Movie Adaptations That Work for Me: Part 3 of 5

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

About Eric Bahle

Eric Bahle stopped going to his real job so he could be a full time digital author and storyteller. He loves being in the woods with his bow or on the water in his kayak. He lives in Pennsylvania with his lovely wife and a mongrel dog. He is working on his next bestselling story.


  1. I have to respectfully disagree with you entirely on the matter of Conan the Barbarian being a “good model” for an adaptation.

    Conan the Barbarian was a nice film. Pleasant subtext and symbolism, great music, atmospheric art design, generally competent work all around. But it is no more “accurate” to Robert E. Howard’s Conan than the Disney version of Tarzan was to the Edgar Rice Burroughs, or Batman & Robin was to the original Batman comics.

    First of all, I would say that it is in fact you who is “missing the point” and “inaccurate”. Cinematic Conan and literary Conan have the same names, are big muscular Cimmerians, and wander about. There the similarities end. Personality, history, intelligence, even eye and hair colour are all completely different.

    Literary Conan was born on a battlefield, and stayed in Cimmeria until he was 16, hunting panthers, bringing down hawks on the wing with rocks, breaking wild bull’s necks, fighting enemy tribes and sacking forts. He wasn’t enslaved and set to work on a useless wheel for a decade.

    He left Cimmeria of his own volition, his wanderlust dictating his choices, not some corny revenge plot. He learned the arts of war and combat through hard grueling experience, not being stuck in a pit and taught by Asian stand-ins. He learned the ways of womanising through natural trial-and-error in the big bad world, not by being fed docile prostitutes in a cage. Everything Conan does if of his own free will and desire, he is an active rather than reactive hero.

    In contrast, Cinematic Conan has everything happen to him: he is marched out of Cimmeria as a slave, set to work on a wheel, put into pit-fighting, released by the pit fighters into the wild, and chased into a cave by a wolf. Even when he should be doing things by himself after gaining the Atlantean sword, he is driven by revenge: by definition a reactive act.

    THIS is what REH fans are out of joint with: the fact that the REH’s Conan is not only ignored, but subverted by the movie. It isn’t just the details, but the fact that the “new” story and character is the complete opposite of REH’s character. If you are going to call REH fans out for “missing the point” and even accuse US of being inaccurate, when you don’t even address the point we seem to miss, then that’s rather poor form.

    Cherry-picking bits and pieces from Howard stories was not beneath Howard himself, who cribbed bits of his stories for the novel (albeit consciously designed to introduce the Brits to Conan) but in the film doesn’t so much resemble giving Howard dues so much as cannibalizing Howard’s Greatest Hits. Also, “The Thing in the Crypt” isn’t a Howard tale, so it was pointless to bring that up at all.

    Finally, you suggest that since the Conan stories dart about the place with little thought for continuity placement that it would be better to just stick it all in the blender and come up with a new story. Unfortunately, this ignores the fact that plenty of Howard stories such as “Beyond the Black River”, “The People of the Black Circle”, “Red Nails”, “The Scarlet Citadel” and “The Black Stranger” could easily be adapted into 100-minute films with precious little effort. Howard’s novel “The Hour of the Dragon” would make a perfectly adequate 2 1/2 hour film, and “Red Nails” is actually being adapted into an animated film.

    In conclusion, no, Conan the Barbarian is not a “good model of an adaptation” by any stretch of the word, unless you are going to say that Blacula was a decent representation of Bram Stoker’s work. Sure we could get worse – like De Laurientis’ pop soundtrack and Stone’s screenplay – but that doesn’t make it the paragon of ideal adaptation you make it out to be.

    PS: Only those relying on or parroting the now-discredited “research” of L. Sprague De Camp would consider Robert E. Howard “day-old crazy”. Mark Finn’s latest biography – which actually relies on the testimony of people who knew and talked to Howard – paints a rather different picture. Troubled, depressed, eccentric certainly: crazy (or Maladjusted To The Point of Psychosis as De Camp says), no.

    If you’d like to address this point further and see what other Howard fans actually have to say, got to the official Robert E. Howard forums at Don’t take just my word for it.

  2. Wolf In The Fold says

    The important concept here is adaptation. As in change. As in the post and the entire series was about what changed from book to movie and why, and why it worked for me, hence the title.

    Howard constantly changed, adapted, and cannibalized (as you put it) even among his own work. The Phoenix on the Sword was a story of Kull of Atlantis that didn’t sell. A quick name change to Conan of Cimmerria and Aquilonia for Atlantis. Pow. Adaptation, story sold, literature survives.

    Adapting for movies means having the nerve to change the source material, even if that source material is viewed as sacred text by cults of fans. Whether the movie is better than the book is a little beside the point. Books are books and movies are movies.

  3. Howard’s Conan has remained popular for more than 80 years.

    The movie version generated tremendous fandom both for itself and for Schwarzenegger, but how much more did it generate for Howard?

    As with most adaptation films, some filmgoes can be so thoroughly entertained by a movie adaptation, that they wish to continue their involvment by picking up the book(s), only to find they’re not one-and-the-same, and quickly losing interest.

    On the flipside, successful movie adaptations that remain loyal to book versions, often go on to create entire subcultures.

    I don’t know about you, but I want to attend conventions where everyone’s dressed in a loincloth!

    Oh wait… Howard’s Conan wore clothes.


  4. Wolf In The Fold says

    Indeed, like much ‘cult’ fiction, Conan has long been far out of the bounds of the original material. I was a rabid fan of the comics. When I read Conan stories I see John Buscema Conan in my mind’s eye. I enjoyed most of the L. Sprague deCamp and Lin Carter work and the movie could really be considered really expensive fan fiction. I will have to do a few more sit-ups before I can wear a loincloth to that convention!

  5. If you had actually read “The Phoenix on the Sword” and “By This Axe I Rule!”, you would know that it was NOT a case of changing a few names about. The opening and middle chapters are almost totally different, characters have been changed and excised: apart from the basic assassination & “king’s burden” plot, the two stories are very different.

    And if the point of adapting movies is to change the source material… then what’s the bloody point of taking the source material to begin with? If you’re going to change it until it’s practically unrecognizable it would be more worthwhile just making up your own story than messing about with someone elses.

  6. Wolf In The Fold says

    I have read them. One is a rewrite of the other. An adaptation, if you will. Kull is a barbarian who comes to rule a civilized nation. Conan is a barbarian who comes to rule a civilized nation. Story-wise that’s pretty similar. The themes of barbarism versus the civilized man loom large in Howard’s fiction (Conan, Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane…). Those themes run through the movie as well. Civilization is ‘ancient and wicked’ but Conan endures because he is a pure barbarian. His lust for combat, good steel, beutiful women, and vengeance just are. He didn’t learn them, they’re in his barbarian blood. That Conan is recognizable in the stories and the movie. If you don’t like the movie stylistically that’s your opinion and you’re welcome to it (I’ve loved it since the first time I’ve seen it) but this blog is about the craft of writing. And screenplays have different story structures than novels and short fiction. A screenwriter cannot defy that structure anymore than he could leap the grand canyon on a pogo stick. The movie will always be different. I should probably say that I agree with most of what you say about the literary Conan and REH (except for Howard not being crazy). However, from the standpoint of writing, to distill all of the literature of Conan and the Hyborian world into a coherent and engaging three act screenplay is a daunting, Herculean task. One that the writers of Conan the Barbarian managed rather impressively.

  7. I am not disagreeing that “Phoenix” is not a rewrite, it obviously is: I was taking issue with your assertion that it was simply a case of switching names about. The entire romance subplot was removed and replaced with the Thoth-Amon sorcery subplot. Kull’s character was changed from the deeply contemplative and philosophical one to the more pragmatic and grounded character of Conan,

    I also have a different perspective on Conan’s barbarism in the picture. Up until Conan is set free, he is utterly servile and follows his masters’ orders without question. His barbaric physical endurance is there certainly, but his mental endurance is all but non-existent.

    I guess we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on this.

  8. Wolf In The Fold says

    Fair enough. I purposely picked movies whose source material enjoyed large and dedicated fan bases, ‘sacred texts’ if you will. I’m glad this got a little debate and discussion going. I thank you for offering your opinions and critique.

  9. Well, you’ve certainly succeeded in that respect!

    In that case, it’s very gratifying to see Conan mentioned alongside giants like Beowulf and Lord of the Rings, and to have the eclectic rabble known as REH fans considered along with Tolkienites and Homer scholars. And of course, discussion is always great.