Recently word got out through the entertainment website Bleeding Cool that Legendary Entertainment, the media company behind such films as Batman Begins will be developing through their off-shoot Legendary TV, an anthology series based around my favorite horror writer – H.P. Lovecrafts’ Cthulhu Mythos.
Bleeding Cool reports that the series will include characters, locations and plot-lines from sixteen of Lovecraft’s most well-known stories such as The Call of Cthulhu, The Shadow over Innsmouth and the Dunwich Horror.
On top of this exciting news, Lorenzo di Bonaventura (one of the producers for 2007s’ Transformers) is attached to the project, alongside Dan McDermott and Mathew Francis Wilson. Lovecraft’s estate is even approving the first season!
With all this talk around a hopefully fantastic series, I got to thinking about other adaptations of Lovecraft’s work for the screen, be it TV or film, and why the majority of those adaptations have failed to impress both audiences and critics more consistently than not.
Lovecraft is tricky. His eclectic mythology of stories about ancient alien Gods, insidious cults and monstrous Elder Things is not only hard to display on screen due to budget costs and technological capability, what really makes Lovecraft tricky is that his writing was more about slow-build atmosphere and a philosophical world-view, than anything else.
For a Lovecraftian tale to be truly Lovecraftian, it needs more than just a few tentacles and crazed cultists. It needs to cultivate an atmosphere of cosmic dread - that feeling existential feeling of total insignificance in the face of a harsh uncaring universe. This is so crucial to a Lovecraftian story as it is where most of the driving force of fear comes from. It’s what makes the gaudy looking fish-people and octopus headed sea monsters so terrifying, without that atmosphere – without the knowledge that immensely powerful alien creatures, apathetic to mankind like we are to ants, exist, then all we have is B-Grade horror.
How to do Lovecraft in a visual Medium
But how do you convey such an atmosphere in the visual medium? In his stories, the atmosphere is portrayed through NOT seeing the monsters, through internal monologues, insane ramblings, human senses, that kind of stuff. But in film and TV, you can’t rely too heavily on these tropes like you can with prose.
As such, Lovecraft has often been deemed un-filmable. As I mentioned at the start of this article, there has of course always been the odd try to conquer this literary giant in film and tv. It’s an odd thing, a Lovecraftian film. The people that get the atmosphere right are generally indie film makers with not enough cash to get the monsters to a believable level, or have actors good enough to really portray the insanity Lovecraftian characters encounter. On the flip-side, the folks who have the money to get good actors and to have cool creature design don’t know a lick about atmosphere. And so, Lovecraft’s works sit on a dusty shelf somewhere in Hollywood, waiting for the day when someone will come along and finally “get it”.
Whether it’s this TV series, or Guillermo Del Toro’s At the Mountains of Madness adaptation (if it ever gets made) that finally pulls Lovecraft into the big lights of Hollywood, I don’t know. However, I do believe we are coming into a Lovecraftian horror era for the entertainment industry.
As society becomes more and more disenfranchised with the world, we tend to gravitate more and more towards characters and story-lines that convey our angst or disgust with the world. Lovecraftian work has that perfect balance of societal angst combined with existential terror. 2016 It seems is the year of Lovecraft – with so many Lovecraftian games being announced, alongside this news of a TV show, it’s an exciting time to be alive as a fan of the horror master’s work. Even the new Stephen King Movie It is very Lovecraftian in in its creature mythology.
So what should writers do to get Lovecraft functioning properly in a visual medium? Well for one, there needs to be a heavy reliance on ambiguity. I’ve written on this before, here, but for the sake of the article, I’ll briefly give you the low down on it again.
Ambiguity in horror is a fantastic way to scare your audience, because ambiguity creates a level of realism in them. What do I mean by this? If you can’t tell whether the ghosts and demons that scare you are external or simply inside your head, then it calls into question whether there is really a difference between the two.
With Lovecraftian horror, ambiguity as a general rule would not be best used in the sense of “is Cthulhu real, or is he just in my mind?” although the stunningly terrifying short novel Dagon by Fred Chappell from the late ‘60s is a good example of this. Ambiguity is probably best used in the sense of sanity in characters, or alternatively in the thematic interpretation of the work such is the case with 2015s’ It Follows.
Ambiguity can create a kind of surrealism in a story and plays well into complex, untrustworthy narrators. With ambiguity in Lovecraftian horror, the monsters very well may be real, but our protagonists, driven half mad by the sight of them, could be seeing more monsters everywhere. They could be killing friends and family, thinking they are devilish creatures as in the case of the grisly Lovecraftian visual novel: Saya no Uta.
Don't show the Monster
Another technique that should really be relied on by those making film or tv around Lovecraft is something rather similar. When I am writing a horror screenplay, I like to use the rule DON’T SHOW THE MONSTER. Now, a small bit of explanation is needed with this rule. When I say: don’t show the monster, I don’t mean NEVER show the monster, I mean, either wait as long as possible before showing the monster, or alternatively be incredibly careful about HOW you show the monster.
Stephen King writes regarding showing the monster in his book Danse Macabre. He explains that as soon as you throw a door open and reveal the nightmare, the audience breathes a sigh of relief because what they were imagining was much worse than what you are now showing. In horror, you will probably always need to show the monster at some stage or rather, but the trick is in figuring out the best time to do so.
Have it too early and the audience, initially breathing a sigh of relief with grow bored and start picking at your special effects rather quickly.
Have it too late and although the tension may be there all the way up to the end of the film or tv show, the audience could leave feeling cheated.
A great work around for this is revealing the monster in the dark. There’s something primal and terrifying for humans about the dark, and as horror writers, we should make good use of that. The movie Alien is a classic example of this technique – Alien is all about what you don’t see, rather than what you do. Giving only snippets of the Xenomorph throughout as it stalks through the dark gothic styled space ship Nostromo, as an audience, we are more afraid when we are identifying with Ripley as she cautiously makes her way through the labyrinthine passageways of the ship, terrified something will jump out at her at any moment.
More recently, the Netflix Original Stranger Things a near Lovecraftian story of its own (for which I wrote an article about here) uses the same technique of hiding its monster as much as it can for the better part of the season.
This is achieved through once again, the use of shadows and the dark. Because we can’t see much of what is attacking the characters we identify with, it becomes that much more real.
A slow-build is often required in Lovecraft’s tales. In the stories, Lovecraft will talk about this and that, genealogies and family ghost stories; he will use purple prose and talk about otherworldly feelings creeping around in the inner recesses of his characters minds.
In film and TV, we’ve gotta find a different way to get the same effect. The slow-build is important due to its subtlety. If a writer can find a way to have the monster or often times a symbol of the monster slowly creep up on the characters, then the claustrophobia we feel as an audience can be perfectly turned into cosmic dread in the big reveal that humanity was a mistake born from an alien races’ experimentation (circa At the Mountains of Madness)
A great example of this can be seen in 2015/16s’ The Witch, probably one of my top three favorite horror films of recent years. The Witch is all about slow-build and atmosphere, I have referred to it as a form of cosmic horror before because of this (much too many fanboy/girls disgust), but it’s true. The Witch, although perhaps not about alien Gods or cosmic evils, is very much cosmic horror in its technique. It manages through slow build and subtle symbolism to turn the forest which surrounds its protagonists’ farm into a malevolent monster, imposing down upon them. This huge organic mass of trees and rocks and leaves and mud comes together as a creature altogether more terrifying than the Witch of the film’s title because it represents something bigger, something dare I say cosmic? It represents the horrors of the religious and therefore it also represents the horror and uselessness of mankind trying to make sense of the universe he lives in through spirituality and ceremony and self-inflicted punishment for “sin”.
So that’s just three ways that producers and writers of Lovecraftian content for film and TV can incorporate. I would be as bold to say they should be the three golden rules for doing the Cthulhu Mythos justice in this medium.
Whatever happens, Lovecraft’s work will remain an important staple of horror fiction. Whether his stories can be successfully transferred to a visual medium remains to be seen, but as those who have seen the tentacle terrors of the universe, and felt the crawling chaos ripple across the back of our necks, we have a duty, I think, to at least try.