Thursday, August 18, 2011

Cimmerian 'Stravaganza: Dawn of a New Era?

It might seem anachronistic and hopelessly optimistic in the all-digital-all-the-time 21st century, but it still happens: studios still release actual printed-pulp books as part of the advertising onslaught that precedes most big-budget movies. The assumption that there's any real connection between movie-goers and book-readers, between the experience of movie-going and book-reading, is bizarre on its face, but quixotic and charming even so. And if that kind of connection was tough to credit back when Alan Dean Foster was cashing a quick paycheck by adding participles to the "Clash of the Titans" script, how much more tenuous must it seem today, when movies cost hundreds of millions of dollars and hurl themselves at their hapless audiences in 200-mph sensory-enhanced 3-D with scratch-n-sniff vibro-massage? Once upon a time, perhaps, reading a book and watching a movie were roughly analogous: in both cases, you were the passive recipient of someone's creative output. But there's nothing passive about watching big-budget special effects movies anymore - with their Dolby eviscero-sound systems and their compulsory sensory overload, going to one is like having a rectal exam while tripping on LSD: you've never experienced anything like it, yet it leaves you stunned, sore, and vaguely unsatisfied. With high-resolution video games playing on every personal electronic device in the world, movie studios can no longer rely on anything so quaint as audiences actually paying attention, so they do their best to reach out of the big screen and grab movie-goers' faces between thumb and pointing finger, like Great Aunt Estelle zeroing in for a holiday kiss.

Surely the divide will soon be so great that studios just won't bother with the whole book-thing, but right now, they still do - especially if the original source of their movie embarrassingly happens to be literary. Such is the case with the new Lionsgate movie epic "Conan the Barbarian" starring Jason Momoa: it was born, as we've seen in the course of our Cimmerian 'Stravaganza, of Robert E. Howard's cheesy, heartfelt pulp stories almost a century ago. And let's give Lionsgate credit where it's due: facing the dilemma of producing and liscensing boring old printed books, they did the job right.

First, they commissioned somebody to do the aforementioned participle-sprinkling to the screenplay. That somebody was veteran sci-fi writer Michael Stackpole, a merry old hack who's never written a bad sentence in his entire professional career. No idea if Stackpole is, like most other sci-fi geeks, a Conan fan of long standing, and no idea what strictures the studio placed on him in the task of adapting the final screenplay, but the end result speaks for itself: his novelization, Conan the Barbarian, is that rarest of rare birds: an adaptation that can be read with enjoyment just for its own sake, without reference to (or even knowledge of) some gallumping-great movie in a google-plex near you.

Stackpole has always excelled in adding that one keen little twist, the little detail that suddenly humanizes even the most inhuman characters (this knack is on full and continuous display in his quite enjoyable Star Wars novel I, Jedi). In his Conan novelization, he slips it in at the end of a villain's rant, seen from the viewpoint of his equally-villainous daughter:
Khalar Zym began pacing, his face tightened with fury but his eyes focused distantly. He began to spin for the monks a story - yet telling it more to himself. Marique had heard it many times, told many ways, with her father in moods that ranged from the depths of despair to the heights of triumph. He spun it as a great tragedy - the defining moment of his life. It was the reason he was born and the reason he continued to live.

And yet in every telling, he forgets that I was there.

But the most intriguing sub-aspect of Stackpole's book is the string of hints he adds about our main character's past. One of his present-day fighting companions alludes to that past and gets only a guarded reflection from Conan himself, with a classic bit of Stackpole business added on at the end:
"I do wish I knew of your previous life as a corsair, for it was there you changed. Not unexpected, the loss of carefree youth ... but something replaced it."

The Cimmerian stared at the distant horizon. "I was born to battle. Courage and cunning are what Crom gives us, and I have made the most of them. Of comrades and companions I have had legions. Most have died. Many I have mourned. A few, however ..." One ...

Conan fans won't be surprised to read in Stackpole's book that one of the tales being sung about our young hero is called "The Song of Belit."

That same rich sense of the character's past is caught best in the companion paperback sporting a new movie cover: Del Rey has issued a neat little mass market paperback reprinting six of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories - easily the six best: "The Phoenix on the Sword," "The People of the Black Circle," "The Tower of the Elephant," Red Nails," "Rogues in the House," and  "Queen of the Black Coast." This is a great way to introduce those mythical movie-motivated readers to delve directly into Howard's work - including that last-named story, which features Conan's time serving as a corsair with the legendary pirate-queen Belit whom we've met before (especially in John Buscema's great visual of her coming back from the dead to protect Conan from a marauding winged ape). It's in this story that Conan comes the closest to outlining his life's axioms, in a little speech I'm pleased to see carried over to the movie, since it makes a much, much better anthem for the character than some droning lines about "the lamuntashun of dare vimmin":

"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 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 an 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 I am content."

Fitting enough that we bring our summer's Cimmerian 'Stravaganza to a close with those lines! All that's left is for America to go to the movie theaters this weekend and make "Conan the Barbarian" a hit. I'll cross my fingers and hope that it's the number 1 movie in the country come Monday - it's hugely talented young star deserves it, and more importantly, this great enduring character deserves it too.

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