Watching Conan the Barbarian is like giving head to a walrus: Every time you want to come up for air, something sharp plonks you on the back of your skull. Lacking the sheer joy of imagination (a crucial component in fantasy), Conan instead opts to relentlessly pummel the viewer with brutality and shower one with CG arterial sprays of blood and gore. With its ceaseless duhn-duhn-ing score (a far cry from the thundering and inspired use of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana in the dunderheaded ’80s Conan movie), largely drab appearance, lack of emotional connection to the titular character and with no attempts at wit or humor not associated with bodily mutilation, Conan is a two-hour migraine; a relentless onslaught of stupid.
Fantasy (be it of the “epic” or “sword and sorcery” branches) has fared even worse than science fiction on the big screen. While SF can at least boast a few cerebral film classics (in contrast to hundreds of brilliant, thought-provoking novels that should remain cinematically unadapted but more widely read), epic fantasy has produced about two significant works (Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and the recent HBO series Game of Thrones) and a bubbling witch’s cauldron of juvenilia (pretty much everything else). The sword and sorcery subgenre has mostly been served in the wake of the ’80s Dungeons and Dragons craze and reflects the influence of that game (and its target audience of adolescent males who want to see women in fetish wear and varying states of sublimation and sword-wielding barbarians in loincloths). Robert E. Howard’s iconic Conan character has already been disappointingly brought to the screen prior to this artless and vacuous waste and surely someone will get around to Michael Moorcock’s drug-addled eternal anti-hero Elric and perhaps even Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser. What was lost in past adaptations of fantastic fiction, is lost in this film under discussion and stands to be lost in the future, is not only the aforementioned and crucial sense of wonder, but the depth and subtext of truly great fantasy writing. Fantasy will be forever a cinematic romper room for twinkle-toed elves or an abattoir for raging barbarians if filmmakers don’t respect their source material enough to present it (and their prospective viewers) with a work capable of intellectual depth, subtlety, a vast history and the all-encompassing sweep of sheer imagination.
For those who wish to read of Conan as envisioned by his creator (who died at the age of thirty by his own hand), there are innumerable editions available for cheap. I originally read my father’s Lancer (then Ace) editions that featured gorgeous Frank Frazetta covers. To those with the desire for an all-in-one omnibus (and the upper body strength to tote it around), I recommend The Complete Chronicles of Conan (Centenary Edition) by Robert E. Howard as published by Gollancz/Orion Books in both hardcover and trade paperback in the UK in 2006.
Conan the film is nothing more than an orgy for the physically and intellectually impotent. The cracking of skulls, hacking of limbs and spurtings of vital fluids are a celebration of flaccidity. And that’s just no fucking fun at all.
“How many deaths shall serve to break at last
This heritage which wraps me in the gray
Apparel of ghosts? I search my heart and find
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night.”
— From Cimmeria by Robert E. Howard (1906-1936)
Conan the Barbarian opens today in Philly area theaters.