Thursday, 15 December 2011

Cinemaniacal: Robert E. Howard & TV: Never The Twain Shall Meet?

Regular reader Rainforest Giant asked...
Hey Furious, When are we going to get more question and answer sessions? 
How about a short one right now.  Gotta question?
I want to know why R.E. Howard hasn't been successfully adapted to the little screen (other than 'Pigeons from Hell'). He has had a deeper influence on the fantasy field than anyone other than Tolkien and his stories are kick-ass action, manly-men, and beautiful women in various stages of undress-distress. 'The Horror from the Mound' is a classic creepy short story that raised the hairs on my neck when I was a kid. Conan has a good name and would guarantee an audience
I guess you didn't like the animated and live action attempts simply because they sucked the balls of Thoth-Amon?

Well, it's a much more involved question than you might think, so I going to have to go off on one of my lecturing tangents.

For the illiterate out there who don't know nuttin' about nuttin' Robert Ervin Howard was a Texas based writer active in the 1920s until his death by suicide in 1936 at the age of 30. 

During his short life he was extremely prolific, grinding out dozens, if not hundreds, of short stories, novellas, and poems at a nearly super-human rate.  

Howard wrote in multiple genres, Westerns, Detective Stories, Historical Adventure, Boxing Stories, Horror, and the genre he practical invented, the Sword & Sorcery sub-genre of Fantasy fiction starring Conan the Barbarian of Cimmeria.

Sword and Sorcery was a grittier, grimier, and greasier version of fantasy fiction. It dealt with rough and tough characters living in a brutal world of mystery and magic surviving by their wits and strength.  No character was rougher and tougher than Conan the Barbarian, described thus by Howard:
"Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet."
Conan was not a noble knight on a quest to save the whatever from the dark forces of whosis. He was a thief and a mercenary who was usually busy looking out for number one, himself.  That's not to say that he didn't fight evil doers. Conan had his own moral code, and many of those who did evil during Conan's "Hyborian Age," made the mistake of pissing him off.

Conan was a wildly popular character among fans of the fantasy and adventure pulp magazines that published them, and was adapted several times. First into comic books by Marvel, and then into a feature film that marked a then semi-unknown Arnold Schwarzenegger as an up and coming star.  That movie was a modest hit, but the franchise was pretty much killed by the general shittiness of its sequel Conan The Destroyer.

A proposed Conan the Conqueror film was put on hold by the smell coming off of Destroyer, and by Schwarzenegger fulfilling his contract to Dino DeLaurentiis and getting as far away from the franchise as he could.  A version of the project was eventually made as the inane Kull The Conqueror, replacing Conan with one of Howard's less famous creations, Kull of Atlantis.

But then there were the TV adaptations. There were two animated versions of Conan, the less said about them the better, and then there was the live action TV series Conan (AKA Conan The Adventurer) that ran for one season in the late 1990s.

How can I sum up the Conan live action TV series?  Let me think.... hmmm.....

Oh, I got it.


The producers saw the popularity of the campy fantasy shows like Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, and Xena: Warrior Princess, and said: 

"Hey, let's take a familiar name like Conan the Barbarian, slap it on some scripts rejected by those other shows, hire a big German that will remind people of Schwarzenegger and we'll have a smash-hit!"

Of course to follow the whole Hercules/Xena fad they also transformed him from the sullen and violent warrior and thief into a lovable lug in a loincloth assisted by a cadre of cutesy sidekicks to flesh out the hopefully inevitable toy-line.

The show sank faster than the Lusitania, and most fantasy fans tried to block it out of their memories.

Now you folks know a little history, let's take a moment to examine the pros and cons of bringing the works of Robert E. Howard to the small screen.


1. Howard is still a very popular author with a wide range of fans.

2. Howard wrote hundreds of short stories in multiple genres, most of them loaded with lots of colorful characters, over the top physical action in exotic locations. Each short story is a nice compact episode of of action and adventure.

3. Howard created many characters and settings that could go beyond their source material to provide exciting genre television if they were done well.  There's:

-Conan, natch. 

-Solomon Kane, a dour Puritan in the early 1600s who battled evildoers from vandals to vampires and everyone in between.

-Kull of Atlantis, a barbarian conqueror of an ancient empire rife with decadence, black magic, and palace intrigue.

-Bran Mak Morn, king of the Picts who battled both Roman invaders and supernatural forces.

-Sailor Steve Costigan, the hero of a series of comical tales about a boxing sailor with "fists of steel, a will of iron and a head of wood." 

-El Borak, the Arabic nickname of F.X. Gordon a Texas gunslinger who becomes a legendary adventurer in Afghanistan in the 1900s.

-Dark Agnes de Chastillon, a short-tempered red-headed swords-woman making her way in the man's world of 16th century Europe.

Now this is just a partial list of the characters and stories Howard created. You could literally do an anthology series rotating between his characters, and probably have more than enough stories for a strong seven season run, with just the material Howard wrote.

3. Developments in production and visual effects technology, and the opening up of distinctive shooting locations in Eastern Europe means that you could produce historical and fantasy themed programming much cheaply than you could ever do before.

Now let's look at the


1. This is Hollywood we're talking about.  The biggest problem they have when it comes to adapting Howard's work is that they're almost always trying to mold it into something else.  Even the first movie tried to change Conan's nature into some sort of avenger out to get back at the people responsible for the death of his parents.  

In the original stories, Conan just left his family and never looked back. He's an unsentimental, uneducated Hyborean equivalent of a hillbilly who is only looking for gold, good times, and bad women. He's not a classically heroic figure, but someone who gets thrust into being heroic against his wishes and better judgment.

Hollywood just can't seem to accept that, either making him into a Charles Bronson with a sword avenger, or a Kevin Sorbo Hercules rip-off with bigger muscles and a Teutonic accent.

2. There's always an element of covert sexuality in Howard's work. Many of the women in Howard's stories are strong, independent minded, and, more often than not find a reason to be scantily clad.  In adaption the scantily clad part is usually the only one that seems to survive. This makes these adaptations seem a too tad sleazy to those crowing PTC types especially since many still view fantasy genre programming as still essentially kids programming.

3. Violence is definitely not covert in Howard's stories. Beheading, disembowelment, mauling, mutilation, and simple bare knuckle beatings permeate his stories.  Any remotely faithful adaptation of Howard's stories would have to be on cable to avoid being censored into a shoving match for the same reasons that people might crow about the sexual content.

But all is not lost kiddies...

Now the success of the definitely mature audience oriented Game Of Thrones may open the door for the sort of faithful adaptation that Robert E. Howard's work cries out for.

All they need is someone willing to put some serious money down to get the ball rolling. 

Which brings me to...

CON #4: Investors maybe iffy about this sort of project because of the recent failures of the Conan and Solomon Kane big screen features. They will be naturally gun-shy about the whole thing, even though it's probably a better medium for the project.


  1. What exactly is the status of Howard's works? It's now been a full 75 years since his untimely death, so is it coming into public domain?

    On topic, Howard's work could be done on TV, but it would need a gutsy producer with a vision. I keep thinking FX would be a decent home, given the quality and sometime similar themes of Sons of Anarchy and American Horror Story.

  2. Actually the rights issue a sticky one. When Howard died they passed to his father, who left them to friends, and so on and so on. The company Paradox Entertainment claims to own the rights saying they purchased them from the last heir of the Howard estate.

    However that's in dispute and lawsuits are apparently happening. Which is another reason for producers to be gun-shy about the project. Nothing worse than spending money money on lawyers that will never be seen on screen.

  3. Pretty good overview, I must say. I think you're right about most of the cons, especially. For some reason Hollywood has a really hard time making genuinely strong female characters, as opposed to either the Vasquez (badass female fighter who usually dies while the more feminine heroine lives) or the Action Girl (badass female fighter who somehow ends up needing saved by the hero, usually by the villain grabbing the girl by the arm or something).

    I will say that I don't think Conan the Destroyer sank the film franchise, so much as the fixation on Arnold did. Destroyer was ravaged critically, but it did well enough commercially to lead to further attempts to make a third Conan film. There were three occassions where another Conan film was going to go forward, but a combination of Arnold wanting to branch out and his issues with de Laurentiis meant that he usually pulled out. And since nobody wanted to do a Conan film without Arnold, they kept waiting for him to change his mind, but every time it seemed like they would get close to a deal, he would go on and do another film. Sometimes we traded up (Predator), sometimes down (Batman & Robin, Terminator 3). It's only when Arnold effectively retired that Hollywood even entertained the notion of a Conan film without Arnold.

    If Arnold was willing to continue with the character, I don't doubt there could've been a whole series of Conan films, but the Powers That Be just couldn't imagine Conan without the biggest action star of the '80s. I sometimes wonder: if they did make King Conan in the late '80s, completing the trilogy, would Hollywood have waited this long to reboot the character without Arnold? Food for thought.

  4. You left out Black Vulmea, the pirate. Jeeze, D.

    The basic problem with Hollywood and female characters is that their attempts to make "strong females" are either "just like males, except with boobs" or "whiny entitled brats". They apparently often lack the ability to imagine a female who is strong in a female way. Like the historical characters of Queen Elizabeth I, Zenobia, Cleopatra, or Boudicca for instance.

    On the other hand, Hollywood's idea of a strong MALE character is often "whiny entitled brat" so what the hell.

  5. I did say that it was an incomplete list you nitpicking yahoo.


  6. I was aware of the horrid Conan adaptions that's why I said 'successful' in my question.

    I think that you pretty much covered all of it except as to why you're not offering to write an adaption and get it made in Canada. Don't you Canadians get money for making movies from the government? Heck, I thought that if it showed on Canadian TV there had to be something 'Canadian' about it. Since Howard's Picts are displaced First Nations folks shouldn't that qualify for some of that government cheese?


  7. The Picts probably won't qualify me for government money since the government considers all Hyborian races as "European."

    Plus you only really get the government cash to make movies/TV if you're part of the small clique in the Toronto/Montreal/Vancouver axis that already gets government money.

    Of course since most of that clique likes to spend their government money telling the world the government that gives them that money is being run by a political party they don't like, that funding is now in peril.

    Besides, I think I'd have more fun doing a Solomon Kane TV series in Europe. Preferably someplace with mild winters. ;)

  8. I was unaware that Solomon Kane had been adapted. El borak, Solomon Kane and Turlough Dub all would work well. The scene in 'The Dark Man' where the princess is killed shocked me when I read it almost 40 years ago. I can still feel that thrill when he goes berserk.

  9. There was a Solomon Kane movie made a year or two ago by a European company, but I don't think it was ever released in North America, even on DVD.

  10. It's hard to imagine Hollywood doing a Solomon Kane adaption without radically toning down his Puritan Christian fundamentalism. And since that's Kane's primary trait, it would inherently ruin the character. Take that away and he's basically Hugh Jackman's Van Helsing. And we all know how well that turned out.

    Indeed, I would expect a plot involving Kane learning the error of his 'bigotry,' and adopting a far squishier view of God and suchlike. Remember Demi Moore's 'adaptation' of The Scarlet Letter? There you go.