You’re one of the most creative, disturbing, and revered filmmakers working in cinema today. Virtually every movie you’ve produced has earned a high amount of accolades critically and commercially, having released some of the best creature features of the past 20 years. From your directorial debut, Cronos, which offered filmgoers one of the most unique variations of the vampire myth, on to Mimic, The Devil’s Backbone, the Hellboy film series, to your Academy Award winning Pan’s Labyrinth, along with your production credits on films like Splice and Julia’s Eyes and even your literary output with co-author Chuck Hogan on your “Strain” series, you’re among this generation’s cinematic equivalents of the weird fiction writers of a century-and-a-half ago. Perhaps this is why the excitement and anticipation among horror/sci-fi fans has been running high as you’ve announced over the past 15 years your intention to direct an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s mammoth novel “At the Mountains of Madness.”
“Unfilmable” seems to be the word most associated with Lovecraft in the world of cinema. His stories often deal with conceptual horror as opposed to physical horror involving a large amount of action; more prone to featuring characters talking in a room, in offices or libraries buried in book research, or beholding unspeakable, unnamable terrors beyond human perception or reckoning. Of course, this has not deterred filmmakers from making attempts to adapt Lovecraft to film with varying degrees of success and faithfulness to the source material. Almost universally regarded as the best Lovecraftian film produced (ironically based on a story not by Lovecraft, though it may have been influenced by Lovecraft), John Carpenter’s The Thing featured several similarities to “At the Mountains of Madness.” Both stories dealt with a scientific expedition in Antarctica discovering the remnants of an ancient extra-terrestrial being that may in fact still be alive. Both stories feature a high level of tension and their own fair shares of gore and violence, and both end rather bleakly. Certainly with these comparisons in mind, one would imagine that adapting “At the Mountains of Madness” to film shouldn’t be so difficult. So why is it that you’ve not been able to make your version of the classic story up to now?
You’ve gone on record stating that the primary obstacle you’ve faced have been studio executives unwilling to commit to a film that features no love story or any sort of romantic angle (as there are no female characters) and not a happy ending. Naturally, as the astute fan that you are, you’ve noted that these things are simply not part of the Lovecraftian universe; they have appeared sporadically in certain stories, but in general, Lovecraft’s literary world was a cruel and malignant one that emphasizes man’s insignificance in a vast cosmos beyond comprehension and sanity. This is hardly the kind of universe Hollywood depicts in its quest for financial self-fulfillment. After all, the goal is to attract as wide an audience as possible to sell more tickets and popcorn and profit off the entertainment of the masses. And when you consider that sci-fi and horror as genres are a niche market, added on top of the despair and hopelessness of the Lovecraftian atmosphere, it really comes as no surprise that you, Mr. del Toro, have had a tough time getting this film produced. Earlier in 2011, it was announced that James Cameron, hot off the success of Avatar, would sign on as producer and that seemed to provide a glimmer of hope for Lovecraft aficionados eager for you to finally make this film. Yet, in March, Universal Studios refused to greenlight the project.
Fans of your work and of Lovecraft and horror in general have been quick to despair and to give you words of encouragement in hopes that you won’t abandon so momentous and monumental a project. As no film based on Lovecraft’s work has ever received the big budget treatment so many feel they deserve, often relegated to smaller independent productions or low budget schlock that dismally alters the original stories so as to be unrecognizable in their cinematic versions, the prospect of a well respected director such as yourself producing what could be a new benchmark for horror/sci-fi would be nothing short of glorious. I personally have my reservations on the latter point as several leaked copies of the script(s) you and Matthew Robbins have written show that your vision of “At the Mountains of Madness” deviates dramatically from the original book, with Cthulhu even appearing in one version. Some might find this to be a “cool” development, but for my part, I find it dismaying, though I reserve judgment on the topic until actual shooting begins. Yet in spite of this, almost nobody outside the studio executive bureaucracy that has thwarted you so has had anything negative to say about your failed attempts. At the risk of branding myself a pariah, I think a fair chunk of the blame squarely rests on your shoulders.
Far be it from me to defend the Hollywood studio mentality that has blocked you, and by no means are they not responsible. Given the success of horror/sci-fi films like The Thing, Event Horizon, and Pitch Black to name but a few, the genre of horror/sci-fi has proven popular in film; true that they are niche genres, but that niche is large enough that the prospect of monetary return should be sufficient to recoup their production costs, right? Wrong. What is interesting to note, at least as far as those specific examples I’ve just named are concerned, is that their success came later in home video and DVD sales. Their audience accumulated over time, while the masses at large at the time of theatrical release barely wanted much to do with them. And unfortunately, Hollywood studios are more interested in the immediate profit of the theater, making the film as short as possible to ensure more showings per day, thus more tickets and popcorn sold, and jumping the revenue up significantly.
You, Mr. del Toro, are no fool; you surely must have considered this at some stage while working on your adaptation. And yet, you’re asking for a budget of $150 million to produce a massive epic of horror/sci-fi, and one that would be at your insistence rated R, thus limiting the potential theater-going audience even further (silly though it may be in this day and age, theaters still adhere to the rules of the R rating, regardless of the fact that a fairly large number of horror/sci-fi fans are in their teens). I understand that you wish to give Lovecraft the grand scale production that he and “At the Mountains of Madness” deserve, but as an accomplished and experienced filmmaker, one would think that you would be clever enough to find ways to work within the limits imposed on you. One need only look at directors like Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey), David Fincher (Fight Club), or Ridley Scott (Blade Runner) for proof that it can be done; granted, they’ve all gone notoriously over budget on their respective films, but it was always pursuant to working within the confines of the system. A good director does the best he or she can with what is available to them until it becomes clear more is required… then the negotiations start, the artistry comes into play, and a better film is made as a result. Unfortunately, all of those examples – like The Thing, Pitch Black, and Event Horizon – also had little success in their theatrical runs, once again to be forgiven thanks to success in the home video market that followed.
But I suppose my ultimate point, Mr. del Toro, is this: It is not an impossible task to produce this film version of “At the Mountains of Madness,” if only you would stop asking so much and be a little more crafty in your dealings with the Hollywood system. Your films and your books prove that you have the creativity and intelligence to put an original spin on even the most mundane story or idea, be it vampires or fairy tales, and you are a more-than-capable filmmaker besides. I will certainly concede that the studios should learn from the past and realize that the home video markets – especially with the advent of DVD/Blu-Ray, NetFlix, Hulu, and other online media and technologies like larger flat/widescreen and 3-D televisions – are the future of their trade, and that it is only a matter of time before the traditional theatergoing experience will take on a new persona. What that persona is, who can say? But with ticket prices skyrocketing and sales dwindling, the filmmaking industry must be able to see the change that is not even on the horizon but is already taking place. As such, it’s up to them to adapt and realize that a film version of “At the Mountains of Madness” is a more viable pursuit than it might have been 10 or 15 years ago. But until they catch up, Mr. del Toro, should you not put all that you have learned as an author and auteur toward finding more creative ways to develop the project instead of letting it languish in permanent limbo? Unless you’re simply waiting out the changes taking place in the system, I have to say I’m as much disappointed in you as I am with Hollywood at your inability to make what could potentially be the best Lovecraftian film adaptation ever produced.