Official press confirms that after several (more) years of development hell, MGM and Universal’s The Hobbit has lost another prize director. Guillermo del Toro has bowed out rather than compromise the forward momentum of future projects.
Chief among the director’s prospects is a long-rumored shot at the work of H. P. Lovecraft. An adaptation of At The Mountains Of Madness is in the works, with del Toro slated to direct from his own script.
In Mountains of Madness, scientists in Antarctica discover terrifying evidence of alien life. They proceed to unravel its mysterious origin, at the risk of their sanity and their lives. It is commonly held that Lovecraft’s tale directly inspired John W. Campbell’s 1938 story “Who Goes There?” which has been filmed twice, with great success – in 1951 by Howard Hawks (as The Thing from Another World), and in 1982 by John Carpenter (as The Thing).
Shooting Lovecraft requires a director with a rare imagination, and del Toro qualifies. As with any prolific filmmaker, some of his visions have turned out better than others. But let us charitably bypass Mimic (1997) and Blade II (2002). Del Toro’s triumphs far outweigh his flops. He began grabbing attention with the stylish horror of Cronos (1993) and The Devil’s Backbone (2001). Hellboy (2004) gave him the chance to flex some strange new muscles. He then went on to knock mainstream audiences flat with Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), which is nothing short of breathtaking. He seems most comfortable deep in nightmare country. His eye for the fantastic is without equal. He deals in wonder, incorporating both the beautiful and the horrific into his dreamlike worlds. When he wants to, he can transform a jaded audience into a room full of wide-eyed children.
The influence of Howard Phillips Lovecraft on fantasy and horror is immeasurable. Take for example his invention of the Necronomicon, that dreadful book of curses without which the Evil Dead movies and a host of others would be adrift without a MacGuffin. Apologies if that started to sound like Robert Burns. To put it plainly, the universe of Lovecraft’s writing has inspired countless followers, many of them now renowned authors and filmmakers in their own right.
The sad contradiction is that Lovecraft’s stories, as written, do not translate well to the screen. His unrivaled ability to render portraits of madness and dread came at a price. Lovecraft wrote from distorted, impersonal and often unreliable points of view. Mood and atmosphere in his work generally overshadowed the need for multidimensional characters. He wrote almost no dialogue. And what dialogue he did write was pretty weak. Almost all of his characters, whether scientists or madmen or yokels, were doomed to speak in the same implausibly florid and lofty manner as the narrator. Movies require strong characterization, and most require at least a few lines of decent dialogue, so a screenwriter has plenty to contend with when tackling Lovecraft.
There is proof in the low success rate of films like The Dunwich Horror (1970), Dagon (2001), and Chtulhu (2007), all based on the author’s finest work. Even with all their gothic ingredients in place, whether looming elder gods or abandoned towns or sinister cults of fish-men, these tales make for thoroughly ordinary monster pictures without the proper context and atmosphere which the author’s unique narrative voice provides. When a Lovecraft adaptation manages to break this curse – Suart Gordon’s Re-Animator, say – it usually means the adaptor has lifted the basic premise, turned it sharply in his own direction, and left the source material somewhere in the dust.
Perhaps no director can capture the full experience of Lovecraft onscreen. Many worthy ones have tried. Given the scale of the action and the content of the story, At The Mountains Of Madness promises a daunting and expensive struggle for any director brave or foolhardy enough to take it on. The bigger the project, the bigger the potential for a box-office disaster, but shining through all the darkness and uncertainty is the possibility of a real home run for someone as clever as del Toro.
Timing, too, may work in his favor. It can only be a matter of years before the Hollywood remake machine targets the “Who Goes There?” story for a reboot, a sequel, or a prequel. Rather than cheapen a Hawks classic and a Carpenter masterpiece, it might be preferable to see del Toro make his movie first and nip such prospects in the bud.
Del Toro and Lovecraft, separated by a century, share the power to fill us with wonder and dread. It is time they shook hands.
A lot of directors have taken a stab at Lovecraft, whether they had the chops or not. Most of it’s junk, but some of it’s darned entertaining junk. On the right day, a two-bit scare flick like Castle Freak or Die Monster Die! might be just what you need to chase your blues away. Readers and Lovers of Craft, please chime in with your favorites.