We deserve another Conan movie. One that is more 1982 Conan the Barbarian and less Conan the Destroyer or 2011 Conan the Barbarian. (I posted short reviews of the three Conan movies over at Every Day Should Be Tuesday.)
Making a good Conan movie brings certain challenges. Not the least of which is the difficulty of finding an actor who can credibly portray a character as physically imposing, athletic, and charismatic as Conan, and the difficulty of finding a director/writer remotely as unconventional and brilliant as Robert E. Howard. But I am specifically referring to what I call the “Stump Problem.” Rick Stump lays it out, and says a great bit more, in this blog post. The gist of what I am concerned with is that the 1982 and 2011 movies are origin stories that revolve around Conan avenging the killing of his parents; this is both non-Conanical and hurts the prospects of future movies (if Conan has achieved his life’s purpose, why do we care anymore?). Everything must be personal.
This is a particular problem for a couple reasons. The first is that the 1982 movie looms large over any adaptation of Conan. It is that movie, and not the original Howard stories, that did the most to fix the image of Conan in the mind of today’s movie viewer. The second is that contemporary movies are simply obsessed with origin stories and making it “personal.” The modern superhero boom brings with it a weird obsession with origin stories. A large chunk of the MCU movies are origin stories. It gave us a Spider-Man origin story just ten years after we got a (very successful) Spider-Man origin story. The obsession of every studio in creating their own version of the MCU only makes things worse. At the same time, studios have forgotten that it isn’t always personal. Hence, James Bond cannot act merely out of love of queen and country, and Arthur will only seek the crown to avenge his friends.
Given that Hollywood only copies existing success, is there any hope? Yes. In seeking a successful model to copy imitate pay homage to, look not to either Conan the Barbarian, but to Mad Max. Max, of course, has an origin story. I’m thinking less of the original Mad Max movie than of The Road Warrior and Fury Road (of Beyond Thunderdome, as of Conan the Destroyer, the less thought of, the better).
Many of the Howard Conan stories are not driven by Conan. Conan disappears for long stretches at times. Several are really the stories of some third-party, with Conan just caught up in the action. In A Witch Shall Be Born, a queen in usurped by her sister. Conan gets caught up because he is the captain of the queen’s palace guard. In The Pool of the Black One, Conan is found adrift by pirates sailing for a mysterious island.
This is the opposite of the usual approach. Movies are typically the story of the main character. Wonder Woman gets pulled into the story by Steve Trevor, but Wonder Woman is driven by her character arc. Wolverine gets pulled into the story by Laura, but Logan is driven by his character arc. Mad Max: Fury Road breaks that pattern.
Max has no initial agency or goal beyond escape. He is only in the chase because he was captured and then dragged along as a blood bag. The story is driven by Imperator Furiosa and the wives. If we define “protagonist” as the character who wants something, Furiosa, not Max, is the protagonist. Similarly, in The Road Warrior Max gets dragooned into someone else’s story. This allows Max to play the heroic role without being a hero, which is exactly the position in which Howard loved to put Conan.
There lies the solution to the Stump Problem. Give someone else the story that drives the movie. Let Conan swoop in as the random adventurer who happens to be in the right place at the right time. The viewer is given a compelling story, but Conan loses nothing after its completion. He can walk off stage to the next adventure, just like Max.
H.P. is an academic, attorney, and “author” (well, blogger) who will read and write about anything interesting he finds in the used bookstore wherever he happens to be for the moment. He can be found on Twitter @tuesdayreviews and at Every Day Should Be Tuesday.
 Stump is a little too hard on the 1982 movie. I have to agree with Vlad James that it is a masterpiece. John Milius and Oliver Stone are—like Robert E. Howard—unconventional geniuses, and that, more than anything else, is what matters.