Poor Conan. So misunderstood. So misdrawn. So misinterpreted. What is it about the big guy that makes it so hard for the re-interpreters, the movie makers and comic book artists, to get it right? Conan was one of my favorite characters growing up. I found one of the Lancer editions that my oldest brother left on a table, and I was off and running. He had another half dozen of the twelve volumes of the saga written by Robert E Howard and completed by L Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. I was able to find the other volumes mail order (no internet in those days). Conan appealed to the young boy who was haunted by the small town bullies he shared the town with. Conan didn’t take crap off of anyone, unless it was to further his own plans. Sure, he was a violent SOB. After all, he was a barbarian. But he also had a code of honor. He forced no woman to be with him. He stood by his friends no matter what. And he was a scholar. A scholar, you might ask? Yes. He picked up languages like some men pick up aluminum cans on the side of the road. He watched and listened and learned the strategies and tactics of survival in his violent world. From the individual sword fight to the grand battle, Conan was the master of war. He used guile and deception against his enemies. He used terrain to his advantage, and he cared about his men. In later books Conan was said to haunt the libraries of the Capital City of Tarantia, learning all he could of the good and evil in the world. He didn’t study magic, because magic in the world of Conan was an evil and slimy art, practicioners calling demon servants of the evil gods to rend and tear at their enemies. Conan was not evil. And he preferred to do his own rending and tearing, face to face.
Now Marvel Comics, who I dearly love, were the first to tackle Conan outside of the pulps novels. While they did a good job of showing the big guy as quick thinking and intelligent, they preferred to show him as a loin cloth wearing berserker. Very little in the way of armor, I guess so he could show his muscular bod (and the talent of the artist and his knowledge of anatomy). The Conan of the Howard novels was a quick learner. As soon as he saw the benefits of armor he strapped everything he could find over his tender skin. He was always described as wearing a chain hauberk. He used helmets and shields when they were available. When he became king of Aquilonia he wore full plate. And he almost never fought forty fully armed, experience warriors at the same time.
The movies, though, were the worst offenders. I don’t know what it is about screenwriters and directors. I know they have to cut the story some from most books, or they would be making a ten hour movies. But they almost always seem to make changes to a character or storyline that they think improves the great literature they are interpreting. And almost always they fail. I have seen movies that were better than the books they came from, a few. In most cases the movie interpretations are not as good as the books they come from. We still go and see them, visual beasts that we are. Now Schwarzenegger’s Conan had promise. He wore some armor and used a helmet. But then they destroyed the storyline as completely as possible. Conan was never a slave, his parents weren’t killed when he was a babe, Thulsa Doom (a wizard from the Kull series) was never his opponent. And he had blue eyes for Crom’s sake. Arnold had blue eyes and black hair in some scenes (the racial characteristics of a Cimmerian). In other scenes he had brown hair and brown eyes. When I saw the movie I wondered if they had any kind of continuity editor for the film. Apparently not. The newest Conan is even worse (Conan the Samoan?) Except for the muscles the guy doesn’t look like any imagination of Conan. He grunts, he attacks everything in sight with the brute force tactics of see it, kill it. And he’s half neked by Mitra. He eschews the use of any armor. The movie was Conan in name only.
Now we have John Carter coming to the big screen. From the trailers I can tell they followed the storyline of the Burroughs’ novel, A Princess of Mars, to a point. I can also tell they made some changes, more of that Hollywood arrogance of “I can tell a story better than the author. Hopefully they will do a better job than has been done on Conan. And maybe some day someone will do a Conan movie that gets it right. The big guy deserves it.