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HP Lovecraft and the (Monkey) Puzzle of the “Good Lovecraftian Film”

I was talking with my friend Chris about a bunch of SF- (and, to a lesser degree, fantasy-) -related things the other day — one of those discussions where you are trying to get at the heart of how we read genre and why, reader/viewer expectations for genre texts and media, and so on.

One of the interesting points that came up was how it’s so difficult to make a good Lovecraftian film, and the fact that people keep trying and trying. This has stuck out in my mind as a question to myself, since for a few months now I’ve been kicking around the idea of writing a Lovecraftian film script, set in Korea, for Miss Jiwaku and me to try and film and edit together (with some Creative Commons music and maybe I could compose something on Finale, who knows?) and enter into festivals and such.

It sounds like a really fun project, doesn’t it?

But when I look at the track record of Lovecraftian films, I see very little I’d call successful. And I see a great deal of stuff which I’d honestly call awful. There are very few exceptions: The Last Lovecraft is one, if you think the humor is funny, as a kind of Lovecraftian equivalent of Shaun of the Dead; there was a period-piece (silent, wasn’t it, and black-and-white) Call of Cthulhu that worked for me; and though I haven’t seen it since it was new, I remember thinking that John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness was, well, okay as a kind of Lovecraftian homage.

I have, however, sat through oodles of bad, amateurish, not-scary, not-creditable, not-even-worth-the-buck-I-paid-to-see-it Lovecraftian films. Which tells you a couple of things: that I kept renting them or otherwise getting my hands on them, and that even when I knew they were going to suck, I (at least sometimes) kept watching them. Also, out there in filmmaker land, people kept making them.

All of this raises a few questions, of varying degrees of difficulty.

The easy question here is, Why is so much of “Lovecraftian cinema” so unsatisfying? Unlike the blogger at Wigfield’s Gibberonica, I don’t think it’s just the racism. (Funny, though, how the question of Lovecraft and film adaptation is in the air — that’s a very recent post over there, and by a blogger/apparent SF fan in Korea, no less!) Adaptations of works excise such things a lot, and while racism is a significant part of Lovecraft’s storytelling, there’s plenty of preoccupation with white New Englanders who are somehow devolved. It would be feasible to turn Lovecraft’s racism into something else in a cinematic adaptation — perhaps, a whole town (of whatever mixture of races) harbors an evil genetic secret; or maybe a specific family, or cult of a more modern, mixed-race type, could be the Cthulhu-worshippers.

Chris, in our discussion, noted that a recent podcast he’d listened to suggested something which it turned out was also my own working theory for one problem of filming Lovecraftian horror — that we love Lovecraft not just for the purple, dense language he uses (something hard to translate to the screen) but also because he, like Miles Davis, works with empty space.

This is the very same point I made in a class over a decade ago, when we were discussing the techniques of horror. A classmate of mine had gone and told us that Stephen King was the best horror writer ever, because he showed you everything, and left nothing to the imagination. My own presentation, a week later, was on how, by withholding, by not showing the monster for as long as he could, Lovecraft managed to be disquieting and scary. (I should say, I’ve not yet read much King, so this is all on my classmate’s word. I have been reading King’s Under the Dome for a few months, very off-and-on, and think it’s pretty damned good, though.) Lovecraftian stories are creepy or scary or whatever they are for us, precisely because it withholds the scary thing, the monster or evil deity or whatever, to let the awfulness build up in your mind, and that this is hard to do in film since, after all, it’s about spectacle.

But the somewhat harder question that came to my mind — simultaneously about common practice among would-be filmmakers, and about the project I mentioned I’m considering: Why, given the inherent difficulties of translating Lovecraftian horror to film, and the disappointing track record, do both fans and filmmakers seem to hold out endless hope for the long-awaited great Lovecraftian film?

If it’s so hard to do right, how come so many people keep trying to do it, over and over and over again? What drives this quixotic urge to make Lovecraftian films? And for moviegoers, the same could be asked: why, despite past experience, do we keep seeking out and watching Lovecraftian films? What drives us to try find a “good” one? What would it take for us to just shrug and say, “Maybe it’s not possible to make a successful adaptation of Lovecraft to the screen…”?

I think there are a few possible answers to this harder, double-edged question. None of them are particularly encouraging or comfortable.

One, the more depressing one I think, is that Adam Roberts hit the nail on the head when he said (approximately, in his Palgrave history of SF) that the dominant form of SF has become “media” SF (film or video form), and not fiction.

It seems sometimes that a book doesn’t quite “arrive” until it’s been turned into a film. Never mind that books inspired by something else have been made into films — for example, the books about Sidney Reilly (by Robin Lockhart) and RH Bruce Lockhart (by himself) opened up the way for the books of Ian Fleming about James Bond, which opened the way for Bond films. (Not to mention Len Deighton and others.) No Lockhart books, no Fleming and no 007 film franchise, or so I understand it.)

Still, it’s easy for people to see a cinematic rendering of a text as a way for it to, you know, “come to life” and I’m not alone in remembering a time when I felt that my favorite books becoming movies was a good thing. (Even I am eager to see Guillermo del Toro’s long-deferred cinematic At the Mountains of Madness on the big screen.) I do know a number of people who seem to perceive it as a kind of injustice when their favorite author’s work hasn’t ben “done justice” on the big screen. The assumption being that everything worthy in books is necessarily adaptable to cinema, perhaps. Or maybe it’s a fannish, selfish-gene type memetics that drives this desire: if a great Lovecraftian film could be made, people would finally get why his books are so wonderful and Lovecraft would get a wider, more enthusiastic audience.

Another could be that plenty of the people who are into Lovecraft are also into the idea of Lovecraft being “pulp” fiction, the equivalent of which in cinema is the B-movie, of course. While I find it hard to understand now, there definitely is a market — and an aesthetic — that prizes cheapness, cheeziness, predictability, and outright camp. I always got the sense that Lovecraft felt a little screwed-over by the way his work ended up in pulp magazines, and not recognized as “literature,” though I don’t know whether I picked up that idea. In any case, when I thumb through pulps on occasion, I find something in his work that, with all its dense prose and intensity, seems of a different sort: surely Lovecraft had some “serious” literary aspirations and affectations, which I think some of his pulp hack peers did not exactly nurture. Still, it is understandable why audiences, when receiving his work would drop it into the pulp category in their heads, and align it with B-movies. It’s not necessarily bad, in part because it has led more people to go back and read the texts.

Yet another explanation, though, might be that people want to believe they can do it better, or that someone out there can do it better. Surely, that’s part of del Toro’s motivation — he loves Lovecraft’s fiction and wants to do the man’s only novel a justice that so many others have failed to do others of his works. I would be surprised if others who’ve made Lovecraft films have also been motivated by a kind of sense of, “Hell, I can do that… but better.” The reality, though, is that unless people really get why they love Lovecraft’s stories, they are going to focus on things like tentacles, like frog people, like putting Cthulhu on the big screen, and not on the creeping sense of dread that, let’s face it, non-Lovecraftian horror films long ago taught us how to capture and build that kind of fear in cinematic formats.

(The underseen and unfairly-forgotten film The Haunting of Julia, an adaptation of the Peter Straub novel Full Circle (known in America as simply Julia), is a great example, and scared the crap out of me when I watched it one winter’s night in 1997 or 1998. That film, as I remember it, was a great example of how it’s done… it just works, as they say.)

I wonder, though, if there’s something else to it… something about the nature of Lovecraftian fiction that suggests a kind of vividity, a kind of overt, familiar terror or unsettling discomfort, that paradoxically makes one feel as if it ought to be filmable, because, for Lovecraft fans at least, it works so damned well as a text.

Sure, Philip K. Dick seems to hold a similar allure for Hollywood filmmakers, but at least some of those films are watchable, or good, even when they aren’t quite in the spirit of P.K. Dick’s original texts. Movies like Blade Runner and A Scanner Darkly suggest it actually is possible to do Philip K. Dick’s work justice in cinematic form, with a little jiggering and poking here and here. But honestly, I have yet to see a film that has convincingly adapted Lovecraft — whether a specific narrative, or even just his aesthetic — to the screen in a way that I considered anywhere near as successful as, say, A Scanner Darkly.

I have to wonder if, in some sense, Lovecraft cinema is the external trace of a kind of pop-cultural monkey-puzzle. If it is, though, I’m not so sure it’s a limitation of Lovecraft, or of film as a medium: it may be a limitation based in the audience, or in the industry itself. After all–and as I mentioned to Chris–I believe that a certain ideological and imaginative mediocrity dominates what we sometimes call “media SF.” As SF authors note time and time again, the ideas in media SF are often decades behind the cutting edge in literary SF. I don’t think it’s so much that visual SF can’t be brilliant–of course it can, and it occasionally manages to be made brilliantly–but it is very often nowhere near as mind-blowing (in the sense of the pleasures I read SF for) as written SF.

Whatever the reason, though, I have this funny feeling that by the end of the summer, I will have gone ahead and stuck my own hand into the Cinematic-Lovecraft monkey puzzle, and written something for Miss Jiwaku and myself to work on in terms of filming. Since I became aware of the Kurodahan publication of translations of Japanese Lovecraftian stories in a four-book series titled Lairs of the Hidden Gods, I’ve been wondering what a Lovecraftian narrative set in Korea might be like.

As for why I am drawn to old HP Lovecraft’s work, well, Jason Colavito touches on some of it in his essay, “Atheism’s Mythographer: How H.P. Lovecraft Reinvented Mythology for the Postmodern Age of Science.” I think Colavito hits the nail on the head when he describes who the gods and pantheons of the Cthulhu Mythos enunciate what, for a lot of people, is the experience of becoming atheist: the sudden confrontation with the meaninglessness of the universe, the chaos with which one is surrounded.

I’ve told elsewhere the story of my own questioning of religion as a child, and how it led my father — I’m not sure whether in seriousness, or as a joke — to recommend I check some Erich von Däniken (this, specifically), much of which I later discovered was 3rd generation riffs on Lovecraftian concepts. (Another link on the Colavito site, I realize now. I shall have to read the rest of the man’s essays.)

I first read Lovecraft, long after I realized von Däniken was full of crap but also long after reading von Däniken had catapulted me both away from any one religion, and toward both SF and science — von Däniken does, after all, attempt a kind of pseudoscientific, but semi-naturalistic, explanation of human religion, if also a basically racist explanation of ancient monuments. Nonetheless, my reaction to Lovecraft (as well, I recall, as to the first few of David Brin’s Uplift books) was shock at how much it was like von Däniken, except instead of pretending to be nonfiction, it was bizarre SF horror. I was amazed to discover Lovecraft had been writing this stuff so long ago. So there’s a kind of funny nostalgia and maybe glee I find it messing with those concepts — anciently malevolent alien gods, a mindlessly mechanistic universe, and the infinitesimally small, insignificant nature of human life in a giant, cold, bone-crushingly heartless universe — and the man’s approach to storytelling.

At the same time, I’m also curious about how one can adapt the Lovecraftian aesthetic as fully as possible to another culture. While Korea has as many images of dilapidated coastal towns, peopled by folk who are, well, somehow just a little too off to be normal human beings, how is one to adapt the racism that was so crucial to Lovecraft’s worldview to a Korean, and essentially monoracial, context? (Possibilities include (especially) regionalism, as well as the urban/rural divide, and perhaps also the potent generation gap in Korea today.)

Besides, I think that it’s about time someone made the connection between the Lovecraftian horror I mention above — malevolent alien gods, a terrifyingly pointless universe, and human insigificance — in some of the social structures in Korea, such as the Korean chaebol megacorporation (which I envision as a kind of Cthulhoid machine for eating minds and spitting out ruined, disfigured, and occasionally outright insane human beings), the Korean military (ditto), and the hypertrophied Korean education system (once again, ditto).

Given the successes of Japanese horror/SF authors’ adoption of Lovecraft to their cultural milieu, and that of Charlie Stross in the Laundry books, I have to say I do think it’s possible. Whether I’ll turn out to be right, though, remains to be seen. I’ll say more when I have more to say.

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