Adapting literary heroes to the screen is a tough dilemma for filmmakers. With the possible exception of the Harry Potter phenomenon, the vast majority of a potential movie audience often has little or no familiarity with any given character’s literary exploits. The end result can often be frustrating for fans of the original stories, especially when movies make too many arbitrary changes, or even do away with the spirit and intentions of the books entirely.
Conan The Barbarian, the latest rendering of Robert E Howard’s pulp fantasy hero, swung its way into cinemas last week. While critics and fans are divided over its merits, most agree that it’s at least more faithful and better made than such Howard adaptations as Conan The Destroyer or Kull The Conqueror.
The case of the Conan movies versus the writings of Robert E Howard is, therefore, nothing new. Movies and literary adventure heroes, along with their fans, have suffered a strained relationship for decades. Here, then, are some prime examples…
James Bond author Ian Fleming once described Sean Connery, the first actor to play 007 on the big screen, as “a Glaswegian lorry driver who mangles my character”. Many Fleming fans might be inclined to agree with that sentiment, though their issues may not lie solely with Connery.
The 1959 novel Goldfinger, for instance, opens with Bond sitting in a bar in Miami Airport. He’s just flown back from Central America, where he has just carried out an assignment to kill a drug dealer who was working for the Communists. As he sits there, Bond reflects on his deadly deeds in the line of duty. His internal musings on the nature of his dark and often brutal occupation depict a man questioning his own morality and place in the world. Fleming’s writing in this part of the book is almost poignant in its existentialism.
Cut to the corresponding opening scene in the movie, Goldfinger. Connery, as Bond, on a similar mission, emerges out of a lake with a plastic duck on his head. He then takes off his wet suit to reveal that he is wearing a perfectly dry tuxedo underneath. Nothing can describe the difference between the Bond novels and the Bond films better than that comparison.
Described by Fleming as a “blunt instrument” rather than a hero, the literary Bond bore only a passing resemblance to his cinematic counterpart. Bond was a cool, detached and efficient killer in the service of his country, hence the term, “Licence to kill”. He rarely uttered a joke or a witty one-liner, least of all in regard to someone that he had just killed.
The actors that followed Connery in the role of Bond strayed to and from Fleming in varying degrees. Roger Moore played a highly camp character that happened to have the same name as Ian Fleming’s Bond. Timothy Dalton took over the role in 1987’s The Living Daylights, and is often denigrated by critics as one of the worst Bonds ever. Ironically, Dalton is lauded by fans as one of the best. They see him as the only actor who truly brought the spirit of Fleming’s 007 to the role.
Pierce Brosnan took over the cinematic Bond mantle in GoldenEye in 1995. Brosnan’s interpretation was something of a compromise between the lighter Bond of Connery, Lazenby or Moore, and the darker Bond of Fleming and Dalton.
Finally, Casino Royale, the Bond reboot of 2006 starring Daniel Craig as 007, brought back a darker Bond, even though he still wasn’t entirely based on Fleming’s work. Craig and the franchise both used Fleming, and at the same time did their own thing with the character. The result seemed to finally satisfy both fans and mass audiences alike.
The film adaptations of the Matt Helm spy novels are a case of extreme mangling.
American author Donald Hamilton, between 1960 and 1993, wrote twenty-seven novels focusing on the exploits of a tough, hard-hitting, and very deadly secret agent named Matt Helm. Hamilton’s Helm stories were two-fisted, bare-knuckled adventures written in the first person. Helm describes his missions with the type of rough cynicism and dark dry humour often associated with Raymond Chandler or Mickey Spillane. He also describes the violence and death around him in chillingly dispassionate tones.
The movies are, well, a tad different. Four Matt Helm movies were made between the years 1966 and 1969. To even call the movies adaptations of the books is a stretch – they are very broad comedies that redefine the parameters of silliness.
Rat Pack legend Dean Martin plays Helm. Martin maintains his classic recreational drinking, smoking and womanising personality. The sexually suggestive one-liners never stop in the Helm movies, whether they are funny or not (most of the time, not).
The movies only loosely used some plot elements from the Hamilton books. For instance, in the novel The Ambushers, Matt Helm must stop a cadre of Nazis and Marxist Revolutionaries from launching a stolen Russian missile from Mexico into the United States. In the movie version, Matt Helm must stop a cartoony South American revolutionary with an army of young women in khaki miniskirts from launching a flying saucer armed with a super duper laser beam.
Mike Myers has cited Martin’s (and not Hamilton’s) Matt Helm as a major influence on the creation of his of his 60s spy movie character, Austin Powers. Myers, fortunately, manages to make most of the Helm-inspired humour much funnier. Die-hard Hamilton fans will certainly exult the day that a serious, dramatic big screen Matt Helm thriller comes to be.
Tarzan is one of the most popular and enduring fictional characters of all time. He is known all over the world, and has multi-generational appeal and recognition. The character first appeared in print in 1912, and since then has spawned some eighty or more Tarzan movies.
However, comparatively few people are as familiar with any of the twenty-five or so Tarzan novels, written by his creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and few of the Tarzan movies come close to portraying the Tarzan of Burroughs’ novels.
In the original Burroughs novel, Tarzan Of The Apes, John Clayton, (also known by his formal title, Lord Greystoke), is orphaned in the jungle and raised by a fictional species of apes. He eventually teaches himself to read using books his parents left behind, is later discovered by a French explorer, and learns French as his first spoken language. Later, he meets and falls in love at first sight with an American, Jane Porter, for whom he learns spoken English and becomes civilised.
Burroughs’ vision of Tarzan is very much that of the noble savage. Tarzan is educated and very intelligent. He is strong, fast and has highly tuned senses. He has a very powerful sense of morality and justice. Basically, he’s Burroughs’ conception of the ideal man. However, Tarzan is certainly not without his dark, angry and sometimes even vicious side.
Tarzan, at various different times in various different books, is a French military intelligence officer in Algeria, discovers a valley of lost dinosaurs, is given an immortality potion by a witch doctor, fights the Germans in World War I, discovers the still living missing evolutionary link between man and ape, and is a pilot for the British Royal Air Force during World War II.
In the movies, Tarzan has a really loud yell.
For many years, the Hollywood series of films, starring American Olympic swimming gold medalist Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan, dominated the popular consciousness of the character. In those films, Tarzan was never even alluded to as being a British aristocrat; he is uneducated, speaks in broken English, and has a simple, almost childlike personality.
That series of Tarzan movies picked up briefly in quality in the late 50s and early 60s. Long after Weissmuller had left the series, its producers finally decided to let Tarzan speak and act intelligently. Gordon Scott plays an articulate, educated version of the character in Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959) and Tarzan The Magnificent (1960), two of the better Tarzan movies out there.
The 1984 film, Greystoke: The Legend Of Tarzan, Lord Of The Apes, starring Christopher Lambert in the title role, follows some of the Burroughs story line from the early part of the original novel. The film, though, veers off significantly from the book once Tarzan is brought back to civilisation.
The Disney animated Tarzan also follows the early parts of the book quite closely. Tarzan is depicted as teaching himself to read, for instance. As most Burroughs aficionados will tell you, however, there are no Phil Collins songs in the original novel.
Conan the Cimmerian
Unlike James Bond, Matt Helm and Tarzan, Robert E Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian has only seen three film adaptations, with the third and most recent out in cinemas now. While the first two films certainly have their own merits and their own fair share of fans, neither authentically captures the spirit of Howard.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan The Barbarian is not Robert E Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian. He was cast in no small part for his championship bodybuilding physique. Howard’s Conan, though, in spite of being a basically simple barbarian, is a character not just of muscles but of some complexity and depth. Schwarzenegger simply wasn’t an experienced enough actor to pull the role off.
Another Conan The Barbarian versus Conan the Cimmerian issue is that of writer and director John Milius. Like many of the more established Hollywood directors, Milius likes to bring his own personal stamp to his films. Some say that stamp consists of right-leaning libertarian viewpoints, as evidenced in Milius’ other works, like Red Dawn, Farewell To The King and the first draft of his screenplay for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
For instance, there is a now famous and oft-quoted line in the first Conan movie. In answer to the question, “What is best in life?” Conan answers, “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.” Issues of political correctness aside, the line is not to be found anywhere in the writings of Robert E Howard. Milius pulled the line from a book called Genghis Kahn: The Emperor Of All Men by Howard Lamb. Clearly, it is a line that Milius connected with, but is it really reflective of Robert E Howard’s Conan?
Howard doesn’t endow his Conan with any easily discernible guiding principles. Nor does Howard like to spend a lot time letting the reader in on Conan’s thoughts and feelings. He describes what Conan does more than he describes what Conan thinks.
Howard’s Conan does not appear to value conquest for the sake of conquest. The character is a reactor. He never really wants anything more than to roam the world, drink the occasional mead, enjoy the company of a young “wench” now and then and, ultimately, just be left alone. It is only once Conan finds himself lured into a situation he can no longer control that the sword comes out and the serious ass-kicking begins. When Conan fights in battles, it is often as a mercenary and for his own personal gain.
While Howard is on record as citing Lamb as one of his favourite writers, the presence of the line says more about Milius than it does about Howard. This is true of most the rest of the film. Ideas that are not Howard’s abound. Howard’s original stories, for the most part, only turn up in episodic form.
The sequel, Conan The Destroyer (1984), was much lighter in tone than its predecessor. It may be a fun movie but, ultimately, it shares more in common with movies like The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad than it does with anything Howard ever wrote.
As for the new Conan movie, well, it sure looks exciting, anyway. And the fans can, as always, only hope.
James Bond, Matt Helm, Tarzan of the Apes and Conan the Cimmerian are but a few examples of characters whose movies have strayed from their source material enough to be considered a disappointment by their fans.
Are you a fan of any particular literary hero not mentioned here? Did the movie versions bug you? If so, weigh in and share your comments below.