Why Lovecraft Is Un-Filmable Without Guidelines For Modern Times

Perhaps the easiest place to start when considering the iconic Lovcraft is this; what makes him so relevant after more than eighty years?

Some would say it is his masterful plumbing of primal fear. The kind of fear that exploits the unknown in ways no one conceived of before H.P. Lovecraft (HPL) did; or the threat of madness from something so alien, otherworldly, and unfathomable that it would squash us like an ant as it walked on by, with nary a thought toward anything as insignificant as humans. Another aspect of his work that struck deep chords with readers was his masterful use of the accessibility of the forbidden. The fear of stumbling across something you shouldn’t know – and curiosity making it impossible to resist trying to know – somehow made all his stories more personal.

All of those vehicles had never been used as well or even much outside of inferior grade pulp fiction at the time. As HPL established the new benchmark for macabre and the MO he would be known for, a general assessment of his readers and the public at large for that era, begs examination. In the turn of the century literary world, few authors outside of Jules Verne, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and Lovecraft delved into the darker places of the psyche. At least as far as mainstream public was concerned. Hell, even the weird tales genre was brand new at that time. Keeping this in mind, it’s easy to see what a shock these authors works would represent to an unprepared public.

In short, for the fans of the new fiction, compared to all speculative fiction they had seen before, this work would be an epiphany. Its novelty alone in a pure scare factor arena would be unlike anything seen before. This also includes what I like to call ‘post volume scare factor.’ This refers to HPL’s impeccable ability to scare and make readers think long after the final page is turned. The nature of the issues or problems at hand in the end of his stories gave the reader chills long after the end was reached! A great utilization of the classic ghost story open ending. Some of the implications were astounding! This is what the total HLP experience was all about and what has contributed most to the longevity of his legacy.

So, back in the day there was still A LOT of mystery in the world and a great many gaps in our knowledge as a species! Pay attention, this is a lynchpin of my assessment. Now, after the obvious establishment of the macabre readership of the day, we look at the current landscape of horror, fantasy, and sci-fi. What’s the first thing that is easily apparent? HPL’s specter is SO large that we easily see his influence not in dozens of current or recent artists, but in HUNDREDS. It is so prevalent that his position is no longer a high benchmark but a workman-like standard. This isn’t just the case in horror, it is prevalent in fantasy, sci-fi, and suspense. When a legend such as Stephen King says “Lovecraft was responsible for my own fascination with horror and the macabre, and was the single largest figure to influence my fiction writing,” you know the impact can’t get any bigger, or be more prevalent in the pantheon of modern horror.

Now, as for me and this treatise, I am not a huge fan of Horror or HPL. I respect his work but he was so diluted when I got to him that I’m afraid a great deal of his work was anticlimactic to me. I also came from the sci-fi world, which dealt in larger arenas to scare the hell out of you.

Nonetheless, I saw the iconic nature of HPL’s work right away and in the years following my youth I have come to view his original stories as works from a different era and that is the core reason he is unfilmable. HPL works suffer unfairly from so many creative types directly stealing his familiar tropes to such a point that they have become near caricatures of their original self. When your work influenced so many for so long and is then rediscovered in visual form by savvy, sophisticated and jaded readers such as myself, much of your material will seem vaguely familiar, instead of new and unique. So, perhaps this is the place for rule number one; explore new uncharted areas of of these familiar settings to better flesh out the depth of the HPL’s motivation or lend more story to the visual where the written word dictates the need for it! I mean, hell, what was once terrifying may not be so in the current era without a little creative help. If you have the balls to take on HPL, use them to do more than just what he did!

Another thing that was a frequent HPL standard was overt mystery or a lack of back story throughout his work. I recently covered Cool Air for DearFilm and was disappointed to know only vague oral history of the life of Dr. Munoz. I mean telling stories as a talking head in a visual medium of film bespoke aspects of his past and who he is today, but it didn’t give much insight into his nature. This sort of thing may have been expeditious and mystery building in the written word but it does disservice in the visual medium. I am convinced that the conviction of a great filmmaker to expound on certain aspects of HPL back story will be one of the most crucial aspects of a successful adaptation of HPL work into a mainstream vehicle! Rule number two; take Lovecraft and make it your own! Don’t be SO faithful and reverent to neglect improving HPL as you see fit! This is especially true if changes save his stories from fatal flaws attributable to the restrictions of the medium of the written word or the era!

Additionally, when working with the master’s work and extending on the prior rule of visual acuity, take the opposite approach to his habit of leaving too much in the background. Bring it to the forefront! Find ways to weave it into the tale and ultimately bring those mighty words to life without compromising that dark and foreboding tone he was so good with! Yes, I know that’s a tall order, but if you’re going to tackle HPL, you better bring all you have creatively. That’s why I and others have been excited at the prospect of giant talent Guillermo del Toro tackling Lovecraft’s work. His ability to portray visual splendor and his past nods to HPL in the Hellboy films generate excited speculation. Third Rule; take the hidden parts of the stories and turn them out into the light of day, while still walking that dark line HPL builds his work on.

Lastly, so much of Lovecraft’s impact came with the implications at the end of his story. The what ifs, the thoughts of logical extension and of course cosmic implications. I think so many creative people that paid homage at the Lovecraft shrine, decided to NOT leave so much to the viewers imagination, that this new attitude bled over into TV, film and Sci-Fi in the decades since. It is also how the current sensibilities of fiction fans and film aficionados evolved into the over the top attitudes of the day. Its easy to see how the march of Freddie’s, Jason’s Pinheads and Saws have conditioned the modern mindset about horror. Lets also not forget the filmmakers such as Hitchcock, Carpenter, Corman and Ridely Scott. Some would almost say all this extension of medium, tech and a long back catalog of iconic story telling particularly in the visual medium has inured all but the diehard fan to Lovecrafts ability to scare. Does this doom his work in the modern time? No, but like all the previous rules, when you dare tread where legends reside you have to pour a little blood into your adaptation. You have to take it that extra few steps to drive the impact home and leave less implication up to the imagination in this modern time. Few do this and fewer do it well, but if you want to dance with Lovecraft and jolt those that watch you take the journey, you need that extra mile to drive home some of the after the story scare that is embedded in all that HPL did. Rule 4; Take it the extra mile and paint the picture a little more clearly at the end than HPL was willing, and do so with a visual excellence that these implications and his work deserve.

Now that I have actually made a case about how HLP’s work IS filmable, I will conclude that his work WON’T see the justice it deserves in film and WILL remain mostly unfilmable until someone is willing to pour into it as much as the master did and turns a Lovecraft creation into something wholly unique and brilliant. If someone does, I think they could very well enjoy an otherworldly pat on the back a barely perceived smile of pleasure from somewhere beyond our reality.

Thanks H.P. Lovecraft, not only for what you created, but even more for all of those you inspired!

With Respect

Ric

2 comments on “Why Lovecraft Is Un-Filmable Without Guidelines For Modern Times”

  1. Ilker says:

    What’s interesting about the Cool Air adaptation by Bryan Moore is that they DID in fact expand on the character of Dr. Munoz. If you read the original short story, there are only vague hints about his past. In the film, Moore actually created that scene of Munoz reminiscing on his lost love and passion… ‘cuz really, very few Lovecraftian characters even HAVE a past worth speaking of.
    That said, the fact that it’s a short film as opposed to a full-length feature does – in my opinion – excuse it for being so faithful to the scenario of what is essentially just two people talking in a room. But your point is certainly clear that a good Lovecraftian film does have to much sufficient changes in order to make it more palatable as a story in cinema.
    Of course, it is these changes that offend many a Lovecraftian fan, so it’s a matter of taste and execution. The silent film of The Call of Cthulhu for instance does make changes to the narrative… but they are slight changes that allow for the cinematic treatment and give the story a much more visually appealing edge. Or Pickman’s Muse, combining stories to supplement each other and enhance while staying faithful to the atmosphere. And placing The Case of Charles Dexter Ward in a modern setting for The Resurrected and making the appropriate changes to the story for that, as I pointed out in my review for that film, actually improved certain aspects of the story to make it more sensible to a contemporary audience.
    I think the problem is that so many changes are made that they often have little to do with the original stories, thus making them hardly Lovecraftian beyond anything but the name. For instance, H.P. Lovecraft’s The Tomb… the film is a SAW rip-off, plain and simple, having nothing to do with the original short story in which a young man enters a tomb of his ancestor and relives a past life, suggesting he may be a reincarnation of the ancestor. It’s those kinds of adaptations that infuriate the fans and only serve to further the notion of Lovecraft’s work being unfilmable.
    And indeed, yes… so much of his work created the standards for the genre, that to look at them now would be almost laughable. It then rests on the appreciation of the individual reader/viewer to accept that Lovecraft was the original in so many regards. People have been inspired by and copied his work so much over 80 years that it’s hard to go back to his work and realize that what he wrote was groundbreaking. It’s not so easily adaptable to cinema today. But still, it could be done if filmmakers realized that being faithful to Lovecraft need not necessarily mean sticking to the nooks and crannies of his words, but what was between them… the atmosphere, the implications, the sense of the unknown, and how we deal with those fears.

    Good show, sir.

    1. Ric Desan says:

      “Faithful to the atmosphere.” I love that and it is the core pivot point for all you can do with Lovecraft!

      I like to think any adaptation that anyone does, of any ones work takes so much more effort and threatens so much more failure if not done well, that the willing souls brave enough to do the project seem to dwindle as time goes by. I have to hope that the world is breeding a new crop of valiant filmmakers willing to go the extra mile for future adaptations.

      Or at least one such filmmaker to make that big budget adaptation that Lovecraft deserves!

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