Tolkien gave us a fully realized world of fantasy. A history-that-might-have been with its own long history, languages, and races. He gave us maps with mountains, seas, and countries so we knew just where our heroes were when we read they rode up to Minas Tirith or rowed across the Long Lake. This immersive world essentially spawned its own genre but Professor Tolkien wasn’t the first.
A young (and by all accounts day-old crazy) Texan named Robert E. Howard created a pre- pre-history. A fully realized world of different countries and cultures, complete with its own history and a map. Howard’s style was a little different than Tolkien’s though. The Lord of the Rings rolls along with a stately English pace. Conan rips through the Hyborian world, bloody sword in hand, with all the lurid abandon of the Pulp tradition.
Conan the Barbarian: John Milius, Oliver Stone
Yes that Conan the Barbarian. Yes it’s dated. Yes it’s over the top. Yes three fourths of the main characters are not played by movie actors. It’s still a damn fine fantasy movie, a near perfect example of the revenge plot, and a good study in adaptation.
Most of Howard’s Conan work was shorter fiction that appeared in the Pulps in the thirties. The stories and character were his most popular and certainly the most enduring. If read in the order they were published, there is no real continuity. A story of an older Conan in his fifties, king of a powerful nation, might be followed by a story of a Conan barely out of his teens, a penniless thief in the worst slum known to man. Howard wanted them this way so they read like the yarns of an old adventurer recalled ‘in no particular order’, as he put it himself. That makes good reading but a pretty poor movie plot.
So what to change? Damn near everything. Oliver Stone wrote the original script which apparently involved huge armies of mutants. John Milius, who also directed, cuts it down to bare bones. A barbarian boy is stripped of everything– mother, father, people, freedom. The rest of his life is dedicated to pain, combat, and revenge. That’s pretty much it, those two sentences are an accurate plot synopsis.
Howard fans complain to this day that the movie has nothing to do with the literary Conan. That not only misses the point, but it’s inaccurate. The Conan in Howard’s stories tends to be a wandering wild man. He has no clear motivation from adventure to adventure. He is leader of men one minute, fugitive outlaw the next, sometimes both at the same time. He’ll fight for gold or women or for no reason at all. That’s not going to get a character through three acts of a movie. Milius instead gives us a new story of loss and revenge and puts Conan in it. He has clear goals and clear motivation. He still fights, drinks, and whores around but he’s always got that revenge to get to.
Simple as the movie is, there are some layers there if you want to look. The movie is heavily visual in its storytelling and the story is a great ‘hero’s journey’ brimming with mythic imagery. The opening credits run over a sequence of a sword being forged. This becomes symbolic of the forging of Conan’s character–heated, hammered, shaped, and tempered. He meets threshold guardians, mentors, and monsters. He goes through physical ordeals, enters caves, and climbs towers. The whole film seethes with archetypes from Jung and Campbell. It’s florid and larger than life but it works.
Despite a jaundiced eye from die-hard fans of Howard, Milius actually manages to pull quite a bit of the stories into the movie. “Queen of the Black Coast” is a big influence for the love through-line. Valeria’s ghostly return and some of her dialog are from that story. The scene of the thieves stealing the great jewel from the temple of Set parallels “The Tower of the Elephant”. The most obvious one is “The Thing in the Crypt”. The entire scene of Conan finding the sword in the cave is from that one. Take into account the sheer variety in tone and story content of all the Conan stories and it’s a miracle anyone could get a three act movie out of it. You could do alot worse for models of adaptation.
Next movie: Beowulf