Hmm… another day and I’m talking about another fictional character that differs from the Schwarzenegger version. I wonder if Arnold is to action stories what Disney is to fairy tales.
Ah well. Recently I picked up an anthology of the original Conan The Barbarian stories by Robert E. Howard himself. The book proudly advertised that it contained all of the Conan stories and that they were not abridged. After some research I learned that wasn’t quite true as it only contains nine of the novellas written by Howard from the back end of the Conan publication timeline and one essay on the Hyborian Age in which Conan lived. Buuuut it was on sale for five dollars. It’s a hefty tome as well, easily in the baby killer category and at that price I wasn’t about to complain. Or hesitate.
So I started reading and noticing an interesting difference between the popular conception of Conan and the original source material.
The thing is, on the surface there isn’t much difference. But there is… let me explain.
The version of Conan you’re familiar with is that portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie Conan the Barbarian wherein we’re told that Conan is a Cimmerian Barbarian (I want to chuckle at that) who’s family and people was murdered by the soldiers of Thulsa Doom…. James Earl Jones. He was sold into slavery, became a gladiator, and was trained in the highest schools before spontaneously getting his freedom to peruse revenge.
Howard’s version of Conan’s story is… um… well… uh… thing is… he never wrote one. At least not officially in any story. Despite the Hyborian Age that Conan lived in had its history chronicled (containing an interesting bit on the origin of Crom, Conan’s warrior god) Howard never published a story explaining Conan beyond the fact that he was Cimmerian. He was pretty much raised to fight and had instincts that matched a life of combat, and that’s it. Howard did pen an origin story in a letter to a fan but that doesn’t lend great shades to the character. He was born on a battlefield, he was raised in combat and participated in raids, got curious about other nations and went to explore.
I suspect the origin story was added because Hollywood writers like to use them as crutches to help establish character and minimalize the amount of actual work you have to do. But then much of the Conan film is cut and pasted from other works including Conan stories. On levels you would not believe. For example the character of Thulsa Doom is from an unpublished Kull story (Howard’s earlier attempt on such a heroic character) but the depiction of him is apparently closer to the Conan enemy Thoth-Amon who is known for being a noble villain despite being a powerful sorcerer. Even then, the story version of Thoth-Amon was not a cult leader just a sorcerer who was working against Conan. Also, in the story the enmity between Conan and Thoth-Amon was really more of an accident, Conan just happens to be in a place where Thoth-Amon’s minions attack. That’s just Thulsa Doom, the whole movie is chopped from countless sources like that. I could write articles for months on where each and every plot element (and some lines of dialogue) is derived from.
Also, as a side note one of the thing that annoys me is film Conan is kind of easy to sneak up on whereas for normal book Conan it’s impossible. The guy hears everything! Though in both version Conan has trouble with drinking and gets into fights easily when he does but then he gets into fights easily anyway.
It’s been said by critics that those who seek to emulate Howard’s story fail to do so, even those most faithful because of the fact that Conan is a pure adventure hero like Indiana Jones or… any Errol Flynn character. He’s more basic, sure; but the stories are fixated around telling an exciting adventure and Howard really proved that he had isolated the formula to do so, even if he wouldn’t live to see the full success of it.
In fact, I would say that the style of Samurai Jack was a lot closer to Conan then the film adaptations, except that show had a LOT more walking and silence. Wait… Mako Iwamatsu played the villainous wizard Aku in Samurai Jack and narrated the opening from Aku`s perspective and in Conan The Barbarian he plays the wizard Ariko who also narrates the story from his perspective… nah must be a coincidence.
But there`s a much more rapid pace in the novels aided by the fact that Conan typically gets himself into the very problems he has to fight his way out of. He`s brash and loyal to his allies and from what I`ve read that`s the usual reason why he gets dragged in. For example, I’m reading a story now where Conan kidnaps a princess to hold her ransom for his captured men. Now imagine a massive political situation relatable to A Song of Ice and Fire or, for reference, imagine he’d kidnapped Cersei Lannister say during book two, A Clash of Kings that kind of situation. Imagine how that would boil over. That’s the sort of backstabbing and political intrigue that is fired off by Conan’s actions. Did I mention the evil wizards by the way? There are evil wizards.
Conan often does wander into a bad situation but rather than just reacting to it and trying to survive as some stories will attempt in order to make the character more sympathetic, he’s often a catalyst for the situation escalating the tension considerably.
That’s a good methodology right there, rather than just keeping the hero morally clean of the situation in the traditional “wrong place, wrong time” Conan takes a share of the guilt but as a result the stakes are considerably more escalated because all of these story elements are so volatile. I mean, you bet on Conan surviving but you imagine there’s going to be a body count at the end and not all of it at his hands. He’s treated as an element in the situation and not as much an outsider so less time is devoted to introducing his place in the story and giving him reasons to be there. It makes him a much more reactionary force, volatile and passionate, heightening the pace.
The inherent problem in explaining the differences in the fictional Conan and the popular presentations of him is in the fact that on the surface they are very similar. He is seen as a man of action and an adventurer who wanders the world. He does fight mythical and human enemies alike and wins. Is the difference really in just a few choice dialogue moments, a more diverse wardrobe and a greater sense of loyalty? I’m not kidding about the wardrobe either. He’ll wear whatever. I’ve only seen the loincloth once and that’s because he was hiding from someone. He wears regular shirts and pants too!
I know! That’s so weird!
The other big thing is that while the films and other media focus on Conan’s strength the novels quickly paint the image that it’s his skill and battle cunning that gets him out of trouble… into less trouble… allows him to leave the current location. Don’t misunderstand, he’s still a powerhouse among men but that doesn’t exactly matter when you’re fighting a man-ape monster. Having a sword and knowing how to continually stab crotch, neck and heart? That helps more.
I suppose that the best thing to take from a comparison is just how much a character can be improved or reduced if the minute details of how they interact with the world are altered. I think we’re seeing this more now as we live in an age where stories that have a strong feeling of nostalgia are reprised but fail to either establish strong new characters or they change aspects of the character’s fundamental nature (in how they interact with the world and make decisions) rather than just the set pieces. I guess what I’m saying is that it is interesting to see beloved characters in new situations, or even with new motivations and backstories, but not if the core fundamentals of how they make decisions or interact with people are changed.
If that happens then the perception of the character may change irreparably from the original incarnation, hence with Conan.
So too does this work exist.