Tuesday, August 23, 2011

It was the Best of Conans, It was the Worst of Conans

Do me a favor and give a quick look at the Conan poster below.  It shows Conan battling against some tentacled horror.  Think about it for a few seconds.  Do this because the review and discussion I am going to write below may not be exactly what you are looking for.  I'm not going to write with great ire about the Neo-Nihilism of the film, or how it fails to meet Howard's vision.  Nor am I going to blog about how it perfectly captured the "Panther like grace" of Howard's epic hero with a visually stunning world that for the first time has captured Hyboria.  

If you want to read reviews by other passionate Howard fans, you can find Leo Grin's here, James Maliszewski's here, and John R. Fultz's here.   All three are people who have written critical comments about Pulp, Howard, and/or Role Playing Games that I have found thoughtful.

I want to write about Conan: The Barbarian (2012) from a different perspective, from the perspective of "vast narrative," and how the phenomenon of "vast narrative" doomed this particular theatrical adaptation of Conan to be a troubled film at best.

Keep your thoughts about this image of Conan in your mind as I discuss "vast narrative" below.

What is "vast narrative" and why is important when discussing an adaptation of a character who has his roots in the pages of a much admired Pulp magazine?

In Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin's book Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives (published by MIT Press in 2009), they discuss certain types of "vastness" that might appear in combinations for some narratives.  In particular, there are the following types of vastness.

First, is vastness of "narrative extent" which is akin to The Wire taking a single season to cover one investigation, or Patrick Rothfuss taking 600 pages in order for his fantasy hero to go to college and acquire student loans -- thus beginning his journey to greatness.

Second, is vastness of "world and character continuity" where characters "operate withing less cyclic narrative models" and where "often ingenious methods [sustain] open-ended narratives are a major theme of the project."  Think of a narrative that attempts to adapt the stories in order to keep up with the times.  Soap operas have this kind of vastness.

Third, is vastness of "Cross-media Universes."  This is the kind of vastness we will be most discussing regarding Conan and Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin describe this vastness as follows: "Though it is now typical for a blockbuster narrative (e.g., The DaVinci Code or Harry Potter) to sprout multiple instantiations (e.g., novels, films, games, comic books, or narrated tours of real locations), one narrative form is generally still considered "canonical," from which the others are derived.  On the other hand, some narrative 'universes,' such as those of Doctor Who and Star Wars, instead treat contributions from many media as authorized (often elaborately authorized) elements of a vast fictional quilt." (emphasis mine)
Fourth, is "procedural potential" which represents how computational power has allowed interactive narrative techniques to far exceed the paper forms of Choose Your Own Adventure books. The Fabled Lands novels achieve high vastness in this area, as do many interactive video games.
Lastly, there is "multiplayer interaction" where fan culture creates vast narrative universes around many types of media. This includes online fiction, any fan created art, table top rpgs, and MMOs.  -- (Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin 2009, 2)
As I mentioned above, we are most concerned with issues of vastness that arise from "Cross-Media Universes."  Like Star Wars and Doctor Who -- possibly moreso than either -- Howard's Conan exists in a vast Cross Media Universe.  What is Hyboria?  For Leo Grin, James Maliszewski, John R. Fultz, and Me it is Robert E. Howard's world in its purist form  We go back to the "canonical" texts as we find them to be the most rewarding.  They are rich tales that we, or at least I, consider to be among the great works of the American literary tradition.  You can read some of my thoughts on Conan's importance and subtlety here (I quote Plutarch in that essay).

For others though, this might not be the case.  For some the real Hyboria, and the real Conan for that matter, might be the Conan "resurrected" by L. Sprague DeCamp.  De Camp's interpretation and adaptation of the Barbarian are scorned by most modern Howard fans, but the character might have fallen into obscurity if not for his efforts -- and the efforts of Glenn Lord made sure that the harm DeCamp did could be limited.  But many only know the DeCamp literary Conan, or the Robert Jordan (yes that Robert Jordan) Conan.  Many hands have written books about Conan, often featuring Boris Vallejo covers, that many readers have enjoyed -- for all that they are depictions of Conan that lack any of the depth of the character as Howard wrote him.  For these fans, the Thrud and Blunder tales provide enjoyment, and they are what they expect to see in a Conan film.

Still others have fond memories of Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor Smith's Comic Book adaptation of the character is "canonical."  This audience doesn't come close to covering all the different Comic Book interpretations of the character which are as vast in their interpretation as Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor Smith's are different from Kurt Busiek and Cary Nord's and includes dozens more interpretations of the character.

There have been television series featuring Conan, including a children's cartoon, a couple of role playing games, and a number of video games.  Then there are the two Arnold Schwarzenegger movies.

That is a very vast array of source material to draw from, each appealing to a different audience.  To which audience should a director or producer appeal?  That may seem like an easy answer, which will certainly be based on ones own biases, but the real answer is "the one that seems to appeal to the broadest audience."  Ideally, this would be one that combines elements from some of the most populous fan groups -- and this seems to be the strategy that the Conan: The Barbarian team undertook.  In an interview with Empire Magazine, Jason Momoa -- the actor playing Conan -- stated, "if people are really stuck on Conan being their own one thing, I think it's time to address it. We wanted to give respect to Robert E Howard, but you can't just focus on his fans. There are eight decades of stories and comics and movies since him, so Conan is different things to different people. You can't please everybody, but you can re-imagine Conan every couple of generations, like Batman or Bond."

Momoa's response is straight out of a description of the dilemma I presented, and presents the thought that one can "re-imagine" a character.  Sadly for Momoa, and for the filmmakers, the recent success of Batman and Bond as marquee titles has been due to a return to emulation of "canonical" material -- even when presenting entirely new stories the "new" interpretations "feel" like the literary companions.

Combining the interpretations of multiple audiences is a tremendous challenge, but it can be done and done well.  In Pendragon and The Great Pendragon Campaign, Greg Stafford manages to interweave disparate Arthurian sources into what may possibly be the greatest role playing game products ever written.  In these texts Stafford uses material covering "Celtic Arthur," "Historical Arthur," "Early Romance Arthur," and "Late Romance Arthur" with great love and tremendous talent. (Harrigan and Wardrip-Fruin 2009, 94 -95) 

It is possible to achieve greatness while taking into account a variety of narrative audiences, and while incorporating a vast narrative.  Stafford carefully eliminates things that occurred after a certain point, and stresses certain Arthurian themes that repeat across narratives to create his game.

In translating Conan though, the obstacle isn't as easy to overcome as it was for Stafford in presenting Arthurian tales.  Stafford had the benefit of centuries of academic scholarship to aid him.  The Conan production team had no such allies, though they had some they seem to have underutilized.  Instead, they were faced with what John Clute described in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy as follows.

Given the fact that something like 200 story fragments were found in [Howard's] papers, and that his style was very much heavier on heroic action than on the delineation ofcharacter, it is not perhaps surprising that many of these fragments were recast and "finished" as Conan tales: in some cases, a simple substitution of Conan's name as the avenging hero probably sufficed. As a result, the Conan bibliography is quite extraordinarily jumbled...These assortments of exfoliating texts constitute a genuine assault upon the perception of the reader, and the original figure of Conan tends to become more obscure...

Granting the challenges that the Conan team faced, how did they do and what did they do?

As the title of this blog post suggests, the created the Best of Conan films and the Worst of Conan films.  The story is fractured and confused, as is the character, and the motivations of the character are mixed.  He both is and isn't Howard's Conan and this is a direct result of some of the film's inspirational choices.

They "honored" the filmic audience by taking the revenge motif and slaughtered family from the John Milius film, and by having an overarching story that echoed Conan: The Destroyer's quest to awaken a dead god through the acquisition of an artifact and the sacrifice of a "pure blood" to activate the artifact. Just looking at their filmic influences they chose elements from both what was already the best Conan film, flawed as it was, and the worst.

They honored the comic book audience by including shots and costumes that seemed pulled out of Cary Nord's illustrations.

They honored fans of Howard by providing us with Easter Egg references to stories and by pulling lines of dialogue straight out of the fiction, sadly these lines were some of the worst performed lines in the film.

They also included the Giant Monsters from the God of War inspired Conan video game, and I swear one of the sets looked just like the game -- the temple where Conan fights the "sand warriors."

The Conan team didn't seem to have a coherent vision for the character, or the world.  Some of the shots of Hyboria are spectacular, and Cimmeria looks like Cimmeria should, but others look straight out of the Milius film.  It all points to lack of overarching artistic vision.

It seems clear that the team wanted to make a good film, and you can see the money on the screen as they say.  It seems equally clear to me that they lacked any overarching artistic vision.  Given the patchwork and collaborative exercise that film making is in its nature, this can destroy a production.

Is the film worse than an Uwe Boll film?  No.

Is it Neo Nihilism run rampant?  No.

Is it crap?  No.

Is it good?  No.

I'll still buy it when it comes out on DVD so that I can watch it again, but that's because I think modern Sword & Sorcery film fans are spoiled.  Those who are overly harsh need to go back and watch Deathstalker, Gor, Yar, Ator, Zardoz, She, Deathstalker, Beastmaster 2, or one of a hundred other films from the 80s.

Those were miserable.  Conan the Barbarian was merely flawed.  I think those that are reacting strongly against it are often doing so because thy can see glimpses of just how good the film would have been with a consistent vision.

I think they should have gone back to "canon" only for inspiration, but then again I don't know how much I'd enjoy watching Conan run away from what might be a giant frog -- as he does in "The Scarlet Citadel." (To be fair it's likely Clark Ashton Smith's froglike demon/god Tsathoggua.

1 comment:

Kaiju said...

Christian, thank you for this thoughtful essay, one of the best reviews I've seen yet about the film. I believe you've really nailed the reasons why many are dissatisfied by the movie. It tried to be everything for all fans, doing many things but none well.

I liked it -- it's still not what I imagine when reading the original stories (although there were moments that were much closer than the Arnold movies) but it was close enough to the feel of the Dark Horse comics. And I thought Momoa was excellent as Conan.

Like you, I'll buy the Blu-ray -- maybe there will be an extended or otherwise altered version?