Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Interview With Conan Blogger Alexander Harron

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
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Kortoso said...

Thank you for taking these questions, Sean!

We are all pretty clear about what drew us to the original Conan tales by Robert E. Howard. Many times, it goes back to the lurid paperback covers by Frank Frazetta; once we read Howard's streamlined prose, we're hooked. It's like going to the carnival midway, drawn to the brightly painted roller coaster, but finally sold by the simple thrills of the ride.

It's Howard's writing style that drew most Conan fans to the stories. Much ink has been spilled regarding this, but couldn't an insightful screenwriter and director team up to mimic that tone in any future Conan film?

Charles R. Rutledge said...

I'll bite.

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?

Like two other icons of American culture, the cowboy and the private eye, Conan is the ultimate self-determining man. He lives by his own code and a sort of rough honor and he makes his own destiny. Conan is going to do what has to be done and he won't let anything get in his way. That's very appealing.
In some ways too, I think he represents freedom to a lot of people. He makes his way in the civilized world but it has no hold on him. He remains the barbarian, no matter how much time he spends in the cities and towns of the Hyborian Age. And of course, on a visceral level, he's a fighting machine. What guy hasn't occasionally wished to be the toughest hombre around?

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?

Red Nails, because I think it has the potential to please Howard purists and general moviegoers as well. For the REH crew it has Conan coming up against men, monsters, and sorcery. He gets ample opportunity to show himself as fighter without peer, but also as a thinking man of action when he finds a way to escape the dragon (dinosaur) that traps he and Valeria, or when he faces off against Tolkemec toward the end of the story. Plus we get to see some of Howard’s darker musings on the decadence of civilization as Conan confronts the two warring factions in Xuchotl.
For a more general movie going experience, Red Nails would make good use of the things movies do best. The roofed over city would allow for impressive sets. The dragon and to a lesser extent, the crawler from the catacombs would make for some great CGI effects. (The crawler should never be seen too clearly.)
The plot of Red Nails is a blend of adventure, horror, and suspense. There would be no need to add a strong woman character because the story already has one of REH's best, Valeria of the Red Brotherhood, a woman who fought side by side and back to back with Conan. There are plenty of great characters to flesh out the cast. There's a second strong, if sinister, female character in Queen Tascela. Then there's the burly, dangerous Olmec and the loyal but doomed Techotl, and finally the creepy, mad Tolkemec, wanderer of the catacombs.

Other than Conan, what Robert E. Howard character would you most like to see on screen?

Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, REH's Crusader hero. Hawks of Outremer is one of my favorite Howard tales. I think it could be adapted into a terrific film.

Wonderboy2402 said...

I would also suggest Red Nails. Reading through that story just struck me as something that would just ooze greatness on film. The dark corridors of a lost city hiding lurking threats both human and supernatural. The dim cooridoors lit only with precious gems, and opaque skylights. A primordial beast in the forest outside the city... but even darker horrors keeping the survivors in.

Furthermore you have all the roles for a successful cast as pointed out above.

Another Solomon Kane movie would be excellent too. =]

Kortoso said...

Since I didn't answer your questions directly, may I add a postscript?

It seems that Hollywood rejects adapting the short stories directly because they would occupy as little as half an hour of screen time or an hour, depending on the story.

The biz is so attached to 2-1/2 hour movies as a unit, that the preference is to re-frame stories rather than re-think the model.

So as 30 minute dramas, the Conan stories would do really well on cable TV, in the same way that we see Spartacus on Starz. Unlike Spartacus, the sets would have to change almost every episode. I think the hardcore Conan fans would forgive some well-done CGI for this purpose.

Of course, the only story that would fit the accustomed format is The Hour of the Dragon, unless a string of stories were presented as an anthology. However, anthologies rarely do well, and usually as a "boutique" project. If a reduced version of Hour of the Dragon were spiced up with Conan's flashbacks of his wild past, then you'd have a hell of a product.

And yes, I'd like to see Bran Mak Morn on the screen.

Ralph Damiani said...

I would love to see a Conan movie based on some of the original tales sewn together. They could be presented as recollections of the early days of King Conan, told to his subjects in his court. Heck, there's more than enough material there for an epic trilogy of his life and adventures.

There could be, indeed, a greater arc piecing the films together. Perhaps they would culminate in the events of The Hour of the Dragon, for instance.

Take a look at Sin City. Although I have my issues with that film, it succeeds in establishing Miller's universe and its inhabitants in a very episodic manner. Big Fish is yet another example.

I would love to see the Hyborian Age established in the same way, a collection of tales shared by a cast of different and interesting characters, not necessarily related, except for sharing the same fictional universe.

Kill Bill is also very episodic in the way the Bride character is gradually developed around interesting supporting characters through different places and periods, and each segment/chapter is almost self-contained.

I think there was lots of potential to make a Conan script that was unconventional and still very faithful. Sadly, not many studios will risk their properties these days, so instead of an artsy approach, we get relatively safe blockbuster formulas.

This is what truly irks the fans, but I have to say scriptwriters like yourself, can't be blamed for the state of the industry. It's a fine line separating the art from the product.

And that is why Milius is highly praised by some (not all) Conan fans. Conan, the Barbarian may have been a far cry from Howard's Conan, but his film was very artistical and risky in so many levels, and it ultimately stood the test of time because it was unique and artistical. Unlike its sequel, which was a watered down, popcorn movie at best. Still fun, but not really memorable.

Anonymous said...

I'm a big fan of Conan and Howard because I truly believe Howard was a gateway to somewhere else. He's one of those few writers..where ideas, whatever, came from somewhere else. I don't know if he was pyschic on any level or what. But the fact that the entire Conan mythology is the way it is...and how it came to this loner from Texas...well.

Finn said...

"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?"

For me it's that when I first started reading Howard's Conan I realized the stories reflected my own views and thoughts in most ways. Then I realized it wasn't Conan, but the reflection of Howard in the Conan-stories that reached me. So basically I recognize a lot of myself in Howard, and to quite a great extent Conan.

Therefor I take it personal when someone fscks around with Howard's creation, because I think he deserves respect. But I guess it's easy to disregard the vision of someone who can't defend themselves, even if it is because they're dead. If there is no line drawn you can cross anywhere, right? People are more and more like that nowadays - total lack of respect.

Unknown said...

I think it would be great to string The Frost Giant's Daughter, Rogues in the House and The Tower of the Elephant together to make an epic Conan movie. All three stories take place while Conan is young and all three are epic tales filled with great action and layers of depth.

A. Q. Porter said...

What other Howard stories would I like to see made into movies? Well, two of my favorite Howard characters are Francis X. Gordon and Solomon Kane, so I'd pick (Three Bladed Doom" and "The Moon of Skulls".

J. G. Huckenpƶhler

Anonymous said...

Sword Woman is dedicated and based on C.L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry stories (themselves influenced by Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith). I found much of what I enjoyed about Howard (and Smith) in them, but also Moore had her own unique sensibilities which I also appreciated.

matsellah said...

What is it about Conan's character that resonates so deeply for you?

For me, it isn't so much the character as the author's storytelling. Howard's descriptive writing was without peer, but more than that, it was his uncanny ability to take his readers on an adventure at a breakneck pace. The character of Conan simply provided the trigger; Superior, but not a superhero. Revels in dealing death, but within a moral frame. Without equal, but has huge faults. Conan is larger than life, but also very human.

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?

I also like People Of the Black Circle. While Hour Of the Dragon has all the bells and whistles that would translate well to the screen, it's very much the Hero story, whereas POTBC is the reluctant anti-hero. And (IMO) has a more engaging appeal. Red Nails would also be worthy.

Anonymous said...

Red Nails could be a really interesting movie -- almost like a weird world's-collide mashup of Conan (sorcery and such) and Gormenghast (immense and ancient walled city).