The Unfilmable

Vestron’s recent release of HP Lovecraft’s Dagon and Beyond Re-Animator on Blu-ray stimulated the ongoing debate over whether the Lovecraft community would ever see a big-budget direct adaptation of his work to film. I (appropriately for the topic perhaps) fear not; ironically, not because of his relative obscurity but because of his relative popularity.

The core issue is the idea of “the Lovecraft community”. There isn’t a single Lovecraft community in the same way there is, say, a Manchester United community; a group with a single idea of what their shared interest is. Even limiting the community to those who have read the majority of Lovecraft’s works, it is two quite separate things blurred together: the Cthulhu Mythos as creatures, places, and objects; and the sense of cosmic dread. While most fans fall somewhere along a spectrum, the divide between fluffy toys and stories that don’t mention any of the famous names is wide.

Therefore the issue with making a direct adaptation is working out what direct adaptation means: is it something that seeks to show the Mythos from the story or is it something that seeks to create cosmic dread the same cosmic dread with the benefits and difficulties of another medium.

Adrian TritschlerCC BY NC ND 2.0)

A film can, of course, do either. However, a big-budget film is subject to commercial “reality” (a world as alien to human sanity as any Lovecraft created): the film that gets made is the film that investors think will sell.

Which is where Lovecraft’s popularity—or at least the form of his popularity—shape what is likely be made if something is.

Whichever side of the line one comes down on the core quality of Lovecraft’s works, it is undeniable that both the most famous Lovecraftian films and popular culture focus on the display not the philosophy. For all the rubbery masks, gore splatter, and nubile flesh, the Gordon/Yuzna films and those similar to them are the one’s people know about. Cthulhu as a squid-faced fat man (and tentacles in general) is the thing that has gone mainstream.

So, the largest demographic are people who see the Mythos rather than feel the dread. And film, for all its actual flexibility, is generally considered a visual medium. The largest group will want the monster on screen; rendered with all the skill and resources available instead of rubber masks or cheap CGI perhaps, but on screen nevertheless. And people who see films as a business, the ones who are behind big budget films, know this.

Whereas, the Lovecraftians who want a direct adaptation to capture the feel of Lovecraft’s universe are seeking the resonance usually found in art house films and character pieces; segments of films that, while they are sometimes granted big budgets, aren’t aimed at weird horror audiences. It’s not impossible for it to happen (and there are a few films that do it), but it would require convincing someone to risk the overlap.

Of course, those who truly embrace the evocation of cosmic dread over the monsters, who see Cthulhu not as frightening because of his chimerical form but because of his indication that the universe is incomprehensible and has no interest in us, might hope there never is a direct adaptation of any of Lovecraft’s major works. While In the Mouth of Madness is in the rubbery gore segment of adaptations, its portrayal of how audiences would respond to a film that showed the truth behind humanity’s comfortable delusion of significance is potentially quite accurate.

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