Thursday, 10 July 2014

Is Lovecraft Unfilmable?

I've heard this discussion a lot and so I thought I would take the time and attempt to address this question. There have been plenty of attempts to film the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, most of which are either critically panned or hotly contested. Dean Stockwell has already starred in two hated adaptations of The Dunwhich Horror and Del Toro has been trying to get his screen treatment of At the Mountains of Madness off the ground for years. I mean even I've written my own screenplay version of the same story and I think it's turned out alright.

But perhaps I should start at the beginning. For those of you not familiar with his work, H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) was an American writer best known for his influence on the horror genre. He primarily did short stories, most if not all of which are now public domain and thus can be found online for free (this website has a pretty good collection of his texts), and while he might not have been famous during his lifetime his influence on the horror genre cannot be denied. This man has been a huge inspiration behind some of the biggest names in contemporary horror, including John Carpenter and Stephen King.

The controversy regarding whether his work can be filmed comes from the style his writing is known for. Many of his stories are based on the philosophy that mankind is an insignificant part of a vastly uncaring universe. He believed that humanity was little more than a spec of dust in the grand scheme of things, and that there were horrors out there beyond our wildest imagination that could destroy us in a second, and that we were doomed by our own insignificance. The thing is, his opinion wasn't so much that these things were evil (the only truly evil being in his works is one who is quite fascinated with humanity) so much as they were indifferent.

The analogy that often gets used is that these creatures see us the same way we'd see bugs on the sidewalk. However, many of these creatures are so mind-shatteringly beyond our range of understanding that they are literally indescribable, sometimes to the point that merely glimpsing them is a enough to drive a person to complete and utter madness. This is where the controversy comes in. How do you film something that is indescribable? So is Lovecraft unfilmmable?

Well, no. He may be difficult to film, but not impossible as we can see by the fact that there are some well-done Lovecraft adaptations. The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society has so far made two low-budget but surprisingly faithful adaptations of his stories: The Call of Cthulhu and The Whisperer in Darkness. The latter in particular goes in a few different directions from the original novella on which its based (in particular it adds in a whole third act that wasn't originally there), but it still manages to remain true to Lovecraft's themes and preserved the bleak atmosphere of his work rather effectively. In fact a few of the twists and turns were actually legitimately terrifying, particularly the unsettling reveal at the end which I won't spoil.

However, many of the films that seem to be better received are the ones that aren't necessarily based on Lovecraft so much as inspired by him. There's a ton of films that have been slotted into this category including Carpenter's The Thing and Prince of Darkness, but the best example would be the third and final installment of his "Apocalypse Trilogy" In the Mouth of Madness. This was a film that he admitted was one great big tribute to Lovecraft, not based on any particular story but trying to create the same sort of atmosphere and full of references to his stories.

The thing is, you can't really generalize Lovecraft as "unfilmable". The best approach I can take is to look more at individual narratives, because not all of them involved "indescribable" horrors. The way I see it, it really depends on the story you're looking at. Some actually lend themselves quite nicely to film, while others might be much harder to do (though not necessarily impossible). Let me bring up two examples to illustrate this point.

Though we have yet to see it made into a film, whether it be my version or Del Toro's (or both), one can't deny that At the Mountains of Madness has some cinematic potential. The story, which centers around an Antarctic expedition discovering an ancient alien city, lends itself to some incredible images. Considering it's the Antarctic there's lots of room for great landscape shots and even more room for lots of fascinating images with regards to the city itself, all the buildings and their bizarre hieroglyphs and any artifacts we might see within.

There isn't much action but with all the curiosity surrounding the ruins there doesn't need to be, especially with that chase scene at the end. The shoggoth itself might be a bit harder to pull off, regardless of whether we use practical effects or CGI, but I think it could still be done with a little bit of creativity. The Elder-Things on the other hand wouldn't be so hard, especially considering we never see them move.

To bring up a contrast, why don't we shift focus to Lovecraft's short story The Colour Out of Space (which ironically several people have attempted to film). The story is simple enough: a mysterious meteor lands in a farm and brings with it some sort of... thing (it's so alien that "a colour" is the best way anyone can identify it) which gradually begins destroying everything and the animals begin to whither and die, and it begins to affect the minds of the family living there until nothing is left.

It's a very depressing story, and at first glance one that could work as a film. The problem is figuring out how to depict the Colour. In the original story the colour is described as being one outside of the visible spectrum, a color that has literally never been seen on Earth. Good luck finding a special effects team that can pull that off. Even Douglas Trumbull couldn't do it. Now I won't say it's impossible to effectively adapt, since I have heard of people trying it anyway (one way I've heard suggested would be to get around the problem by shooting in black and white), but since it's impossible to create what Lovecraft described it's certainly going to be difficult.

So really in the long run you can't generalize Lovecraft as "unfilmable" or otherwise. In fact there are several stories of his that involve simpler monsters, some of which have already been filmed. The aforementioned The Whisperer in Darkness is one example, but one film adaptation with a cult following is Re-Animator (basically a mad scientist creates a fluid that reanimates dead tissue which results in all kinds of chaos; yes, Lovecraft basically wrote a story about zombies).

The Shadow Over Innsmouth is another one that could potentially work as a film, since the only monsters to actually appear are the Deep Ones (weird fish/frog-like creatures that live in the ocean) and the funny-looking inhabitants of Innsmouth. Funnily enough, this has been done by the same director as Re-Animator under the title of Dagon. In fact Stuart Gordon has made something of a career out of adapting Lovecraft stories as he's also done From Beyond and The Dreams in the With House.

That last one there is another interesting one to consider. The Dreams in the Witch-House was a very surreal story centered around a young student of Miskatonic University (an institution that pops up a lot in Lovecraft's stories) who looking for a place to stay decides out of curiosity to move into an old boarding house that is said to be haunted by the ghost of the witch who once lived there. What follows is a weird sequence of events in which every night he has dreams in which first a creature named "Brown Jenkin" (imagine a rat with a human head) approaches his bed and then he is seemingly transported around the universe.

As the story develops the line between dream and reality start to blur, and it all builds up to a horrifying conclusion. You know who'd be perfect to try adapting this story? David Lynch. Who better to take on a piece like this than the guy known for creating subjective and mind-blogging narratives? I don't know about you but I think David Lynch's The Dreams in the Witch-House could be something amazing.

There is one story that stands out in my mind, however, as one that I don't think I'd call "unfilmmable" in any sense of the word. It has no sanity-shattering indescribable monsters. In fact it doesn't really have any monsters at all, but a very human antagonist. I am of course talking about The Thing on the Doorstep.

There's really only three major characters (okay, technically four, but it's complicated), and it's also the only Lovecraft story to have a significant female character (well... sort of), although for the purposes of a film adaptation you could flesh out some of the minor roles that were only referred to in the book (the families of some of the characters, for instance), but the plot centers around a strange mystery that involves a creepy "wizard" (Lovecraft was usually under the mindset that the "supernatural" was just the best way we could describe science that was too far above our level of understanding) who swaps bodies with other people, usually against their will.

The one time you would need to apply some special effects would be for... well... the Thing on the Doorstep. For those of you who haven't read the story I won't spoil it by telling you just what that thing is, but believe me when I say when you find out at the very end what it is (or more accurately, was) you're going to be frightened to think about it. I don't know about you but I do think this particular one could be a very chilling movie if put in the right hands.

So ultimately is Lovecraft unfilmable? Well, no. Difficult, maybe. Specific stories of his, perhaps, but in general it is not impossible to make a good movie from his writing.  It has been done before and in the right hands there are stories of his that could make excellent films. Then again, in the right hands perhaps any of his stories, even the ones with the "indescribable" monsters, could still be made into an excellent film.

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