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Have You Seen This Barbarian?

Longbox Graveyard #10

Crom, count the dead!

The numbers are in and it was a first-round knock-out — Conan the Barbarian could muster no better than ten million dollars in its opening weekend. Finishing fourth in what should have been a one-horse race, Conan failed to vanquish two box-office hold-overs and a Spy Kids sequel that wasn’t screened for U.S. critics (and the primary virtue of which is that it smelled like dirty diapers).

Barely a week has passed since the launch of this prospective franchise, and Conan already feels like old news. But the Cimmerian is a favorite here at LongBox Graveyard, so I will give his latest film outing a post-mortem before throwing a spade-full of dirt on the poor brute’s face.

My Conan biases were outlined in last week’s column, but for those arriving late — I love and admire the pulps; enjoy the Roy Thomas run of the comics; dislike Arnold Schwartzenegger‘s movies; and I believe Conan is a more sophisticated character than he first appears.

Yes, I am a true believer, and I turned out with my son Miles and a scant few other believers to see the movie last Saturday. The problems with the picture were legion — the action was largely incoherent, the dialogue lacked snap, the plot was uninvolving, the villains barely rose to the level of a desultory Marvel comics script, and Jason Momoa had bigger tits than his female lead.

But one problem put everything else in the shade.

Where was Conan?

Someone needs to put Conan’s face on a milk carton. I keep going to his movies, but the Conan I know still hasn’t shown up.

Drama is all about the character, never more so than when we are transported to some distant world full of monsters and alien gods. The growling savages, leaping sand demons, topless dancing girls, and writhing snake monsters of Conan the Barbarian haven’t a hope of holding our attention absent believable characters struggling to overcome meaningful internal struggles. It’s a real shame, because the film has decent cast and all the blood, blades, and boobs you need to make a Conan movie … they just whiffed on the “Conan” part!

Since the Barbarian’s screenwriters keep getting the character wrong, I thought I’d offer some pointers about what makes Conan special, and how the character might be better realized on the screen.

CONAN THE LIBRARIAN (Read The Books!)

Job One is to get to the library and read a couple books by Robert E. Howard. He wrote barbarian fantasies about this hero you may have heard about — guy by the name of “Conan,” as in, “Conan the Barbarian.” Howard was no Hemingway but the worst of his original Conan stories are head and shoulders above the hack screenplays that keep getting sold in his name.

Read those tales and you won’t find the One Ring (I mean a squid mask) held secretly by the Elves (I mean the barbarian tribes) to keep it from falling into the hands of Sauron (I mean what’s-his-name with the perfect teeth). Instead of raiding old D&D modules for story ideas as did the screenwriters of Conan the Barbarian, consider adopting some of the better original tales, like “The Phoenix in the Sword,” “Beyond the Black River,” “Red Nails,” or “Queen of the Black Coast.”

(And rather than reference “The Tower of the Elephant” in a throw-away scene the way they did in Conan the Barbarian, you might try actually making “The Tower of the Elephant.” It’s a pretty cool story. Check it out.)

CONAN THE REPITITIOUS (Enough With The Revenge Stories!)

To make their hero relateable, the screenwriters of the new Conan the Barbarian spend their first act showing us Conan’s childhood. As was the case in the tiresome 1982 John Milius film, this new Conan is a revenge story, with orphaned Conan remorselessly hunting down the Big Bad who killed his father.

Here’s the problem — Conan doesn’t a shit about his dad.

not THIS again!

If Conan thinks about his father at all, it is probably the same way he thinks about Crom — a distant, unfathomable figure who gave him courage and life, then left him to find his own way in an uncaring world. Conan is pragmatic and impulsive and so surrounded by blood and monsters that he knows every day could be his last. He’s an adventurer with a lust to live life to it’s fullest. This is not a man with a plan. The brooding, doomed, revenge-driven storylines now twice handed this character ill suit him (THREE times if you count Arnold mooning over Valeria in Conan the Destroyer. Enough already!)

CONAN THE CONTEMPORARY (Understand The Character)

It seems Conan’s screenwriters can’t get past the cliches to understand the living character at the heart of Robert E. Howard’s tales. There’s so much more to Conan than the grunting, one-note musclemen Hollywood keeps putting in his place. Conan’s writers need to see the Barbarian as a real person before they have a hope of giving him decent things to say and do. Might it help to think of him in present-day terms?

If Conan were alive today, he’d be the buddy you call to help move a couch, play wingman on a trip to Vegas, or help collect a debt. He would be perpetually broke, but he wouldn’t take your money. He’d seem both penniless and he richest man in the world. Jason Momoa’s screen presence hints at some of those qualities — Conan should be a regular guy, only more so. Keep that character in mind as you write Conan’s adventures in the Hyborian Age.

NOT the contemporary Conan I had in mind!

CONAN THE CONTRASTING (Let Conan Stand Out In A Crowd!)

The best way to appreciate Conan is through juxtaposition and contrast, but this newest film makes Conan just one brute among many, distinguished only by his lack of deformities and facial scars. When everyone is a mud-caked savage, it is hard to see Conan as a rustic outsider. He should stand out like a lion in a petting zoo.

But instead of plunging Conan into the civilized heart of darkness at the center of Howard’s Hyborian Age, the screenwriters of Conan the Barbarian (doubtless with one eye on the budget) throw our hero into Bulgarian forests and (worst of all) the mud-hut Cimmerian villages of Conan’s childhood — a place so dull that Howard’s Conan left it at the first opportunity. Put Conan in fish-out-of-water situations where we can see how his barbarism is both a blessing and a curse, and the character and the world will both feel infinitely more interesting and engaging.

courtly graces, Conan-style!

CONAN THE CATHARTIC (Make The Violence Fun!)

Conan is an outsider in his world, unschooled in the ways of civilization. It’s OK to make the character a little innocent and vulnerable. We’ll like him better that way, and we will get on board with Conan when we see he is inherently decent and misunderstood. The present screen Conan is far too comfortable and in command of his world to elicit audience sympathies.

We need to see Conan take the wicked kings and merchants of the civilized world at face value; we need to see their betrayal coming well before does our hero; and we need to see Conan turn the tables on the fools who underestimated him with a cathartic outburst of violence that sets things right.

Everyone wants to punch their boss in the mouth. Let Conan do that for us and we will love him for it!

anyone could have seen that coming … except Conan!

CONAN THE METAPHORICAL (Make The Violence Meaningful!)

Like the screenwriters of this and past Conan films, Robert E. Howard set his barbarian at war with sorcerers determined to enslave the world with their dark magics, but unlike Conan’s filmmakers, Howard understood those villains were metaphors for the corruption and false civility of modern life. Conan’s enemies aren’t the wizards or kings or computer generated monsters that filmmakers throw in his path — Conan’s enemy is anyone who has surrendered their freedom to corrupt authority, or is complicit in injustice, large or small. Conan’s enemy is the boredom and frustration of modern life — the gatekeepers, ribbon clerks, shysters, and con-artists that hide behind the rule of law to stick it to the little guy. Conan’s violent outbursts needs to topple kingdoms and right cosmic wrongs — he should wipe clean the stench of evil like a force of nature.

The bad guy in Conan the Barbarian is intent on becoming a god and destroying the world, but his inevitable death at Conan’s hands didn’t seem to have any meaningful impact on the world. Raise the stakes! When Conan kills the Big Bad it should be like blowing up the Death Star. In Conan the Barbarian, he just knocked a dude off a bridge.

long odds and meaningful outcomes

CONAN THE DIMENSIONAL (Let The Character Change!)

Jason Momoa’sConan is impossibly powerful, strong, and handsome, but without flaws or foolishness there’s no place for the character to grow. We watch Conan have an adventure, but we don’t go on an adventure with him, because he is obviously so in control of the movie that there’s no room for the audience to join him. Worse, Conan’s interior world is so ill-developed that meaningful character change is impossible.

Aside from weakly coming to terms with guilt over his father’s death, our new Conan has no character arc. He’s the same guy in the final scene as his first (and neither is there a change in his world). There are no stakes, no journey, no beliefs that are challenged, no character changes, and no point to his story.

Howard’s Conan begins his life as a penniless adventure and winds up crowned a king, along the way becoming a thief, soldier, pirate, and mercenary — that character is constantly growing and changing. Let cinematic Conan grow on screen, and the audience will grow with him.

Conan is not unaffected by his world

CONAN THE BARBARIAN, DAMNIT!

There’s a scene about a third of the way into Conan the Barbarian where Conan’s pirate pal describes what Conan is really all about — that he looks like a savage, but that he has the heart of a king, that he’s loyal to his friends like a bloodhound, and that unlike civilized men, he does not sacrifice his children to gods or enslave his fellow man. That’s Conan, and it’s encouraging the screenwriters knew him that well enough to write that dialogue!

If they had remembered Screenwriting 101 and shown us that character, instead of telling us about him, we might have had a decent Conan picture, about an adventurer we could believe in and cheer for and watch grow wise before our eyes.

Conan could have been a contender. He could have been a franchise!

Instead, Conan the Barbarian is a tedious, seen-it-before, violent fantasy spectacle long on cliches and short on character, which means two things.

First, I wasted my money taking my lad to see the picture last week.

Second … the clock is now running on the next Conan reboot! Check back here at LongBox Graveyard in 2021 for my review … and if you do see that barbarian on the milk carton, tell him to get out to Hollywood and split some skulls! They’re making a fool out of him out there!

NEXT WEEK: #11 Captain Not-So-Marvelous

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About Paul O'Connor

Revelations and retro-reviews from a world where it is always 1978, published once a month or so at www.longboxgraveyard.com!

Posted on August 24, 2011, in Other Media and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. Paul, admittedly Conan didn’t sizzle. But it wasn’t all bad either. For one thing, it had the right look. The world portrayed on screen certainly had all the elements of Howard’s Hyboria with a dash of Frazetta’s moody atmosphere. I think Jason Momoa (and his stunt doubles) also demonstrated enough of the strength and cat-like athleticism of Howard’s Cimmerian hillsman in various scenes far better than my memory of Arnie in that role. I don’t believe Conan was totally awol, there were glimpses of him but yes, the Conan we saw was off the mark. This was a flaw in interpretation on the director’s part. In an interview Jason Momoa discussed how director Marcus Nispel described the Conan he wanted as being similar to Sean Connery as Bond. WTF?

    As to motivations, the revenge tale… yeah, I believe you’re right, the screenwriters missed on that. I think that was a matter of playing it safe and going along with the sort of simplistic, lazy storytelling that Hollywood producers typically tend to go for. It’s sad, but this is more about underestimating the ability of the audience to follow a more layered story/character than anything else. It’s also evidence that Hollywood producers et al only understand Conan on a very superficial level.

    I didn’t feel the film was as bad as critics suggested. It moved quickly for a 2 hour flick and I lost myself in the world on screen. I enjoyed the escapsim, but ultimately I didn’t come out of the theatre anxious for a second installment.

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    • Hey, Eric!

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      I actually think the look of the film and Momoa were part of what’s right about the picture, rather than what’s wrong. I liked Momoa in the role and I think he would be much improved with stronger material and better direction. He proved his barbarian chops in Game of Thrones this season with a character that had a fraction of Conan’s screen time but was infinitely more memorable.

      My original review was about twice as long — I cut it down to focus on the character, but my first draft offered more appraisal of the film as a whole, and my feelings largely mirror your own. The film wasn’t great, but neither was it the war crime the critics would have you believe. For the most part I found it watchable and sometimes entertaining — a few scenes worked for me (the tavern scene felt right, and I liked Conan fighting the slavers and the sand demons). But overall the film occupied a dangerous and murky middle ground, neither very good nor very bad, condemned to faint praise and easy dismissal thanks to weak material and absence of ambition.

      I’m under no illusions; I know Conan isn’t high art, and I know audience expectations are (rightfully) based on the Arnold pictures, rather than the comparatively obscure pulps and comics I hold dear. I did not have high expectations for the film … and in that I was not disappointed! So I guess my review isn’t a review of a mediocre movie so much as it is a review of how a great character has been mishandled for film. The filmmakers want Conan for his name value, but nothing else, which I think is a shame and a missed opportunity … but what do you expect from an industry that greenlit a $200M movie based on the boardgame “Battleship?”

      Crom! The ways of civilization are strange indeed!

      Thanks again for your comment, Eric, I hope you will subscribe to the blog and become a regular.

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  2. Paul, we gave up on comic book movies several years ago so we have nothing to add here. Except… You clearly have a handle on what Conan is all about. If anyone asked us what we like about Conan, we’d refer them to this post.

    From the brutal self-analysis you gave your own work on Rune several weeks ago, it sounds like you’ve sworn off authoring any more comics. But if you ever get that itch to write again, you should totally do a Conan saga. You know where the guy is coming from and what makes him work.

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    • That’s about the kindest thing a person could say to me, Mars … comments like that make this blogging thing worthwhile.

      I’m not sure I’ve sworn off of writing comics so much as comics has sworn off of ME! It has been a long, long time since I worked in this business, and my chances of catching on with another writing gig — particularly a high-profile job like Conan — are slim. It would be a blast to write the Cimmerian, though. Thanks for the endorsement.

      I do have some flaws as a comic writer that I will more fully examine as this blog matures … for now I am concentrating on nostalgic reads but I will get back to my own abortive career in good time. I found a digital copy of an unpublished “Sludge” script I wrote under Steve Gerber’s direction in the fading days of the “Ultraverse,” and I’ll be publishing that here after I review Gerber’s run on The Defenders in October or November. Give that a read and see if you still think I should be writing comics …

      Anyway, thanks as always for the comment, Mars, glad to see you’ve become a regular here at Longbox Graveyard. (And I obviously haven’t given up on superhero movies — I think we’ve had pretty good luck with them these past ten years — and I plan a Top 15 Superhero Movie column here before too much longer).

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  3. I agree with you about the writers not using enough of the source material. Conan is a character who needs a remake that’s authentic to the source (Tarzan is another one), but it probably won’t happen because an authentic story maybe wouldn’t appeal to a general audience and producers can’t afford/don’t want to make niche films these days.

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    • It’s fine to adapt material to make it relevant to contemporary audiences — movies aren’t books and vice-versa, and I’m content with having “move” and “source” versions of characters (it’s working fine for Marvel’s superheroes!) I’m just mystified at the choices that are made in adapting Conan — it seems to me they utterly miss the point, and leave out the stuff that makes the character memorable and endearing (as noted in my rant!)

      It is ironic that the producers certainly go into this process wanting to appeal to a broad audience … but end up making a “niche” film anyway, because no one goes to see the movie!

      It might just be that certain subjects are box office poison, no matter how faithful their adaptations might be. We’ve seen Judge Dredd bracketed at the box office, with the good-looking-but-far-afield Stallone version and the modest-budget-but-faithful Urban version both flopping in equal measure. In this era of Geek Plenty, it can be hard to accept that there are no sure things, particularly with the characters we love.

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