from the stories out of context and thus meaningless as "adaptation"?  That's he's called Conan, he's from a group of people called Cimmerians, his homeland's called Cimmeria, he becomes a thief and eventually a king.  That's it.  Milius' Conan is a different character with the same name.  It's Jon Peters' Superman.

Finally, the notion of fidelity not being required for a good adaptation.  I can never understand this point of view. I simply can't understand the thinking going behind it.  The only way that makes any sort of sense - and even then it's a stretch - it's that the person who thinks source fidelity truly doesn't matter, doesn't think much of the source material to begin with.  This seems to be Greg's opinion, so frankly, anything that he says is kind of irrelevant.  I don't know, it's just kind of anathema to me.

Of course, seeing as our friend Greg David (I've noticed that a lot of people I've butted heads with on the 'net have Groucho Marx as an avatar, an interesting coincidence since I have an intense dislike of that particular Marx sibling) views the Conan tales as nothing more than "gory sexy adventure stories" perhaps I shouldn't be surprised.

Later in the thread, I'm quoted, specifically my belief that Arnold's Conan was reactive as opposed to proactive.  Whoo, I'm famous!  The reactions:

Okay fair enough, but Milius's film is an origin story. After he gets his revenge against Thulsa Doom, what propels Conan forward? The coda of the film hints that he wants to be a King and has the drive to make himself one. I believe there is some discussion about this earlier in the film as well. Anyway the point is that there's no saying Milius's Conan wouldn't have evolved into a more self-actualized and driven character. Imagine a sequel where he wanders around doing mercenary work because what else can he do but sell his sword-arm, and then ends up on the high seas first captured by pirates and then becoming Am-Ra and finding a new purpose in life, etc etc.

"What propels Conan forward"?  What propels Conan in any of the stories?  In "The Tower of the Elephant" he's after the priceless jewel.  In "Beyond the Black River" he's investigating the Picts' heightened aggression.  In The Hour of the Dragon he's fighting to get his kingdom back.  In "The Devil in Iron" he's looking to rescue Octavia.  In "Xuthal of the Dusk" he's running from Stygian soldiers, and searching for shelter and eventual escape back to civilization.  Every Conan story has an immediate, direct drive for our Cimmerian.  Conan doesn't have a "purpose in life" beyond the immediate: why should anything beyond that be necessary for every single character anyway?  Conan didn't plan beyond the here and now: he lives in the moment.  Yet there's that subtle character arc, barely perceptible at first, but when the stories are juxtaposed, highly apparent.

Another reaction, this time talking about Moriarty's posts on the films:

That's some good reading. I may be one to defend Howards Conan - but I still have a lot of love for the original film.

Oh Lord, don't get me started on Crown of Iron...

No, faithfulness to the source material does not a great movie make.  But to say one should throw fidelity to the wind is to say that one shouldn't care about it.  And frankly, if you're not going to stick to a source, then why use the source to begin with?  Conan the Barbarian could easily have been called "Fredrik the Ubermensch" or something suitably Germanic/Nietzschean, and I doubt many would've seen its similarities to Conan over any of the other Sword-and-Sorcery films released at the time.

The tower heist is similar to "The Tower of the Elephant," but a barbarian sneaking into a tower to get a jewel is hardly unique to Howard.  Evil Serpent gods are a hallmark of REH, but have become common in other authors' work.  Many of the most memorable parts of the film - the first ten minutes, the Wheel of Pain, Doom's speech, the Riddle of Steel, the Battle of the Mounds - are Milius originals, or at least elements Milius really liked from other films.  Without Howard's names, the only moments in the film which are strictly Howardian as opposed to just Sword-and-Sorcery in general are the vulture-bite at the "crucifixion" and Valeria's resurrection.  Even then, I'm sure people could just consider them homages - much as the vulture scene from "A Witch Shall Be Born" itself could be considered an homage to a similar episode in an Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan novel.

But I've done this argument to death, and I've long gotten tired with people asserting that fidelity to the source material doesn't matter in film adaptations.  Especially when they present films that are actually truer than half the other cinematic adaptations released up to that point as examples of "unfaithful" ones.

What do you fine folk think?  Am I nuts?  While I can understand certain types of unfaithful adaptations - Shakespeare adaptions in modern times, foreign lands or science-fiction, for instance, mostly because all the "accurate" versions have been done - isn't the point of an adaptation to adapt a particular work from one medium to another? Once it goes past divergence and into alienation, surely that's a point too far?

EDIT: By the way, I just wanted to share this link.  It made me laugh.


  1. well.. I've laboured to make my opinion on this as clear as it is in my own head.. but I'm 100% for accurateness.. I even will say that I want my Wagner and Shakespeare to be presented in historical dress rather than anything else.. Even the recent productions of King Lear with Ian Mckellen and Hamlet with David Tennant didn't do much for me on PBS.. mainly because they didn't look right (they sounded grand though!)

    But I'm also extremely cynical... I don't believe we will ever get a 100% accurate adaption of any thing to film or Television.. while the recent Watchmen was maybe 90%-95%.. It was pretty close.. and I don't remember it doing really well in theatres.. Those sorts of things.. are the reasons why we won't ever get a 90%-95% accurate Conan adaption.

    Studios don't make challenging accurate films.. so when they occasionally do ..People don't go to see the few mostly accurate adaptions.. so therefore mostly accurate adaptions don't sell.. its a circular self defeating logic..

    It dosen't help that the stuff that gets added to the adaptions.. like all the Jacksonian bits of Lord of the Rings.. in my experience tend to be the most popular parts with the laity..

  2. So I started formulating an answer, but I first went back to the link to read the original post. I couldn't f-ing believe what the first two respondents said:

    You know, while the movie is actually a lot shittier, it's Destroyer that really captures Howard's work.

    This. Barbarian is a better sword and sorcery movie, but Destroyer is a better Conan movie.

    I'm sorry, there's no way--NO WAY--either of these idiots ever read Howard. Comedy sidekicks? Bloodless professional-style wrestling matches? Slack-jawed Conan who allows armored warriors on horseback to sneak up on him, and who passes out from drink in the presence of a enemy who tried to kill him earlier that day? Joking around during fights?

    At least others later in the thread seem to have set the record straight.

    The answer, as always, is the people who defend CtB as faithful to Howard have not read the source material. Or they read the Lancers once, 30 years ago, and have forgotten the stories.

    And I again go on record as someone who really enjoys Conan the Barbarian, while recognizing there's very, very little of Howard's Conan in it.

  3. Heh, the message boards often get an A for effort but they're not exactly a bastion of enlightened discussion.

    I'm trying to think of movies I like that make complete hash of their source material and I'm drawing a blank. Some that attempt to subvert their sources, like Kiss Me Deadly or Starship Troopers, are fun but that's about it.

  4. well any place that allows general posting is bound to be a cesspit.. AICN and IMDB and Amazon Reviews.. gah.. enough to make you want to take up cutting as a hobby.

  5. Lagomorph, you're a bunny after my own heart. I agree that it's foolish to expect a 100% accurate adaptation, but I'd at least like them to shoot for 75%.

    Brian, saying Destroyer was "a better Conan movie" than Barbarian (even considering how un-Howardian Barbarian is) truly boggles the mind, but what's even more mind-boggling is that these people very well could have read the Howard stories. Michael J. Bassett has clearly read the Solomon Kane stories, and look what he ended up with. John Milius read the Howard Conans, and a few non-Conan Howard stories, and we got Conan the Barbarian. I think even Doppenheimer read all the stories, yet somehow completely missed the point. As the great Steve Tompkins said, "You can lead a horse's ass to water..."

    Well Andy, I guess considering the origin of CHUD (I'm guessing the film, with the acronym being retroactively applied) I shouldn't be surprised. The only film I can think of that kick the source materials' backsides is The Godfather, and even then I can't vouch for the source material.

    AICN, IMDB, Amazon Reviews, triple axis of hell. Add Youtube Comments and Myspace to that strata of ill repute and you have the madness.

  6. yes well, when one is forced to confront the madness it is best to do so properly attired.. the only proper attire for dealing with the madness would be.. Baggy Trousers..

  7. On the other side of things, The Maltese Falcon is extremely faithful to the source and it's one of the best movies ever made (as I recall, John Huston was once asked what his secret was and he said something like "I just try to film the book"). Captain Blood with Errol Flynn is a very close adaptation and it's another fantastic movie. The James Bond movies that hew closer to the novels tend to be the best ones...

  8. Your instincts are correct re: the Godfather. Trashy read but High Art Cinema.

  9. Apocalypse Now obviously isn't very faithful to Heart of Darkness but I doubt you'll meet a lot of discerning people who don't recognize both works as amazing for what they are.

  10. Good to know, crazyred.

    Art, Apocalypse Now is a kind of special case for me, since the alteration of many themes make it clear that this is not meant to be a clear adaptation: the change in setting, characters, plot, even the very title. The title change in particular is important, as it almost ensures that this is not meant to be "Conrad's Heart of Darkness." It's a similar case to Blade Runner.

    That said, Apocalypse Now is still closer than Conan the Barbarian was to Howard.