Sunday, January 24, 2010

Whither Goest Cimmerian...Again?


Taking a small detour into the savage lands of the Hyborian Age...and the age of angry fans.

As I'm sure some have heard by now, Baywatch and Stargate: Atlantis actor Jason Momoa was recently announced to be taking on the role of Conan in director Marcus Nispel's rebooting of the franchise. And the reaction has been more savage than even the Cimmerian could have found. Some have flat out denounced the casting, seeing it as further proof that the film is a disaster waiting in the wings with a poorly received leaked script and the hiring of Nispel (whose "talent" seems to be making pointless remakes of films like Friday the 13th) after original director Brett Ratner (who didn't exactly win over Howard fans either) left. Others have used the casting as a pulpit to deride not only this film but the previous John Milius film and it's "sacrilegious" handling of Robert E. Howard's character and the current filmmakers for apparently using Milius' film as a template. Other concerns have been more normal-complaints about yet another "origin" film, the condition of the script and rumors about other castings (one recent one hinted that Mickey Rourke has been approached to play Conan's father.)

While I'm not a full 100 percent fan of Howard in that I can't quote script and verse all of his work, I've read his stories and enjoyed them. He was a talented writer with a vivid imagination and a gift for storytelling. And I can understand the concerns from Howard's fans-other attempts at Howard-inspired films-from Conan the Destroyer to Kull the Conqueror-have been utter disasters. And in many ways I can sympathize with them. After all I've spent almost the last year expressing my concerns (if not outright outrage) with the casting of Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins in John Carter of Mars, the condition of that script and the changes being made to Edgar Rice Burroughs' novels and the intentions and motives of Andrew Stanton. Like Howard, Burroughs has also been mistreated by Hollywood and a faithful attempt-not hampered by budget or misguided filmmakers-seems like a dream that will never come to fruition.

But the sad reality is, this is Hollywood. The studios have never shown much concern for fans' feelings on such matters-unless it's a loud vocal group like Harry Potter or (heaven help us) Twilight fans-but even then it was because they knew that they were the target audience. If you tick them off, the film won't succeed. With Howard (and an equal measure, Burroughs) the problem is they are little known to the mass public. While both have devoted groups of fans, neither can claim the overwhelming and vocal fan base that JK Rowling or Stephanie Meyer and their work have now. In the studios' eyes they are making a film to appeal to a mass audience and have to make "changes" to make it more accessible or to "fix" problems with the material. The Milius film is a prime example. Howard never gave a back story for his hero but since the thinking was they couldn't just drop the viewer into the plot without some sort of introduction, a back story had to be created that in many Howard fans' eyes was unfaithful to the character Howard wrote. Not helping matters at the time was the growing hatred of the pastiche novels that some writers-notably L. Sprague De Camp-had been churning out, causing Howard's original material to in some cases disappear from print. (With Burroughs some have thought the reason for Stanton adding Matai Shang was the lack of a proper villain for our hero to overcome. John Carter has no Darth Vader or Lord Voldemort to overcome in his quest.)

I'm not happy with this mentality. It has resulted in a humorless and annoying Spider-Man, not one but two misguided film versions of Dune, the PC-ing of James Bond and the endless stream of bad Tarzan movies. The only way this can be stopped is if the films themselves bomb. Fans complaining or protesting won't do it since their attempts fall on deaf ears. Only when they lose money do they finally admit that they were wrong. In the case of Conan (and John Carter of Mars) it might be what it will take to show them that these are classic characters from talented writers who deserve the proper respect. But like so much that is a dream unfulfilled as well.

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