Is It Really April?

It’s hard to believe it is April already. Things have pretty much been a blur since St. Valentine’s Day, when I flew over to Los Angeles to watch a rough-cut of the new Conan the Barbarian movie. It will be out on August 19th of this year, and the novelization will be available about six weeks earlier. In addition to that I’ve had two trips, have worked on the Phoenix Film Festival, had one book signing, have taught two writing classes and managed to facilitate communications between family members in Japan and my parents in Vermont using a combination of Skype and cell phones and some pretty crazy hours.

As I said, blur.

The biggest news is the novelization for Conan the Barbarian. The basic are this: five and a half years ago I signed the contract to write the novelization. I can’t tell you how many directors or scripts ago that was, mainly because I only saw a few of them. The folks in charge of Conan Properties, Inc., and I share the same love of Robert E. Howard’s original prose. It was an honor and thrill to be tapped for the project. I was fairly lucky because unlike many other movie novelizations, the studio did not have approval on my novel, the folks at CPI did. Because we all recognized that a novel is a different medium than a movie, and that things that work in movies don’t work so well in novels, I was given a fair amount of latitude in how I put the novel together.

For example, in the movie there is a very cool and exciting chase scene and combat sequence that was fun to watch. Trying to do that in a novel, however, would be close to impossible. Sure, some of you might be saying, “But you did that in the X-wing books just fine with space combat.” Well, if Conan and the other characters had mounts that could move a lot faster, were equipped with proton torpedoes and, especially, radios to chatter back and forth, I could have done that here. As it was, the written version wasn’t going to happen the way it does in the film.

One thing I’ve learned in writing movie scripts with Brian Pulido is that you try to get into a scene as quickly as you can, and out just as quickly. In doing the novelization, I got to stretch that procedure out—ease in, finish when you need to. Because the novel doesn’t have actors on the screen conveying their inner lives through a glance or tone of voice, I had to go inside their heads and play around. I got to add extra bits of dialogue that provided more background. In short, I got to put in all the stuff that someone making a script would have left out.

In essence, I got to write the novel from which the script clearly was adapted. (Yeah, I know, a brain bender, but it works.)

Writing the novel was a lot of fun, even though I was working on a tight schedule. I would write a chapter, take a break and read a Howard story, write another chapter and so on. I kept reading Howard’s original work to make sure that I didn’t get too far away from his original rhythms or intent. When you read the Howard stories you realize that Conan is far from stupid; and can be very voluble at the right moments. I let that be my guide, but I also had to be careful.

Howard, for example, has Conan use the word “jam” to indicate trouble. Because he put that word in Conan’s mouth, I could clearly do it and cite the original as an example. The difficulty is that the word “jam” is a bit to slangy and gangsterish (old school gangster) for most modern fantasy readers. So, in the interest of writing to the spirit of the weird-fantasy that Howard was writing, I had to make sure that the work conformed to the general expectations of today’s fantasy audience. Moreover, the material I was able to add to the story provided in the script really let me return to and emphasize themes which Howard addressed—themes that make Conan a joy to read.

One of the goals of any of my tie-in work has been simple: to write a book that the originating author could have written. I want the stories to feel right to the characters and to respect what their creator did. (If I had no respect for the creator or the characters, I wouldn’t take the job.) Howard’s fiction is work I have enjoyed for forty years now. It is work I return to all the time, since I learn a lot from it. In this round of reading I learned even more—a great deal of which will have implications as we move down the line with digital publishing. (In short, Howard and the other pulp writers would have been the Kings of the Jungle in the new environment. What they did then will work very well now.)

I am very happy with the novel, and I hope readers will enjoy it.

Concerning the movie: what I saw was a rough-cut. That means that scenes were still being moved around, over half the special effects shots were not yet in the film, dialogue was being adjusted and I never knew which ending would get used. (Technically speaking, I still don’t know how the movie ends. If it’s not the way I wrote it, I’ll have some very fast rewrites to do.) The actors did a great job, and having their performances in my head made writing so much easier. This is especially true of Ron Perlman, who played Conan’s father.

I’m very much looking forward to seeing the movie in the theatres, with all the scenes in and everything set. And for those who can’t wait, there will be a nifty paperback you can buy to pass the time until the film is released.

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8 Responses to “Is It Really April?”

  1. Can’t wait to read it, Mike. Also, I find it interesting how you kept yourself immersed in Howard’s writing while writing the novelization. To me, that sounds more like play than work (jk, I know you’ve been working hard on it.)

  2. Sounds like a tough time keeping up with all those changes. You’ve got more patience than I’d likely have.

  3. It made me smile that you would stop and re-read REH in between writing sessions. Glad to know that you’re a Howard fan and that you were trying to stay true to his spirit and intent. I’ll definitely read the book.

  4. I don’t know… good question. I assume there will be.

  5. People are never remembered for novelizations, Mike, but it sounds like the Conan novel may be some of your best work ever. I will drop everything to read it the moment I can get a copy, and I’ll be standing in line the first weekend that the Conan movie is in theaters.

  6. That is really great news that you are behind the movie novelization. By any chance are you planning on attending Robert E Howard Days this June? http://www.rehupa.com/?page_id=2398

  7. REH Days aren’t on my schedule at this moment, but that doesn’t rule it out. (I have a family event conflict, which is the difficulty.) If I do get to go, I will let folks know here.

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  1. Michael A. Stackpole on novelizations and the film | Conan The Movie Blog - 06. Apr, 2011

    […] been working on, as well as an intriguing glimpse into the rough cut of the film, over at his personal website. The biggest news is the novelization for Conan the Barbarian. The basic are this: five and a half […]