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According to Wikipedia, three Conan movies have been made in the past: Conan the Barbarian (1982), Conan the Destroyer (1984) and Conan the Barbarian (2011). On TV, there was the animated series (and sort-of a spin-off) (1994) as well as a short-lived live-action series (1997).

I have watched only the first two movies, and read a bit about the third. I have also watched the animated series and the live-action series, and what all of these adaptations have in common is that they are so loosely based on the original stories, that sometimes the only connection to the franchise is Conan's name and some places\characters names.

Has this issue ever been discussed anywhere? Has anyone of those involved in the production of these adaptations ever commented on this subject?

My question is why no organic story was ever made into a proper adaptation of Conan's original adventures?

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  • I've cleaned up a few of the tags based on our usage, good answer though, +1!
    – Edlothiad
    May 9, 2018 at 8:07
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    Because the books would be unwatchable nonsense. Admittedly the latest conan film was also unwatchable nonsense, but for different reasons.
    – Valorum
    May 9, 2018 at 8:23
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    @Valorum Not sure why you'd say that... Most of the original stories by REH could make a fine segment in themselves in an epic sword-and-sorcery movie. I can think of the Tower of the Elephant, Shadows in Zamboula and similar stories where Conan acts (mostly) alone as a typical adventure for a heroic movie. <br> What I don't get is use a whole different (and new) plot and just combine certain elements from the stories (the tree of woe, Thak from Rogues in the House) instead of using an already existing good base (with adaptations to cinema here and there).
    – Don_S
    May 9, 2018 at 10:12
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    I don't think this has an easy answer, and you could ask the same question for many other book adaptations; there's nothing unique to Conan's adventures in this phenomenon. What works in the page often doesn't work on the big screen. Adapting books is hard. That no actual Conan story has ever been adapted is evidence, albeit inconclusive, that it'd probably be a bad idea -- or too hard, or it wouldn't work -- to do so. Other than asking the scriptwriters, I don't think anyone will be able to answer this.
    – Andres F.
    May 9, 2018 at 13:11
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    The first Conan movie was based more on the Marvel comics than on Howard's original stories, particularly for Conan's background as slave and gladiator. The name of the villain, Thulsa Doom, was taken from a short Howard story about King Kull, "Delcardes' Cat", but in the comics, he became a recurring villain for both Kull and Conan. It may also be that the scriptwriters wanted to craft new stories that fans hadn't already read in books or comics. May 14, 2018 at 8:27

4 Answers 4

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The way Conan adaptations were treated was an outgrowth of the way that pulp writers following Howard thought about the material and the way they treated it. For a long time, the people who owned and managed the Conan the Barbarian intellectual property had no notion of Robert E. Howard's original stories being canonical, and this had a direct effect on how film adaptations of the Conan material were structured.

Fantasy, science fiction, and adventure fiction writing existed in a very different cultural milieu in the 1920s through the 1950s. Readers, most editors, and many authors treated the content of the pulp magazines as ephemera, intrinsically inferior literature that would shortly be forgotten. (The very name "pulp" is indicative of this. The pulp magazines were printed on cheap paper made from the least processed wood pulp. The paper yellowed quickly and tore easily, making the original editions quite fragile.) In most cases, this was correct; most of the pulp fiction was good for a quick thrill and was then switfly forgotten. (Note that the pulps were not so unique in this was though. Sturgeon's Law, that 90% of all media output is crap, applies pretty broadly. Part of Theodore Sturgeon's point in pointing this fact out, though, was that it did not just apply to hack science fiction and fantasy.)

Another related phenomenon was that America's pulp SF and fantasy authors of the 1920s and 1930s included frequent allusions to one-another's work. (For example, "The Whisperer in Darkness" includes a mention of "Commoriom myth-cycle preserved by the Atlantean high-priest Klarkash-Ton"; say it aloud if you don't get the references.) While H. P. Lovecraft, for example, created the Cthulhu Mythos, he was gratified to see his literary colleagues writing their own Mythos stories as well. Among the pulp authors of the period, there was a general attitude that characters, settings, and motifs could be freely shared; and less talented authors often produced pastiches based on the writings of the masters.

The prevalence of such pastiches was particularly high when the original authors responsible for creating a shared setting were deceased. The works of Howard (and to a lesser extent, those of Lovecraft) benefitted from the fact that the author(s) died relatively young, in the mid-1930s at the height of the pulp period. Other authors, producing a continuous stream of new Conan material, kept the character and his setting in the public consciousness, contributing to Conan's enduring popularity. Compare Clark Ashton Smith, who was arguably as good a writer as Howard, but who did not die young and whose works are quite a bit more obscure; or Frank Belknap Long, who lived until 1994 but whose fiction is mostly forgotten.

After the death of prominent writers like Howard and Lovecraft, other authors continued to write stories using the same characters and settings. The quality of these pastiches was extremely variable. August Derleth wrote many more Cthulhu Mythos stories after he strong-armed control over Lovecraft's intellectual property away from R. H. Barlow; however, Derleth just did not understand the enormity of the cosmic evil that Lovecraft conceived of and tried to write stories in which there were equally powerful good entities that might protect the Earth from the likes of Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep.

Similarly, curation of the Conan storied fell into the hands of Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. While Carter was a reasonably competent editor and helped maintain interest in a number of pulp authors who might otherwise have been forgotten, he was himself (in most critics' opinions) a mediocre writer. De Camp could be quite a good fantasy writer, when he stuck to his own ideas, but his pastiches of Howard's work were problematic in many ways. Fundamentally, Carter and de Camp did not understand all the aspects of Howard's Hyborian Age. (A glaring example, and one that made it into the 1982 Conan the Barbarian film, was interpreting the Hyrkanians as Mongols. Carter and de Camp evidently did not realize that "Hyrkania" was not just a name Howard had made up; it was a real region in Iran.) The pastiches were published alongside Howard's original work, giving the impression that this professional fan fiction should be considered just as canonical as the true creator's writing.

Carter and de Camp also took many of Howard's unpublished (and sometimes unfinished) manuscripts and rewrote them as Conan stories, regardless of whether or not that made sense. For example, the non-fantastical "The Trail of the Blood-Stained God" was converted into a Conan story, even though the unedited parts of the text have a clearly different feel from a true Conan tale. (To be fair, however, Howard did this kind of thing himself. After "By This Axe I Rule" was rejected, Howard created the character of Conan to be featured in an edited version of the tale, which became "The Phoenix on the Sword.") This goes to show that the people who were most responsible for keeping Conan material in print did not really appreciate the nature of the world Howard had created; nor did they consider Howard's stories more canonical than their own (or those of other authors they worked with, such as Björn Nyberg, who wrote The Return of Conan).

When it came time to make a Conan movie, this was the environment in which it was made. De Camp was credited as a "technical advisor" to Conan the Barbarian, and his attitude about the canonicity of various Conan stories is evident. Elements from many different Conan stories, many of them not written by Howard, were included in the movie. (I recall once watching the film with my brother. We had both seen it before, but he had not read many Conan stories. As the film progressed, I pointed out which vignettes were taken from specific published tales. For example, the way Conan finds his sword was from "The Thing in the Crypt," a Carter/de Camp pastiche.)

With no notion that there was a canonical set of original Howard stories, writers, directors, and producers adapting the character used material penned by other, less skillful Conan authors as source material. Moreover, there was a general attitude that Conan the Barbarian could be used in whatever way an adaptor felt was most appropriate. Film and television versions of the character were just new pastiches; they differed merely in their medium from the stories written down by Carter, de Camp, and others.

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    Wasn't the "Conan the Barbarian" (Arnold version) originally a script by Oliver Stone about post-apocalyptic mutants? Point being is that films are often a mix of multiple authors and viewpoints that (hopefully) gets hammered out into something at least watchable, if not actually good. A book faithful Conan adaptation would require a singular focus to recreating source material, something that has not been very common in films until some of the recent comic book adaptations.
    – Jason K
    May 18, 2018 at 19:25
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The first Conan movie was based more on the Marvel comics than on Howard's original stories, particularly for Conan's background as slave and gladiator. The name of the villain, Thulsa Doom, was taken from a short Howard story about King Kull, "Delcardes' Cat", but in the comics, he became a recurring villain for both Kull and Conan - though he looks very different in the movie than he does in the comics or in the short story.

There may be other reasons why scriptwriters don't follow the original stories. One is that they may prefer to write original stories, either out of vanity or because they want to present a story that fans haven't read already in books or comics. Another is that Howard's view of women doesn't really fit the modern age. In one story, "Red Nails", Conan e.g. whips a woman. There are also some racist attitudes in the stories that wouldn't go over well today.

For the TV adaptations (which I haven't seen), an issue may be that Howard's stories take place at very different times in his career and all over the map of the Hyborian Age, with little continuity between. In the Marvel comics, most of the issues were filler stories that connected Howard's stories of the young Conan (the older Conan was left for The Savage Sword of Conan b&w series, which didn't attempt continuity, at least in the early issues).

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    I have read several of REH's original Conan stories and didn't find anything to be racist or misogynistic. You also need to remember he was writing during the 1930s. If you think Howard had racist attitudes, read some H.P. Lovecraft.He is my favorite horror writer but I cringe when reading his descriptions of non-white characters.
    – the guest
    May 17, 2018 at 12:13
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    I have read all of Howard's Conan stories, and I remember one or two that takes place in the Hyborian version of Africa that had a rather dim view of the natives as savage cannibals. You're right about HPL, though, and the 1930s in general. At any rate, it would not be dificult to write around that, so it is probably a minor reason, at best. May 18, 2018 at 13:14
  • I thought it was a good answer. I just always thought of Robert E. Howard as being fascinated with all other cultures and being more ahead of his time compared to the other pulp writers of the time. That's just one reason among many that I admire him.
    – the guest
    May 18, 2018 at 17:56
  • @KlausÆ.Mogensen - if you read Howard's "Hyborean Age" which was his "canon history" of Conan's world, he explained that (1) they were savages because as a result of Cataclysm, they lost their civilization - as did almost everyone all around. (2) Hyboreans held exactly same - if not worse - views of tribes to the North of them. Oct 15, 2018 at 2:24
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Regarding the films, John Milius and Oliver Stone with the de Laurentises recognized — correctly — that the films must really just serve as a vehicle to show off Arnold Swarzenegger’s muscles, with precise adherence to Howard’s stories be damned.

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Because they were a money grab and nothing else. The people involved were hacks and grifters who didn't give a whit about a faithful adaptation, so we got crap.

Robert E. Howard's estate passed to his father after his death, and apparently, there was no other family so upon the father's death the rights for the stories passed to some random person that Robert's father was living with at the time of his death. No one cared or saw anything of value in Howard's intellectual property.

An interesting story illustrating this is when Marvel's Roy Thomas secured the rights for comic publication. Roy was a sword & sorcery genre fan and went to get the rights not for Conan but for Lin Carter's Thongor. It was only after Roy realized how cheaply Marvel could acquire Conan that he decided on the Cimmerian.

Roy is probably the person most responsible for Conan's place in pop culture. The comic book and eventually books became a huge success and the movie grew out of that. L. Sprague DeCamp and Lin Carter get some credit for editing the Lancer/Ace books that put the Conan stories into a connected chronology, and the Frank Frazetta covers of those books also helped popularize the character, but Roy Thomas is probably the person most responsible for Conan getting a movie adaptation. It was only after the popularity of the Marvel comics that Conan was seen as a potential cash cow for the investors who owned the properties.

The 2011(?) movie with Jason Mamoa was just an attempt to reboot the original movie franchise and was likewise a money grab. A television adaptation has bounced around recently between Amazon and Netflix where I believe it's still in the works, but it's likely more of the same. Steven DeKnight, of Spartacus and Daredevil fame, tried to become involved in the project because he's a long-time fan of the character and was turned down. He would have been perfect for any faithful adaptation because Spartacus had the perfect tone for a Conan series. No one involved in making a Conan movie or show cares enough to do a good job.

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    But you don't explain why, especially for a reboot, they didn't go back to source material for a different take than had been filmed before then.
    – DavidW
    May 14, 2023 at 13:35
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    @DavidW - This answer is little better than a rant.
    – Valorum
    May 14, 2023 at 13:47
  • The reason that they didn't go back to the source material is because of the first movie. THAT was their source material. They're not trying to make a faithful adaptation of the books. They're trying to make another silly movie like the 1982 film. It's not that fell short of their goal (except financially maybe). They were rebooting the original film which far too many people fail to adequately criticize because they grew up watching it.
    – No Way
    May 17, 2023 at 1:09

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