You know, I remember a time where the thought of a new film based on something I enjoyed was an unequivocal time for celebration. I can’t remember exactly when it was that that perspective was beaten out of me… maybe around the time of the Star Wars prequels? I mean, this is not to say that I haven’t celebrated some of the adaptations that have come out, particularly in the age of the comic book movie; but I now reflexively greet every new announcement with a dose of skepticism. It is better, I think, to have low expectations and be pleasantly surprised, than to work myself into a fanboy frenzy and be utterly disappointed–especially in this time where going out to a movie theater is a fairly expensive proposition. Paying good money can just make it sting all the more.
The two greatest bugaboos Hollywood tends to throw at me in these instances are either productions “based on” the source material, which quickly become apparent as having very little to do with the source beyond a few similar names, or half-assed remakes of cult classics which somehow seem to do a lot less with a much bigger budget (even in adjusted dollars).
Lest you dismiss this as merely a matter of me getting old and cranky, let’s look at two examples on record.
First, the movie adaptation of Starship Troopers. Love it or hate it, Robert A. Heinlein’s original novel was a watershed event in science fiction that has resounded throughout the decades since its publication, inspiring such mega-properties as Warhammer 40,000. It also inspired James Cameron when he was putting together Aliens, so much that he reportedly required the actors to read the book before filming, but in the end Aliens was one of those rare cases that managed to keep its source intact even though it changed up the tone almost completely.
I bring up Aliens because the movie of Starship Troopers started life as an Aliens knock-off script floating around Hollywood that was quite literally titled “Bug Hunt at Outpost 9″. Per Wikipedia, the magazine American Cinematographer reported around the time of Starship Troopers’ release that “…the Heinlein novel was optioned well into the pre-production period of the film… most of the writing team reportedly were unaware of the novel at the time. According to the DVD commentary, [director] Paul Verhoeven never finished reading the novel, claiming he read through the first few chapters and became both “bored and depressed.”"
To sum up, the script for the Starship Troopers movie did not start out as an adaptation of Heinlein’s work that went in a different direction; it was a completely different story written by people who had never touched the book, and eventually filmed by a director who tossed the book away after barely glancing at it. The studio simply decided that hey! they had the rights to Heinlein’s book, and that was about soldiers fighting giant bugs, right? So, this script is also about soldiers fighting giant bugs, right? Perfect fit!
If the script for Them! had been floating around the studio instead, Rasczak’s Roughnecks would have been fighting oversized ants in the deserts of the American Southwest and storm drains of Los Angeles. That’s how much sense this thinking makes. It’s slapping a known and cherished property onto a story that really has nothing to do with said property, and (to be fair to the scriptwriters) never intended to. I suspect a similar phenomenon happened with the Hellblazer comic and the Constantine movie, although I’m not going to get into that for fear of working myself into a cerebral aneurysm.
All that said, I’ll admit I enjoyed the Starship Troopers movie, but it had fuck all to do with Starship Troopers. And if I had more investment in the book, I might not be able to enjoy it with those labels stuck in place. I have boycotted the Constantine movie to this day, despite people telling me it’s a decent enough generic supernatural tale. I cannot, will not, ever accept Keanu Reeves as John Constantine, especially when the director shows how fucking clueless he is by stating Keanu had the necessary naivete and innocence to play the role…
Oh. Oh my brain. John, I think I’m bleeding out my nose and ears, so can you chime with your opinion of that?
All right, anyhow, second example. Remakes. Halloween. Andrew recently brought up the sorry trend in modern movies to explain everyone’s motivations in excruciating goddamn detail. It’s never enough anymore for the hero and villain to just hate each other, oh no… they have to be related, or they were roommates in school, or something equally retarded and irrelevant that the movie will nonetheless pad out its already way too long runtime showing us. I’ll give you that in the original Halloween, Michael Myers returns to Haddonfield by being drawn to the house where he murdered his sister, but it doesn’t turn out that Laurie is another sister of his. She and her friends are just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Michael Myers is evil. That’s it. His motive for killing is that he’s evil. Evil enough that in the end credits he is billed not under his name but merely as “The Shape”. An abstract. A half-glimpsed icon of fear and senseless violence.
So then, Rob Zombie of all people has to go and give Michael Myers a convoluted backstory to explain why he kills people? Shit. I know John Carpenter told him to make his own movie, but it sure seems pointless when you’re just retreading the same ground and flushing the theme down the toilet. You might as well be attempting to humanize Darth Vader by making him into a whiny douchebag.
Big names slapped haphazardly onto generic stories, and unnecessary remakes of cult classics. Let’s see if there’s anything Hollywood has in the pipe right now that fits the bill… oh yes. The movie I named in the title of this blog. What, you thought I was going to get to the point before I was halfway done? You know nothing of my work.
Conan is being remade; or as Erik would call it: “Conan Begins”. And I must ask: did it need to Begin? If it were a Conan film intended to adhere much more closely to the original stories penned by Robert E. Howard, then there would be cause for guarded enthusiasm. I, myself, was out as soon as I saw the casting call.
Click on that link. Look at the character summaries, and begin to see the piece of steaming generic-sword-and-sorcery-revenge-saga shit they intend to present to us as a Conan movie (not to mention all the calls for “Young” versions of characters–flashbacks ahoy!–and describing one of the villains as having “the mentality of a proto-goth rocker”. The fuck does that even mean?).
What’s that, you say? The 1982 movie with Ahnuld also had the whole “You-killed-my-people-prepare-to-die” shtick going? Yeah, okay, I’ll give you that, and I’ll admit to you I still like that flick despite the liberties it took. It had Ahnuld. It had James Earl Jones, Max Von Sydow, and Mako. It had one of the greatest exchanges of dialog ever uttered on film–lines which REH never wrote, but no doubt wishes he had.
“Conan! What is best in life? “
“To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.”
But see, the whole point of all these “Begins”-style remakes is to be grittier, right? More authentic? More pleasing to the core audience of the source material? If you’re not even going to bother, then why the fuck are you retreading the same well-traveled ground the original movie and any number of imitations wore into a rut in the 80s? Between Conan the Barbarian and The Beastmaster alone, I’d say the heights of entertaining, borderline cheeseball sword-and-sorcery have already been reached.
The most infuriating thing to myself and others familiar with the original tales is that they would make damn good movie fodder. When he was on all cylinders, Howard’s writing was visceral, sinewy stuff–about as action-packed as a bunch of words on a page could get. Howard got to the fucking monkey. The Hour of the Dragon exists as a full-length Conan novel that practically screams to be made into a big screen epic, and yet Hollywood (and television… ugh, that “series”) keeps feeling the need to invent entirely new stories and characters, as well as altering Conan himself to something entirely other than he was presented.
The casting call mentions exactly two people who are actually part of the Conan mythos: Conan himself, and Thoth-Amon, and Thoth-Amon apparently is someone we’re never going to see. Bad sign.
Also, if you’re not familiar with the Conan stories, let me clue you in on something very important. In Robert E. Howard’s stories, Conan despised Cimmeria and its people. Cimmeria is presented like the Ohio of the Hyborian Age: a place you live only if you have no other choice. This is why Conan ran off to live as a mercenary adventurer, because staying home sucked.
“A gloomier land never existed on earth. It is all of hills, heavily wooded, and the trees are strangely dusky, so that even by day all the land looks dark and menacing. As far as a man may see his eye rests on the endless vista of hills beyond hills, growing darker and darker in the distance. Clouds hang always among those hills; the skies are nearly always grey and over-cast. Winds blow sharp and cold, driving rain of sleet or snow, and moan drearily among the passes and down the valleys. There is little mirth in that land, and men grow moody and strange.”
–Conan describes his homeland in “The Phoenix on the Sword”
There is no cruel orphaning, no genocide, just a man who found his vibrant and ambitious nature completely at odds with the place he was born… but somehow, this is never considered a compelling enough motivation, and so the same old tired revenge trope has been trotted out once again and yoked to Conan’s neck. As soon as you do that, you give Conan baggage. Conan really shouldn’t have baggage. At least not more than would fit in the overhead compartment. In the books his early past was barely touched upon, because Conan really didn’t care about it. He was always a creature of the moment, of immediate passions. If you staggered breathlessly up to REH’s Conan and gasped out that warlords had destroyed Cimmeria and all his race, he would shrug, mutter “good riddance”, and have another goblet of wine and a whore or three.
The moment you see a Conan that angsts is the moment you will know the writers have bent Howard’s corpse over and spit-roasted it. So is my feeling with Conan Begins, even though the word is the script has gone through several major rewrites since the first casting call and awful plot synopsis leaked out (Conan with “survivor guilt”? Seriously? Fuck you.). So far all I know is we’ve got Ron Perlman playing Conan’s dad and the addition of a witch character played by Rose McGowan (sloppy seconds after Red Sonja fell through?), and neither of these tidbits are particularly reassuring me that the direction has changed.
As of now, Conan Begins still looks to be set for the double-whammy of being both untrue to its source and being a very unnecessary remake, and so I can’t even muster up a guarded enthusiasm for its existence. The principal photography has wrapped, so at this point I suppose it’s way too late for Conan Begins not to Begin.
Oh, but not too late for them to add 3-D.
I could pray to Crom, but Crom cares not for my prayers. So to hell with him, and to hell with this movie.