Finding Conan

Finding Conan

I got more than a few blank stares when I first told people I was making a documentary about Conan the Barbarian. Many had never heard of the character, and those that had associated him with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Of course, Arnie in a loincloth is an image that’s not exactly easy to forget…

It was the 1982 film after all that made him the iconic face of Conan, catapulting the former Austrian bodybuilder into the limelight and launching his film career. The film got mixed reviews but garnered a cult following, and Arnie-Conan became lodged in the pop cultural psyche…like a splinter in the eye.

Decades on, the film Conan the Barbarian and the woeful 1984 follow-up Conan the Destroyer are still regarded as the calling card for the franchise. While for many they would serve as an introduction to the fiction of Conan creator, Texan pulp-fiction writer Robert E. Howard, for most it was a full stop to their idea of who and what Conan was.

The films were just one example of the monopolisation of REH’s stories following his death, a monopolisation that has spawned an inferior and seemingly endless series of derivative works.

It all began with American science fiction writer L. Sprague De Camp. Hired by Howard’s publisher to edit his stories for publication, De Camp eventually succeeded in wresting away a portion of the copyright for himself.

His initial edits and re-writes led to a series of pastiche novels towards which the fan community is equal parts nostalgic and scathing. Some believe these books gave Conan exposure which he might not have otherwise gotten and introduced readers to the works of Robert E. Howard. Others point out that De Camp, in preventing the publication of the original unedited stories in favour of his curated pastiches, effectively opened the door to exploitation of the source material.

This exploitation in turn led to an unfaithful depiction of Conan and Howard’s story world. Some fans noted that Conan had ceased being the instinctual, amoral barbarian that had first captured the imagination of thousands, becoming instead a cerebral, stock-standard superhero.

Many as a result never got to see Conan as Howard intended, or understand the true appeal of his fiction. And in deviating from Howard’s brilliant stories, the film adaptations were ultimately setting themselves up for mediocrity.

You would think that after the critical and commercial failure of the 2011 film revamp featuring Jason Momoa (the actor who played Conan-inspired barbarian Khal Drogo in TV series Game of Thrones), Conan copyright-holder Paradox Entertainment might actually consider making a faithful adaption of REH stories. Not so. Recently it was announced that yet another pastiche-style Conan film was in the works and that Arnie would be reprising as the titular character.

I could wax at length about the virtues of REH’s rich, visceral sword-and-sorcery novels. Yet that would hardly do them the justice they deserve. Instead I’ll just refer you to any one of a number of Conan story collections on Amazon: Best you see for yourself what all the fuss is about.