After doing my interview in Rama Screen about the upcoming film, Conan The Barbarian, I wasn't really expecting my comments to stir up any notice from movie fans.
But then I was startled and intrigued when various bloggers around the net went over my answers with a fine tooth comb - analyzing and parsing each and every sentence. One such website, Conan Movie Blog, took my interview as seriously as if it were a philosophical treatise... and then sliced it into ribbons. You can read Alexander Harron's editorial on my interview, and the subsequent analysis by his readers, here.
Far from being insulted, I was fascinated with how passionately and seriously Alexander and other Conan fans were tracking the new Conan movie, so I contacted him and asked him a few questions of my own...
Sean Hood: Both you and the readers of your blog have a deep, emotional connection to Conan. What is it about Conan's character that resonates so deeply for you?
Alexander Harron: It's difficult to pin down, because I'd dare say every Conan or Robert E. Howard fan has different reason. Some love the Conan stories and character for the pure sense of adventure and excitement, that Howard's inimitable prose sent them on a white-water rapid of sheer, visceral joy. Others love them for the surprising philosophical depth, the unexpected symbolism and subtle allusions to history, mythology or fiction, or even the sheer poetry of his words. For me, I think it's a combination of both: Howard was one of those rare writers who could engage readers on both levels. One could read, for instance, "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" with nothing else in mind but enjoying Conan's relentless chase through the mountains, relishing the rivulets of blood streaming down sword and flesh, savouring the tactile descriptions of skin, hair, blood, metal, heat and cold. Yet one could read the same story from a completely different point of view: to study the allusions to the myth of Apollo and Daphne, compare and contrast Atali to Atalanta, note the mythological implications of Conan's pursuit through the wastes strongly resembling the dead Norseman's journey to Valhalla. The Conan stories that do this best are among the best stories Howard wrote: the Conan stories that Howard simply churned out in a matter of months only cater to one aspect (usually the former), and so aren't nearly as interesting.
As for Conan as a character, he is a man of many contradictions: he's a bloody barbarian who loves wine, women & song, but he's also fascinated by philosophical discourse, art, poetry and history. He's cynical and dismissive of civilization, but he's also willing to exploit it, and enjoy its fruits. He's a violent, dangerous, murderous warrior of ill repute who views no man as his master, but he's also immensely protective, honourable, generous and loyal when he wants to be. He's blessed with superior genetics and a harsh upbringing which gave him greater strength, stamina and acumen than the average man, but he also works to improve himself throughout his life. He hates and fears magic, but when lives are at stake, he's willing to brave supernatural horror or use unpredictable sorcery for his own ends. Conan also grows as a character throughout the series: from a naive, near-feral, superstitious thief to a cynical, bloodthirsty, amoral pirate; from a grizzled, cynical mercenary grunt to a charismatic leader of men; from a wandering adventurer who would risk his own life for a score of settlers and sacrifice untold riches to save a dancing girl, to a generous and conscientious king eager to improve the lives of his subjects. Quite a remarkable character arc, but done so subtly that one might initially think he doesn't change at all.
SH: Why would you spend so much time and passion on Conan Movie Blog tracking the production of a movie that you have been so fiercely critical of? Why bother?
AH: Before I took up the reins on the Conan Movie Blog, I was very vocal in my criticisms of the film on The Cimmerian and my personal blog. I was deeply disappointed that the film was announced to be an origin story, but was hopeful that it would not follow the same path as the first film. When the synopsis and character sheet was leaked and confirmed to be legitimate, I was faced with a conundrum: should I wash my hands of the film entirely, or continue to keep up with it? Part of the reason I chose the latter is a sense of obligation to new or prospective Howard fans. A lot of people who have never heard of Robert E. Howard - even some who've never heard of Conan - are going to have their first experience of the character through this film. I decided that it would be important for new fans to know exactly where this film stands in the Howard canon from a Howard fan's point of view. Instead of simply belly-aching about how the film doesn't gel with a Howard fan's view of Conan, I felt it would be more productive to at least state why this was the case. Plus, there's the fact that most news sources aren't exactly knowledgeable on the source material. There is still confusion over whether this film counts as a remake of Conan the Barbarian or not, let alone how closely it adheres to the stories. One website was concerned whether the name change of Khalar Singh to Khalar Zym would upset the purists. Thus, even though I've been critical of the film - and I'm willing to give credit where it's due, such as with Jason Momoa, who's done nothing but impress since the initial announcement - I feel it's important to know what many people's first experience of Howard will be like. That way, Howard fans will be prepared for their questions and queries, and we can answer their questions on the film's relation to the stories.
SH: If a future film were to be based directly on a Howard story or novella, which one in particular do you think would make the best movie? Which one would fans most like to see?
AH: In terms of delivering general audience's expectations for a Conan film, "The People of the Black Circle" would be a great choice. It's set in an exotic milieu with striking landscapes and ancient civilizations, it features a female protagonist in revealing clothing who's nonetheless strong and independently-minded, plenty of action and adventure, diabolical sorcery of a subtle and mysterious nature, abundant secondary characters including a fascinating anti-hero, eldritch horrors, and one could even argue Conan undergoes a character arc. However, if you were to ask the average Howard fan which story they'd most love to see adapted, a great number would respond with "Beyond the Black River." It may lack beautiful women in need of rescuing, the prospect of treasure, and a happy ending, but it has all the violence, horror and mystery one would want from a Conan story, as well as potently encapsulating the barbarism-civilization dynamic, and giving us one of the most compelling and human co-protagonists in any Conan story.
SH: Other than Conan, what Robert E. Howard character would you most like to see on screen?
AH: Dark Agnes, without question. Agnes is one of the most important of Howard's creations, because she single-handedly destroys the stereotype of Howard's female characters being nothing more than damsels in distress, only fit to be rescued or ravished by the lantern-jawed hero. What's more, Agnes is one of the very few Howard characters outside of his comedies to be written from the first person perspective, adding a great deal of intimacy with the character, and making her trials and hardships all the more affecting. I maintain that "Sword Woman" is not only feminist, it's rabidly feminist. Men take an absolute beating for the injustices meted out on women throughout the centuries, the plight of the average woman is distilled and heightened, But Agnes isn't just some straw feminist, a Katherine who has to be "tamed," no Hippolyta who must be "defeated" by a real man: she's the protagonist, and she's completely in the right. Despite her resentment towards men for her place in society, she is very sympathetic, and despite being strong, she doesn't lose her femininity. She's a 21st-Century warrior woman created in the 1930s. Best of all, she already has an origin story, and the two completed stories are so closely connected, they could be combined into a single film.
I'm curious to read how other Conan fans would answer the same questions, so if you have an opinion, please comment. - Sean Hood