Robert E. Howard: A look at the Adaptions of the Father of Sword and Sorcery

Robert E. Howard: A look at the Adaptions of the Father of Sword and Sorcery

Interesting fact about me: I’m a writer. I have one completed novel I’m trying to find an agent for, and I’m working on the second one as well. I’ve also collected a few short stories to release as an anthology on the Amazon Kindle called Wandering Djinn. And the one question that every writer will inevitably be asked is “Who are your influences?” A lot of writers (especially those who write in the realm of fantasy like me) like to mention H.P. Lovecraft and his Cthulhu mythos, or Tolkien and his Middle-Earth stories. Me, I take more of a shine to the works of the great Robert E. Howard. Howard was a Texan born on January 22, 1906, and died on June 11, 1936, due to suicide by shotgun after the loss of his mother to a coma that would claim her life after his death. Howard was… an interesting man. He boxed, dabbled in bodybuilding, and wanted to be a writer since he was nine, finding success when he turned 23. In the short career he had, he managed to create a new genre, the Sword and Sorcery genre. This, in turn, led to the birth of Heroic Fantasy. Howard’s influence is rivaled only by Tolkien, who created the genre of High Fantasy. Howard’s creations led to some of the greatest adaptions that my childhood self had ever seen, leading me on the path to writing. So, let’s take a look at those adaptions, and see how they stack up.

Conan The Barbarian (1982)

Now, I’ll just wait while you pick your brain up, since I just blew your mind. The film, produced by the late great Dino De Laurentiis, starred Arnold Schwarzeneggar in his break-out role. The script was co-written by Oliver Stone, and has one of the most awesome soundtracks ever for a film. The film basically follows a storyline of Conan’s people being wiped out by Thulsa Doom, a Vanir raider who sells the boy Conan into slavery. Conan grows up and is sold again to be a gladiator. He then is set free, finds a sword of Atlantis and finds himself going after Doom, now a cult leader of the Stygian snake god Set. Teaming up with Subotai, a mongol archer and Valeria, a thief queen, our heroes must rescue a wayward princess and face the evils of Thulsa Doom with the aid of the wizard Akiro, played by the late great Malik.

When I was a kid watching this, my mind was just blown (I love using that term). I mean – dark cults, savage heroes, fantasy that wasn’t all elves and dwarves? This was great. But I’m here to discuss it as an adaption. And while it adheres to that savage nobility that Howard always wrote Conan with, some elements like Thulsa Doom and his snake men thing, were lifted from another Howard storyline starring Kull (we’ll get to him later). Also, some elements of Conan’s back story here were also lifted from Kull. So, the first Conan movie, while a nice introduction for most of the character, was also kind of the first Kull movie. It’s still an awesome film, with its epic climax featuring Conan and Subotai battling an army of Doom’s men being one of the coolest underdog fights I’ve ever seen. And again, there’s that whole melancholy and mirth that the character is noted for through out. So, not a perfect adaption of the plot lines, but a great adaption of the spirit of the original stories.

Conan the Destroyer (1984)

That trailer may start off a big goofy, but the sequel was just as epic. This time, there was more fantasy, and to get a higher audience, it was edited to allow a younger audience. The plot this time follows Conan as he is recruited by Taramis, Queen of Shadizar. The Queen claims that she can bring Valeria back to life, if Conan can escort her niece Jenna on a quest. She must retrieve a key that happens to be an enchanted jewel that only she can touch and survive, and then use it to retrieve a jeweled horn. This horn, when placed on the forehead of the statue of Dagoth, The Dreaming God of Shadizar, will bring the being back to life, which Taramis promises will reward Conan with Valeria’s resurrection. So Conan and his new partner Malik travel with the princess and the Captain of the Guard, Bombatta (played by Wilt Chamberlain). Along the way, they pick up their old friend Akiro the wizard, and Zula the warrior woman (played by Grace Jones). But the Queen has her own plans for the group, requiring Conan and his friends to battle evil wizards, hordes of raiders, a demonic ape-man living in a mirror, and an awesome showdown with Dagoth.

This one was a closer adaption of the usual Conan fare, particularly the barbarian being one of the few noble people in it, and harkens to Conan often going on insane quests. The fantasy is more pronounced, the sequence of the crystal tower etched into my imagination, and the battle with Dagoth is amazing for its use of lighting, camera angles and costumes. It’s not better or worse than the first one, just more pronounced on the fantasy than the savagery. As an adaption, it comes a lot closer in my opinion, due to those fantasy elements. After all, one thing that makes Conan awesome is the fact that he will take on a god if he has to. My big complaint as a Howard fan is that they give one of the wizards the name Thoth-Amon, the name of Conan’s most recurring foe, and this guy is no Thoth-Amon.

Conan the Adventurer (animated series, 1992-1993)

If you had to make a family friendly version of the greatest fantasy hero of all time, this is how you do it! At 64 episodes, this show was epic. The plot was that as a teen, Conan and his tribe of Cimmerians see a meteor shower. Conan’s father calls it “star metal”, and as he is a blacksmith (just like in the original stories ^_^), he forges tons of weapons and items from the material. His masterpiece is a a tempered sword he intends for Conan to earn, when he is strong enough to lift the stone covering it. Conan grows to adulthood, and the evil Stygian wizard Wrath-Amon appears. Wrath-Amon was ordered by his dark god Set to find as much star metal as he could to melt down to forge the tops of pyramids, whose purpose is to allow the creature to escape from his dimensional prison, the Abyss. When Conan’s father refuses to give him details, the wizard curses the whole family with the Spell of Living Stone. Conan, in a rage, manages to finally retrieve his sword, and with its presence reveals that Wrath-Amon and his minions are actually Serpent Men. Star metal removes their human disguises, and contact with the material sends them to the Abyss. Wrath-Amon is spared being sent to his master due to his evil Black Ring (another bit from the original stories). Conan vows to find and destroy Wrath-Amon, and free his family. Along the way, he gathers allies with the phoenix Needle, his horse Thunder, the African-like Wasai prince Zula (no relation to the one from the earlier film, and armed with star metal bolas that he eventually reforged to a boomerang), Jezmine (a circus performer and former thief in love with Conan armed with star metal throwing stars), the wizard Greywolf (who seeks a cure for his brother and sister who were turned into wolves, and has a star metal claw attached to his magic staff that doubles his powers), Falkenar (a flying man with a star metal whip) and Snagg (a Viking-like Vanir man armed with a star metal axe who likes to butt heads with Conan). With the ghost of the sage Epimetrius (another character from the original stories) guiding them, our heroes are out to save Hyboria from Set.

If you paid attention, this show adapts a lot of things from the original stories, and manages to make it awesome regardless of its animated nature. Some hardcore fans may think that a Conan who doesn’t look out only for himself or womanize is not Conan, but this is probably the best all-around adaption of the spirit of the original Howard stories in a format that fans of all ages can enjoy.

Conan and the Young Warriors (animated series, 1994)

Oh boy, this was an odd one. At only 13 episodes, this had to be the strangest of the adaptions yet. It was a semi-sequel to Conan the Adventurer, if only for the use of the same design for Conan, and a few references to past characters. Conan is charged with protecting and training the Chosen Ones, three kids with star stones destined to rule Hyboria: Draegen, the eldest boy from Aquilonia whose star stone bandana gives him invincible armor; Brynne, the only girl in the group, an ex-thief from Shadizar whose star stone ring allows her to create illusions; and Navah, the youngest one from the Pict tribe whose star stone pendant allows him to control animals. Together, they battle Sulinara, a half- serpent woman sorceress who wants the stones.

God, this is just… lacking. It’s basically Conan babysitting three kids and trying to teach them how to be heroes. It’s not horrible, it’s just not good either. And the only thing it has in common with the original stories is its setting and inclusion of Conan.

Kull the Conqueror (1997)

What happens when your plan to adapt the Conan novel “The Hour of The Dragon” into a third film starring the Cimmerian falls through? Adapt it with elements from the unpublished Kull of Atlantis story “By This Axe I Rule” and its Conan rewrite “The Phoenix on the Sword” and release it as a Kull movie. The results are mixed, to say the least. The film follows Kull’s (Kevin Sorbo) rise to be the king of Valusia, ages before Conan’s birth. However, in a straight rip of what happens to Conan in the novel, he is ousted by a conspiracy that revives the demon queen Akivasha (Tia Carrere ). His quest to stop her and regain his throne takes him on a quest to retrieve an ancient power.

This film has a lot more comedy elements, and lacks the philosophical nature of the original Kull from the stories. Kull’s issue was that becoming king made his life a lot harder, dealing with a decadent kingdom filled with rivals. It’s still a fun romp, but not a great adaption.

Conan the Adventurer (live action series 1997)

Oh dear God in Heaven… This is just bad. Really bad. I mean… I knew Hercules the Legendary Journeys inspired a lot of shows… but this is just insulting. A jovial, kind Conan? A band of merry friends? The themes being of friendship and trust? Fail. EPIC FAIL.

So, that’s about it. Robert E. Howard’s core philosophy in all of his writings was that it didn’t matter if you were of high birth or low. Anyone could be evil, or heroic. There may be forces in the world you don’t understand and may never truly understand. And maybe life is meaningless. But his heroes, Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane, they found their own meaning, and stood true to their beliefs, and their courage allowed them to defy the odds.

What’s that? I didn’t mention Solomon Kane? Well, there was an ulterior motive to all this. Check this space soon, because I’m bringing the World of Meh exclusive review of the film adaption of Solomon Kane starring James Purefoy.

Ahmed is not just a fanboy, but also a martial artist and an indie author who has published such fantasy adventure books as "Lunen: Triblood".

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