Adaptation: “Conan the Barbarian”

Written by Nick Workman September 07, 2011

Adaptation is a bi-weekly column that looks at the transition from book to film. Find out if the book sucks or the movie sucks, and which one, if any, you should check out. Also, tune into my weekly radio show Nerd Alert on 94.9 CHRW.

The Story:

Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian

To many modern readers, Conan the Cimmerian is a sword-wielding, limb hacking, misogynist, oo oo, ah ah, grunting barbarian. Now that is not a far stretch from what he actually is, and it is understandable as to why people would believe that that is all that entails Conan. Since his inception in the 1930s, Conan has been misunderstood by a large portion of the general public. Why is this? Well mostly because Conan inspired hundreds of knock offs in the sword and sorcery genre, and those said knock basically missed what Conan was all about.

What is Conan all about? Well as stated above, Conan is the adventuring, fighting barbarian that we all think of, but he is so much more. Robert E. Howard, often considered one of the best Pulp writers, used Conan to explore larger themes than just a burly man making his way through the world. However, it does come back to that. Conan is a burly man, and he is trying to make his way through the world, but the reason he is burly and trying to make his way through the world, often living on the fringes of civilization is because Howard is trying to show that that is the only way to survive.

Howard was a pessimist and he viewed civilization and all that came with it as a plague. Conan fights against civilization, even though at times he has been a king, yet he always longs for a battle, because that is the only thing that makes sense. Conan fights dark wizards because wizards try to use a secret logic to enslave society. Conan will have no part of that because, like Howard, Conan does not understand why someone would want society. Conan frees enslaved people because he believes they should be free and not in chains of a civilization. This is what Conan is about. He is burly, an adventurer, and a limb-hacker because it is what makes sense. He fights civilization so that he can be free.

The Adaptation:

There have been many adaptations of Conan, from the Arnold movies to the cartoons to the comics. Today, the adaptation that we are looking at is the most recent: Marcus Nispel’s Conan the Barbarian.

First off, this film has the look of a Conan film. Jason Momoa does not just look like a barbarian, but looks like Conan. As described in the book, Conan has tanned skin and long black hair. Momoa fits that perfectly, more so than any previous adaptation. The world also has the look. The whole time watching it I could not stop thinking that most of the set design was taken straight from the legendary Conan cover designs by Frank Frazetta.

Second: the story. The story is simple. It is what we would think of a Conan film. Conan must avenge the death of his father while at the same time stopping a dark wizard and saving a damsel in distress. Yes, Conan often saved damsels in distress and fought dark wizards, but while he did that, Howard was as the same time trying to point out at how civilization was crumbling around us. I never saw that in the film. In the film, all society was barbaric; there was no sense of crumbling, or Conan fighting a society that is trying to impose their rules. Essentially what we needed out of the story was Conan leading some kind of anarchy rebellion against a fascist society, or perhaps fighting a tyrannical ruler. This brings me to my third point.

The characters. All the characters are weak here. While Momoa has the look, he has nothing else. In the stories, Conan has been a king, a pirate lord, a leader of rebellions, and a lone wolf. Here, we only get a thin look that Conan was once or could be that. Throughout the movie, Conan grunts instead of being the brilliant strategist we see in the books. Whoever wrote the script also failed to show that Conan has a humor, and I am not talking about the poor humor that is delivered in the movie when Conan simply says “woman.” The script writer also failed to show at times that Conan can doubt himself, even at times feeling nervous and out of place. I never see that in Conan, he seems to fit in all too well wherever he is.

The other characters are awful. The dark wizard, as played by Stephen Lang, never feels magical enough. (Spoilers) When he finally gains his powers, nothing changes. He does not get stronger and he gets no magical powers. It is weak in terms of a final battle, because Conan is always no match for a mere human. What he needs is a wizard to fight, so that it is the clash of magic verse the blade, barbarian verse the science of society.

Fourthly: This movie is supposed to be a hard R, yet the fighting never seems to go that way. Yes, there is limb hacking and blood, but Nispel always cuts too soon to see any real sword fighting or damage done. I felt let down because I wanted to see a Conan running into a battle and see the carnage he can do. That is not here. You can see better fighting on Game of Thrones.

Ultimately, this film has the look, but nothing else. It is as good as a cheap knock off of Howard’s Conan. It is thin, and misses the point of the stories. Conan stories are filled with action and so is this film, but in the Conan stories you at least get a good description, whereas in the film you get a glimpse.

All in all, skip the movie, pick up the book; you will get a better Conan story. I recommend Red Nails, The Tower of the Elephant, and The People of the Black Circle.

My Rating: 2/10

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About Nick Workman

Nick Workman: Co-host of Nerd Alert, editor of news, writer of reviews, and lover of all that involves imagination. If he is not on his computer working on We Eat Films or Nerd Alert, you can probably find him in a big comfy chair, sipping a cup of coffee, with his nose deep in a book.

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