Monday, August 22, 2011

Conan's Failure: Pre-viewing thoughts

This will be what I call a "Pre-review" of Conan the Barbarian (2011). Rather than focusing on the film itself (which I will do later, after I get a chance to see it), I will instead focus on why it appears to be failing in the theaters.

Bad Press
Since the day it was announced, there has been bad press circulating throughout the net. And as details were announced, such as the director and casting choices, and the initial draft of the script were revealed, the hate just got worse and worse.

Basically these "pre-haters" are divided into two camps. The first, and most vocal, yet smaller in number, are the Robert E. Howard purists. These are men and women who have dedicated a good portion of their lives to studying the works and worlds of REH. In relation to Conan, they have a passion for the character that is only rivaled by their passion for his creator. For these people nothing beyond his original stories will be good enough. They look down their noses at the pastiches, in all mediums, as lesser works, derivative of the Originals. To a certain extent, I agree with them. No other Conan can compare to REH's most excellent prose. And yet, I seem to be nearly unique in that I can separate the "original" from the pastiche, and enjoy each on their own terms. However, these purists cannot seem to do that. Rather they view anything that is not based 100% on a REH work as somehow "insulting" or "disrespectful" to the man. This is a very narrow view, and does a disservice to the character, and a large portion of his fans. More on that later.

The other group are the Milius Fans. These are people who only know the character from the 1982 Arnold movie. To them "Arnold was Conan." Well, no, actually, he wasn't. Arnold was John Milius' Conan. Or more accurately, he was Ed Pressman's and Dino De Laurentiis' Conan. To these people, of which they are legion, no one else will be able to "fill Arnold's shoes " (if I had a dime for every time I've read THAT phrase in the past week...). Unfortunately, most professional critics fall into this group as well. They are responsible, along with the press in general, for perpetuating the myth that this movie is a "remake" rather than a "reboot." (Really? And was Nolan's Batman Begins just a remake of Tim Burton's 1989 film?) Be it known, I am a HUGE fan of the 1982 film. I still count it among my all-time favorites, and have watched it literally dozens of times since I was a teenager. That being said, I am well aware that it is a far cry from REH's creation. However, it lead me to read REH's stories, as it did for many, many people. And, if this new movie had been given a chance, perhaps it, too, could have done the same for others.

Bad marketing choices
When it was originally announced, the film's title was simply Conan.  Then some idiot in marketing decided to try and capitalize on the popularity of the 1982 film, so they added the Barbarian to the title. Big mistake. This is no doubt the main reason so many people just assume it's a remake. Add to that some of the visuals that were also designed to allude to the previous film (the sword of Conan's father is like a cartoon version of the previous movie's sword).

Conan is now more than just a Pulp Hero
Conan as a character was created in the 1930's. He was introduced to the public through the pulp magazines of the depression era, which were (and in some circles, are) considered "trash" writing. No one beyond the fans took them seriously. But Conan survived the demise of his creator, and that of his venue, thanks to many people who had a passion for him. The character has been reprinted by several publishing houses over the intervening decades. Often heavily edited, but still, it's Conan. Then there is the issue of the Comic books. Marvel comics had a Conan title in print for decades, in one form or another. And to some people, THIS is the Conan they know.

The fact is, Conan has grown well beyond his pulp roots. He is larger and more well-known than his creator. And the creators of this film knew this. So, they attempted to make a film that would appeal to the broadest swath of Conan fans. The Pulpsters, the comic book geeks, and the Arnold fans. And at the same time, they had to make a film that would appeal to the general public as well.

Were they successful? Depends on who you ask. But in the big picture, probably not. Because the very thing that they tried to do was what doomed the project to failure. The old adage of "You can't please all the people all the time" is no more fitting anywhere than it is in Hollywood. By trying to create a movie with mass appeal, they actually created mass derision. Much of it before it was even in pre-production. And all of these people who pre-hate the movie, and those who listen to the pre-haters, will go into the film with pre-conceived notions, and pre-formed opinions, whether consciously or not.

In short, there are a variety of factors that have caused this movie to do poorly. And those don't even take into account the actual film itself. The outcome of opening weekend for a film has nothing to do with the quality of the film itself. It has to do with marketing, word of mouth, and pre-conceived notions. However, everyone wants to judge a movie's quality based on that opening weekend. So, since Conan the Barbarian did relatively poorly during its opening weekend, it's already being considered a "flop." And, in my opinion, this is in large part the fault of a lot of people who need to just shut up and let a movie stand on its own. But, that will never happen. Especially now that we have the Internet, and anyone with a computer can put their opinions out there for the masses, no matter how misguided and misinformed they are.


Paul R. McNamee said...

I haven't seen it, either. So, I'll join you on your "pre-" thoughts.

Bad press: I agree with you. You wouldn't believe (well, maybe you would) the *hundreds* of pages on the single topic of the film in the REH forums before the movie was released. Mostly negative - for a movie no one had seen.

I love the REH forums, but the negativity darn near reached the repulsive stage for me.

Bad marketing: Yeah, could have used a new title. I also hope such a name change doesn't mess up the 'John Carter (of Mars!)' movie.

Conan is more: Someone argued that because he is many versions and things, they would have been better off going back to the source. Fair argument. Pleasing-everyone/too-many-cooks seems to definitely be an issue with this movie.

The purist debate, yeah, well, I'm enough of a purist that I'll just go back to the stories and not worry about a movie. It really gets under my skin when folks are screaming like they deserve a movie adaptation of their favorite literature. Really? Is that in the Constitution? If they are so enamored of the prose stories then why are they so worked up about a film?

But, I will say that I would like a Conan movie, pastiche or REH adaptation, that feels like _CONAN_. I don't want a "take it for a fantasy movie." I can watch ANY fantasy movie any time I want. Conan shouldn't be a mish-mash retread of the last five or ten CGI driven fantasy crapfests. It should tell its own story, in its own terms, with a large dose of REH's Hyboria. From reviews of those I trust to have a similar viewpoint to mine, this movie just doesn't seem to have met that.

J.P. or Joey said...

Well said, Tom! Why can't people just go see the movie for what it simply is -- a movie? The original stories are still there to read, as are the pastiches. I plan to see it this weekend -- or noext, if it's still around! I am hoping to just be entertained, nothing more. No one wants to give it a chance -- and no one I know personally has seen it yet or written about it or told me about. I've read mostly negative stuff about the film -- but it hasn't deterred me. I want to see it.

Tom Doolan said...

@Paul - Trust me, I put the lion's share of the pre-fail on the shoulders of the producers, especially those in charge of marketing. But, I still think that peoples' negativity before it even opened contributed quite a bit.

And you are spot on about the REH forums. I left because of the negativity about a year and a half ago, and have hardly been back since.

@Joey - Glad you agree. I hope we both enjoy it. And when I do an actual review, please stop by and let me know your thoughts. :)

Andre R. W. Schmeichel said...

I think you missed one other thing.

Conan doesn't fit a popular genre. He is one of the ultimate cult classics. He doesn't fit into mainstream high fantasy - to gritty and too brutal. He doesn't fit into super-hero fantasy either most commonly seen in Anime - he's a man, there's nothing supernatural, special, or godlike about him outside his determination and training. When you get down to brass tacks, Conan done right is a killer and thief made hero not by his own virtues but by everyone else's rampant depravity in a world that border's a living hell.

This does not have universal appeal. It grabs some of us by the yarbles, but for the wider audience of viewers, it seems like an incomplete and unsatisfying fantasy idea. I think the original Conan the Barbarian was sold by the rising star power of the actor, and that the character will always struggle against peoples very narrow idea of what 'should' be in fantasy.

Charles Gramlich said...

Stephen King said very clearly once upon a time that prose and movies are two different things. I agree. There'll never be another Howard and that's perfectly fine. We still have his work to read. As for the movies, I saw the originally and thought it was OK as a movie though I couldn't recognize anything of REH's Conan in it. I've seen enough bad adaptations of Howard's work that I don't get excited anymore when I hear about a movie based on his stuff. That's why I didn't go see the movie on opening day. I don't see any movies on opening day anymore. I will eventually see it.

EspressoFrog said...

how it was sold to me: People were focused on saying how close the new film was to the original books and how wrong and insignificant was John Milius's heretic treatment.

That's where the problem is, not recognising the pile of VHS tapes, Laserdiscs, Dvd of barbarian movies that all tried to copy 1982's Conan the Barbarian for well over 3 decades. For the cinema's world Milius film is the locomotive of an incredible long gravy train of bad copies and spinoffs. You can't simply "reboot" a pioneering film that started a new genre, not one which lines of scenes have become cult classic. I can't just impose my own Good Bad and the Ugly.

What happened to me was that 2011 Conan felt just like an Ator movie. It was yet an other "barbarian" film after so many others. I thought it was on ok Sword and the Sorcerer or a big budget Ator like those silly Scorpion King movies. But it naver have been the film that introduced a new genre like the old 82 Conan.

I believe that fans of the books and their "you will see, it will set the record straight" claims didn't help the situation one bit.

It was a complete miscalculation and an unneeded reboot.

I'm not a fan of Arnie but of James Earl Jone's Tulsadoom and of Milius's direction of that film. Arnie was better in Hercules in NY, where he said that "van day he vill be prezident, ja?!"