Now that Return of the King has swept the Oscars, Hollywood is greenlighting projects and optioning anything with a sword and a pointed ear in it. I’ve heard about the Chronicles of Narnia, Phillip Pullman’s "His Dark Materials" trilogy, John Carter of Mars, Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane, Conan (of course), and even Elric. I’m sure there’s more (a lot more if you count all of the superhero movies supposedly in pre-production), but those are just the ones that have crossed my screen in the past four weeks.
Well, who didn’t think that would happen? I mean, seriously. It’s not that I wouldn’t be interested in seeing some of the above onscreen. Personally, I think that Elric and John Carter would make fine movies . . . if adapted properly, and with loving care, and if they took the time to make sure that everything was perfect, and in all other ways cared for the property as if it were a child . . . .
It’s not that I don’t think that Robert Rodriguez won’t do a bang-up job with John Carter of Mars. I love Rodriguez; I think he’s terrific. But I am concerned with the sheer number of projects that have the greenlight. Who in the world looked at the Kane novels and thought it would be a good idea to turn them into movies? For that matter, how are you going to pare Elric down into something watchable? Why take the chance?
Oh yeah, the Lord of the Rings movies made a shitload of cash.
Have you seen the list of genre-based movies coming out this year? It's huge. I don’t know about you, but to me, that's a lot of movies with CGI and swords and wirework. There may actually be more movies WITH that stuff than without.
I have a terrible character flaw. When someone tells me that I just HAVE to read a book or see a movie, because it’s EXACTLY the kind of thing that I like, I tend to react in the opposite fashion. Whether it’s an American tendency, or a Texan quirk, I don’t like being told what to do, or feeling as if I’m being forced into something. To coin a phrase, I prefer to "tend to my own knitting," as my mother (the Jedi Knight) would say. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but by and large, I’m suspicious of these kinds of Dogpile-on-the-Bandwagon endeavors.
Here’s a great example. In the 1970s, there was a fantasy publishing renaissance going strong, a carry-over from the 1960s. This wellspring of fiction came directly from the publishing of the Lord of the Rings trilogy in paperbacks, the Ace Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, and Robert E. Howard’s Conan series. These books were everywhere, being read by everyone (Tolkien was on college campuses, as so many Tolkien apologists like to point out; but really, that’s not very hard to do when you’re an Oxford don and the academic world is so used to supporting its own, regardless of quality). Lin Carter was in charge of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, a reprint line of books that is still considered by many to be the best run of fantasy publishing anywhere. I disagree with that, but it was nevertheless a good run of overlooked books.
Back to the renaissance. The 1970s are what Howard fans like to call "The Howard Boom." Books were coming out, one on top of the other, paperbacks before the hardbacks, in a rapid-fire fashion, in an attempt to compete with and sell to the same legion of fans that were buying the Conan series. This in itself isn’t a bad thing, as most of Howard’s work is very readable and delivers the action and thrills in exactly the same manner as the Conan books. But the way the books were marketed was a little off-putting: western stories coming out with Jeff Jones covers and the words emblazoned across the top, "In the Tradition of CONAN!" Anyone buying that book and looking for fantasy like Conan was going to be sorely disappointed.
When that didn’t quite cut it anymore, the paperback companies began recruiting new authors (Andrew Offutt comes immediately to mind) to write new stories about Howard’s characters, and with the same great cover artist, as well. Words to the effect of "ROBERT E. HOWARD’s legendary character, as written by Andrew Offutt" were scrawled across the cover. You can see where this is going, I think.
It’s the old "copy of a copy of a copy" argument. There were more consumers of fantasy than there were competent writers of fantasy. The market became flooded, and sword and sorcery in particular became the joke that it is today. People remembered the bad books (John Norman’s "GOR" series is a sterling example) and never got past the layer of crap to the really good books.
There have been other such trends for you youngsters. Any time you see a Marvel comic that says, "Because YOU demanded it!" you know that you can avoid it like the plague because you most assuredly didn’t demand it. Then there's the spate of craptastic movies and television shows that followed Star Wars when it first came out in 1977. Did you ever see "Battle Beyond the Stars?" Did you ever watch "Buck Rogers?" Talk about a poo-stick . . . .
So, it’s with mixed feelings that I read about the projects getting the greenlight right now. This includes the news that the new Batman film is shooting in Iceland as we speak, starring the most boring actor currently in Hollywood. How in the world are they going to pull it off? I don’t know. And frankly, I’m not sure that I care anymore. Five years ago, I wrote the following in an earlier incarnation of Finn’s Wake:
Here’s why I want original concepts [in movies]. When I left the movie theatre on Friday night, I was thinking, "Damn, I want to go right back in there and watch it again." I was not thinking, "Well, they did some things right and got some things wrong. I kinda wish they’d blah blah blah . . . " I think you get my point. Hollywood is going to jack with the source material. They always do. Always. No, really, always. Hollywood executives admitted freely when the movie was in production that they had no idea what The Matrix was about. They had a script, but no clue. Was it really that hard to figure out? The main problem is, the average Hollywood player has the IQ of a cocker spaniel, which unfortunately, sells a lot of cocker spaniels short.
So why do I get the feeling that the only thing the movie executives are going to pull out of this little object lesson is, "Gentlemen, we need more kung fu fights in our movies"?
It’s nice to be right. Since "The Matrix," I’ve seen more wirework and cinematic kung fu to make my Hong Kong movie habit all but disappear. Everyone is dying to get into the harness and flip around. Hollywood can’t get enough of it. But what makes "The Matrix" worth talking about is the philosophy behind what’s going on during the movie. That’s what I’ve spent more time talking about with various fans. Talking about wirework is a lot like writing about music (which is like dancing about architecture, to finish the quote).
Here’s my bottom line to all of the movie-makers, producers and directors out there that are cackling with glee at the option they have just bought:
I understand what you’re trying to do in licensing the book, [fill in the blank]. For all I know, you may be the biggest fan of this book in the world. But you’re not Peter Jackson. Odds are, you have much more of a life than he did. Jackson was more than a little obsessed with the project. He wasn’t just a fan, he was a fanatic. And remember that he also had a dedicated team of people backing him up. He had time, money, and faith. In movie-making terms, it was lightning in a bottle. If you don’t have that kind of set-up, in place, ready to go, then maybe you need to scrap it all and try something original. Something that won’t provoke scathing fan reactions (like even Jackson’s LoTR did, even as those changes were admitted as being better by everyone). There’s no shame if you decide to do your own sword-wielding hero against gibbering hordes. There’s only shame if you name him Elric and get it so terribly wrong that you get death threats. If you lack the self-appraisal to know this about yourself, please email me care of RevolutionSF. I will be happy to act as your pre-movie consultant to determine if you can actually pull this off.
To the rest of you, cross your fingers and say a prayer to the Fannish God of your choice. We’re in for a long and bumpy ride.