H.P. Lovecraft‘s brand of cosmic horror has been indelibly influential to modern horror; just look at writers like Stephen King and filmmakers like John Carpenter and Sam Raimi. All of those people have made movies and written novels that draw from the prolific author’s work. So then why aren’t we flooded with big studio movies based on Lovecraft stories? The very first feature film based on a Lovecraft story was the 1963 Roger Corman movie, The Haunted Palace. Though named after a Poe story, it was based on Lovecraft’s only full-length novel, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, published after the author’s death. Since then, a surprisingly small number of feature films have been produced on a large scale, which seems unthinkable given the author’s prevalence.
In order to get to the bottom of this, I decided to turn to some honest-to-Azathoth experts in the work of Lovecraft, Sean Branney and Andrew Leman, the co-founders and proprietors of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. They’ve spent their adult lives studying and creating works based on the author’s fiction. They’ve even made a few films themselves, so if anyone would know why there are so few Lovecraft films, it would be them.
For both Branney and Leman, Stuart Gordon’s 1985 film Re-Animator was the first Lovecraft film they remember seeing, which was probably true for a lot of people. “Some of the earlier films, people were seeing Lovecraft and not knowing it,” Branney explained. “With the Roger Corman and AIP films, unless you really knew what it was; The Haunted Palace was not The Haunted Palace. But I think Re-Animator reached a much wider audience than a lot of the earlier films did. It was probably purely out of shock value, but it was something that was talked about.”
To date, there have been three Re-Animator films. Leman also recommended Dan O’Bannon’s 1991 movie The Resurrected, another adaptation of Charles Dexter Ward. There have also been a few prominent adaptations of The Shadow over Innsmouth. Others like The Unnamable, The Colour Out of Space, and The Lurking Fear have all been made a few times. Is there something in these stories specifically that makes them more likely to adapt?
For Leman and Branney, it might be as simple as some very basic story and narrative functions. “Innsmouth is one of [Lovecraft’s] more dramatic structures,” Branney said. “It escalates really nicely in a cinematic way, as the character’s learning more and more; then you get this climactic chase in the hotel, and then that leads to another chase through town. For a writer who wasn’t that big on drama and conflict, that shape I think lends itself pretty well to filmmaking.”
Leman adds that these are possibly the stories where you get to “see” the most. “In Innsmouth, there are anthropoid monsters you can easily imagine,” he said. “I can imagine the makeup, I can imagine how we’d pull off these monsters. That and Charles Dexter Ward, I think both have a certain cinematic feel to them as you’re reading them. I think they suggest themselves as movies, certainly more readily than a lot of his shorter pieces.”
It could also be something as simple as perspective. Many, if not most, of Lovecraft’s stories were written in the first person, as our often unnamed narrator slowly goes insane or relays the story of someone he happened to meet or read about. It’s deeply internal. “Innsmouth and Charles Dexter Ward are both written from that omniscient point of view,” Leman says, “which might be a factor.”
This is a simple, but major factor why we don’t see very many big budget Lovecraft adaptations, and certainly not in recent years. Lovecraft is often too insular to illustrate in a captivating way. But Leman thinks a much more pragmatic reason could be money. “I’ve had a couple people shoot this theory down,” he begins, “but I’m not ready to give up on it. I think it’s because of the murky copyright status. Because a studio can’t buy the rights, they might be less willing to invest millions of dollars into an intellectual property that they can’t be certain that they own.”
Leman and Branney are not, of course, strangers to adapting Lovecraft themselves. They’ve made the 2005 silent film The Call of Cthulhu and the 2011 black-and-white talkie The Whisperer in Darkness, both incredibly faithful and enthralling films. In addition, they’ve produced 18 feature-length radio play adaptations in their Dark Adventure series, and also produced and narrated an audiobook of each and every one of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories.
“We’ve adapted a lot of Lovecraft stories at this point,” Branney explained, “so we’ve realized what challenges are inherent to each story. When we did The Call of Cthulhu, the thought was to try and do a very literal translation. Let’s not Stuart Gordon-ize it, let’s just try and shoot the story pretty tight to how it was written.” They even made it as a silent film that might have been produced around the time Lovecraft wrote the story, in the late ’20s. “When we did Whisperer in Darkness,” Branney continued, “it became a different story, because it’s more contemporary, and you do have dialogue and it is about this unique character and how he deals with things, and he is not an everyman. This is his story.”
But they certainly know that even a faithful Lovecraft adaptation needs to be judicious. “It’s a question of selection,” Leman said, “of picking what you’re going to focus on, and letting go of that which doesn’t serve that mission. I don’t know, of course, what Guillermo del Toro would’ve done with At the Mountains of Madness, but I predict it would’ve been more monsters chasing people down tunnels and less geology.”
Del Toro’s is perhaps the most famous almost-made Lovecraft adaptations of all time, and seeing At the Mountains of Madness on screen is something the HPLHS guys would love. But ultimately, there are a lot of Lovecraft adaptations being made by independent filmmakers all over the globe. There are film festivals every year just for Lovecraft adaptations, and I feel that if we’re going to see any major motion picture work, it’ll be because of people like Branney, Leman, and new filmmakers coming up, keeping the master of the macabre’s visions of terror alive.
“We’ve occasionally said to people who know Guillermo,” Leman shared, “that if you’re done with that story, we’ll happily take At The Mountains of Madness off your hands. We have an idea for doing it that would cost much less than $250 million.”
Images: HPLHS/MGM/AIP/Empire International Pictures/Lionsgate