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The Struggle of Heroic Fantasy

May 30th, 2013

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Conan the Barbarian. Elric of Melnibone. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Gilgamesh. Hercules. Hector of Troy.

These giants of heroic fantasy (and the mythology from whence it springs) strode across the landscape of my imagination as a young man. They were my idols in many ways, and as I grew into becoming a writer they were my guiding stars. But what were they teaching me?

When I think about these heroes, one thing that comes through is their incredible lust for life. Even when they lapse into melancholy, they never stop striving, never stop fighting, and that struggle is the essence of life. Whether it’s Conan carving out a place for himself in the kingdoms of Hyborea, or Elric fighting to keep his fragile body alive with potions and sorcery, or Hector facing the dread Achilles to protect his home, these heroes confront the challenges of their ages. And their struggles say a lot about humanity.

So when it came time to create the heroes for my own stories, I didn’t set out to emulate these characters, but time and time again I saw parallels. For instance, Caim (the main character of my Shadow Saga) has many of the physical traits of the Gray Mouser, but married to a personality more like Conan. Caim is direct in his sneakiness, deliberate in his dealings, and he possesses a code of honor that, although rather bleak and brutal to most people, elevates him above his peers.

Heroes often fight. They tend to love and mourn with superhuman passion. But first and foremost, they struggle. With their enemies, with their societies, with the gods, and oftentimes even with themelves. But they always struggle, and so must our contemporary heroes who wish to tread in their titan-sized footsteps.

Conan the Wasted Opportunity

September 21st, 2011

I want to preface this by saying that I respect everyone in the creative movie-making industry. I know what it takes to create something out of nothing. And everyone’s a critic, right? But having said that . . .

The new Conan the Barbarian movie made me a very sad panda.

I’m a long-time Robert E. Howard fan. (Note: If you don’t know who R.E. Howard is, please RUN to your local library or bookstore and look him up.) In fact, the Conan series is one of my all-time favorites. I’ve read them in book form (they were originally a pulp serial) at least twenty times. So when I heard about the new movie, I was initially excited. Then I saw the first trailer, and my stomach dropped. It looked like something from 1983, but I held out hope that my eyes were deceiving me.

Well, I finally went to see the film this week. It wasn’t a complete train wreck. There were some redeeming elements.

The good:

Jason Momoa. Jason has the look, especially that dead-eyed stare he does, that makes me think he could be Conan. He’s leaner than Arnold was, but very agile and he has a panther-like way of moving that really evokes the idea of a Cimmerian.

The opening sequence: Conan as a boy. They found a miniature Jason Momoa, and he was great. Had the same look, the same stare, the same dangerous agility. Although I thought having boy-Conan kill five warriors single-handedly was a bit over the top, I liked the vibe. And Ron Perlman as Conan’s father was brilliant. If the entire movie had been this good, I would be raving.

The bad:

The story: I’ve heard this script had like a dozen writers. Well, it looked as if they all wrote their ideas on napkins, taped them to a wall, and let darts decide the storyline. For most of the movie the pacing was literally: action scene – 3-second transition shot – action scene – 3-second transitions scene – action scene. After the initial sequence, Conan grows up and falls into a predictable sword-and-sorcery plot. Just borrowing from Howard’s books, I could name a dozen better plots than the generic one they used. I hate it when Hollywood thinks it knows better than authors. If you’re going to use the name Conan, why in the hell wouldn’t you use the stories that the fans already love?

Set Design and Props: Everything looked fake, like it had been made the night before. There was no majesty to the landscape shots and piss-poor detailing on the close-ups. The weapons appeared to be made from paper mache. The armor was unconvincing. Here is where the producers should have taken a page from Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings. Instead, they skimped, and it showed.

Jason Momoa. As good as he looked in the action scenes, everything else was wrong. I cringed every time he opened his mouth. He sounded more like a surfer from southern California than a barbarian warrior. It just jarred me out of the experience. I don’t really blame Jason for this, because all this was easily correctable if anyone competent had given him some direction.

Some people have defended this movie as being more like Howard’s books than the Schwarzenegger film. Perhaps in some ways, but the older movie had a sense of grandeur that this reboot just failed to capture. Take it from a sword-and-sorcery author: if you’re going to follow a predictable story, you need to polish it until it fucking glows. This movie didn’t do that. It relied on Conan fans to plunk down their money and shut off their sensibilities. And that is why it failed.

What a waste.

(P.S. – Dear Hollywood, you need a bullshit-detector to keep you from fucking up movies like this. Give me a call.)

(P.P.S. — Dear Jason Momoa, keep your head up, kid. You’ve got more swagger than 90% of today’s action stars. Team up with a good director and you’ll shine.)

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