So Netflix, I hear you’re preparing a Conan the Barbarian TV series. In news that will surprise no-one who knows me, I have thoughts about this.
First off, I bet you’re thinking something like “Oh yeah, I know Conan. I saw the first Arnie film back in the day. Big guy, wears a furry nappy, I know all I need to know.”
Discard everything you think you know. from any of the previous adaptions, whether that be the Arnie films, Jason Momoa’s far from bad but still not great 2011 movie or any of the TV adaptions, both animated and live action. For the purposes of starting afresh there’s only one thing worth keeping from previous adaptions and we’ll get to that later.
First, it seems you have the rights to the stories and not just the character. This is A Good Thing. Read them. All of them, yes even The Vale of Lost Women. (It’s OK, you can leave that one till last) Now, there’s something of a warning I have to give, and some context to. To put it bluntly, to modern eyes the stories can be pretty damn racist. Howard was writing these tales in early 1930’s Texas and while he grew less racist over time, he’s still pretty damn racist. So yes, by all means, please do file off that stuff.
“KNOW, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars—Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen- eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.”The Nemedian Chronicles
They bound around Conan’s life, from his early days as a thief in Zamora, a barbarian youth newly arrived in civilized lands, to his later years as as King of Aquilonia, the mightiest kingdom in the west. The first of the Conan tales, The Phoenix on the Sword (Itself a rewrite of an unsold Kull tale, By this Axe I Rule!“) takes place while Conan is King of Aquilonia. The first thing we seem him doing is altering a map – this already strikes him as far from the monosyballic brute the stereotype see’s him as. Use this – we can see his enemies develop, drop hints at future stories and flesh out the gaps. Just don’t give us an origin story please – he’s a guy who wanders the world seeking adventure, a penniless thief and vagabond, who embarks on many a perilous adventure in search of fortune and glory, and winds up a wise and respected king of a nation.
I’ve long dreamed of seeing The Hour of the Dragon or Rogues in the House on screen, so please don’t take that hope away from me. Hell, you could get a season or two’s worth of episodes out of Dragon alone. There’s moments that are practically made for the screen – massive swirling battles, deadly intrigue and high adventure. There’s excerpts from these stories that don’t just raise the hairs on the back of my neck, they fire the blood in my veins and remind me I’m alive.
“I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom’s realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer’s Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.”Queen of the Black Coast.
We’ve spent a fair bit of time talking about the stories, but what of Conan himself? There’s a lot of misconceptions about the big guy. For starters, his parents weren’t murdered in front of him. Yes, he was born on a battlefield, but that’s where it stops. To my knowledge Howard never detailed his parents, though I’m sure I read somewhere in one of his letters that Conan did venture home briefly in his later years. The earlier tales show him as a youth, unused to civilized ways (The Tower of the Elephant is a prime example of this), and he evolves somewhat over the course of the stories, but he remains at heart, the same general character – ferocious, intelligent and not to be messed with. He can be a firm friend and ally, but get between him and something he wants, be that a woman or a priceless treasure, and he’ll cut you down with barely a second thought. Of course, if it comes down ot the woman or the treasure, he’ll go for the woman every time. He’s remarkably easy come, easy go in this regard – see The Black Stranger and Jewels of Gwahlur for examples of this.
But who will play him? I’m going to assume that you’re sticking with the bouncing between time periods approach, so you’ll need an actor who can convincingly play that. Conan’s people, the Cimmerians, are based on Irish/Celtic myth, so please don’t choose another Austrian. Furthermore, while he should have muscle and a lot of it, he doesn’t have the physique of a modern body builder. Think of him as closer to a heavyweight boxer. I don’t have an actor in mind, as there’s no-one who matches the Conan I see in my head when I read the stories. I’m hoping for an unknown myself.
Now remember when we talked earlier about the one thing that deserved to be kept from previous adaptions? Well, I can sum it up in three simple words: ANVIL OF CROM. It is generally acknowledged that Basil Poledouris’s score to Conan the Barbarian is damn near perfect and about the only thing Conan fans will agree on. I mean, just listen to it – there’s the opening booming of drums, Mako’s epic narration and then, it just blows the bloody doors off. It’s the sort of music that makes me want to stand on top of a windswept mountain holding a sword aloft, the sort of image you’d find airbrushed on vans back in the 70’s. To me it is perfect and I will not hear a bad word against it.
At the same time, I know whoever is composing the score will want to put their own spin on things, and I encourage that. I’m really looking forward to hearing what they do, but be aware whoever gets the ship will have some mighty big shoes to fill.
I think my passion for the material shows. I love this stuff, it means a hell of a lot to me, so believe me when I say this: please don’t screw this up. And you know, if you need a consultant, I work cheap. 🙂