Robert E. Howard’s writing has been a source of inspiration for countless works across all forms of media. Though he wrote extensively in his short life, there have been relatively few direct film adaptations of his work. What makes this surprising is that fantasy films and television shows have seen multiple surges in popularity. Since Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy released twenty years ago, they have remained consistently bankable. Comic book films also continue to be popular and Howard’s stories have been appearing in comic form for around half a century now. Yet there are very few films based on Howard’s work and all have been made within the last forty years.
What follows will be short reviews of each of the live-action films based on Howard’s work as well as one based around Howard’s life. Some general observations before proceeding are that most of these are origin stories except for the one direct Conan sequel. In Howard’s writing, his characters were seldom given origin stories with the one exception I know being Sword Woman who is part of the inspiration behind the character Red Sonja. Howard generally thrust readers into the action and readers learned what details they needed about the character efficiently in flow with the narrative. Another is that none of these films directly adapt any of Howard’s work. They all use ideas, characters and general themes but not one of these films is purely based on one of his stories. This is hard to believe especially since so many could make for an excellent 90 minute fantasy action film. As many have been adapted directly (and quite faithfully) as comics already — a lot of storyboarding has also already been done too. Yet, amazing as it seems, this has not happened even in more recent history with both technology and consumer tastes being otherwise aligned for success.
The Whole Wide World (1996)
We will begin with the film about Howard himself. It doesn’t take a genius to see from few details of Howard’s life that he was a troubled man. It continually amazes me that he was able to have such a large and imaginative literary output in his thirty years on Earth. What is more impressive is he did this during a quiet, relatively simple life in rural Texas. The Whole Wide World is a largely forgotten 1996 film based on a biography of Howard by Novalyne Price called One Who Walked Alone: Robert E. Howard, The Final Years. Price is understood to be the only woman that was every close to him apart from his mother. I have not read the book (it’s out of print and expensive) but this film is really more about Price than Howard.
Renée Zellweger plays Novalyne Price and Vincent D’Onofrio plays Robert E. Howard. Both do a great job with D’Onofrio being an almost perfect choice to play Howard. This only gives a brief glimpse into his life and I found the film itself on the whole a bit too melodramatic. It does have beautiful costume design, period sets and gives a good window into the time he lived. The film vividly shows how a combination of his voracious reading and the beautiful landscapes that surrounded his home fueled his wonderful imagination. Relatively little is said about his writing though Conan — of course, gets a mention. It isn’t a film I can see myself ever re-watching but I certainly thought it was worth seeing and I recommend it to anyone interested in the man behind the fiction.
Conan the Barbarian (1982)
This is undoubtedly the best known and most recongisable film adaptation of Howard’s work to the point where someone could be forgiven for thinking this was the origin of the character. It is directed by John Milius and stars Arnold Schwarzenegger in one of his most iconic roles. It only uses elements of the Conan stories and the antagonist Thulsa Doom played by James Earl Jones, is actually a character from a Kull story. It also has the character Valeria played by Sandahl Bergman who appears in Red Nails. I don’t have much to say about this that hasn’t already been said. I do caution readers that it has some rather intense scenes and sexual content but it is nowhere near as gratuitous as you see today and is mostly consistent with the source material. I will note that the famous line about “what is best in life?” is actually not what Conan believes by the end of the film. The answer Conan comes to by the end is not “to crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women” but the pursuit of “love, truth and justice”. He learns this having loved and lost Valeria and in destroying the false cult of Thulsa Doom. This remains the best Conan film adaptation which admittedly isn’t much of a challenge given the competition that follows.
Conan the Destroyer (1984)
A direct sequel to the original and the only film that isn’t an origin story. Although once again, not based on any Conan story it does have Queen Taramis as an antagonist who appears in A Witch Shall be Born — though her twin sister Salome is the actual antagonist who usurps her virtuous sister’s throne. It is generally more like a Conan story in structure but is notably much sillier than the first film. This is clear early on with Conan comically punching a horse and a camel and Conan’s comic relief companion the thief, Malak. It has Mako Iwamatsu returning as the wizard from the first film who also served as the narrator. The plot is essentially Conan going on an adventure and saving the lithe beauty Princess Jehnna, from various dangers with some interesting supporting characters joining his journey. I imagine there are many who aren’t even aware the first film had a sequel and that wouldn’t surprise me because it is rather forgettable.
Red Sonja (1985)
As explained in a recent post on Howard’s historical fiction, Red Sonja as known today is not strictly a Howard character but he can claim her. In simple terms, she is a combination of two of his characters transported to the Hyborian age of Conan. This in most ways is a simple revenge story and also quite similar to the two Conan films. It even has Sandahl Bergman who played Valeria in the original Conan film as the evil queen and Schwarzenegger as Kalidor. The latter was obviously meant to be an older Conan but he was renamed due to licensing issues so it is best to watch the film pretending he is Conan. Brigitte Nielsen is the titular character and though not a great actress, does a serviceable job. I don’t consider this a bad film but I’d still stop short of describing it as “good”. As with Conan the Destroyer, I consider this film more forgettable than anything else.
Kull the Conqueror (1997)
I explained the confusing mess that resulted in this film in my post on Kull of Atlantis. In short, it was supposed to be a Conan film but became a Kull film though neither character is done justice. It has a mish-mash of elements from both with few done well. This stars Kevin Sorbo who was well known for Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and also Tia Carrere as Akivasha an evil sorceress who tricks Kull into marriage and out of his kingdom. This doesn’t fit at all with the character as we are told many times in the few Kull stories that he is not interested in women. I noted that this was silly in my previous commentary but being seduced by a beauty is still inconsistent with Kull’s character. Sorbo certainly has the physicality and it has its moments including one scene towards the end lifted directly from By This Axe I Rule!
Overall, the film has the look of a low budget television movie though I believe it was released in theatres. It was bad at the time and hasn’t aged well. Although I quite like Sorbo and Carrere, neither are given much to work with and I suspect it was simply a lazy attempt at cashing in on Sorbo’s popular television show. It is occasionally amusing in a bad way — especially the scene during the climax where Kull kisses a CGI demon/monster. It is certainly a poor representation of the actual character and Howard’s work in general.
Solomon Kane (2009)
I had no idea until fairly recently that this film even existed. Then again, as I have previously explained, I had no great knowledge of the character before and confused him with The Shadow. There are relatively few Solomon Kane stories and none ever give his origin though in his case, it is worth exploring how he became a fanatical instrument of God’s justice.
Kane is excellently played by James Purefoy and begins as a ruthless pirate runaway of noble birth who has a conversion and lives a pious life before the suffering of a family who helps him on his pilgrimage leads him on a path of vengeance culminating in his return home. Although Solomon Kane is a puritan in both belief and dress, the books were still littered with esoterica, particularly in the darkest of Africa where Kane deals much of his justice. The film confines the action mostly to his homeland and is structurally a straightforward tale of retribution. Though having a simple narrative, it is executed very well and is next to the original Conan the Barbarian, as one of the best adaptations and my personal favourite of all these films.
Conan the Barbarian (2011)
The most recent film and certainly one of the most disappointing. This one wastes a great deal of time telling yet another origin story of a character most of the audience are already familiar with. Conan needs no introduction. The writers took a line from Black Colossus quite literally in a disturbing opening scene.
‘The first sound my ears heard was the clang of swords and the yells of the slaying. I have fought in blood-feuds, tribal wars, and imperial campaigns.’
Conan’s hyperbole sees him absurdly cut out of his dying mother’s womb by his father in the midst of battle. Jason Momoa plays Conan and certainly has the muscles but none of Conan’s simpler charms. Momoa’s Conan is mostly just a stupid, grunting savage.
Much of it plays out exactly as in the original film too with the antagonist destroying Conan’s home village and killing his family. Nothing like this happened in any of Howard’s work and there was a lot more opportunity to differentiate it from the original Milius film. Even calling him “the Barbarian” is unnecessary as the character has been a thief, adventurer, a pirate and even a king. This is just a bad copy of the first film and more than anything — a wasted opportunity.
To be fair to the film’s creators, I was just reminded from Howard himself that Conan ‘was born on a battle filed, during a fight between his tribe and a horde of raiding Vanir.’ This is from the Afterword from my edition of The Complete Chronicles of Conan written by Stephen Jones. Still, this doesn’t change the way this is shown in the film being gratuitously silly.
The last two films produced were made over a decade ago and neither performed well at the box office. The former was victim of poor distribution and advertising and the latter well deserved to fail. There is talk of more adaptations but given the state of Hollywood now, it is unlikely anything would that would do justice to Howard’s work will be made in the future. The two films I would recommend are the original Conan the Barbarian and Solomon Kane. If putting the films in order of best to worst:
Conan the Barbarian (1982)
The Whole Wide World
Conan the Destroyer
Kull the Conqueror
Conan the Barbarian (2011)
Still, it is better to read one of Howard’s great stories than to watch any of these.