While often considered an outsider in literary circles, H. P. Lovecraft’s writing nevertheless maintains a large popularity. But in the world of movies, directors seem to struggle to get across the right tone. In this post, we’ll go through some of the reasons why this might be.
If you’re into Lovecraft, enjoy the oddly archaic (even for his time) language, overuse of adjectives and descriptive elements, the accessible style and above all the gorgeous sense of uneasiness and fear stemming from incomprehensible horror in his writing, chances are you’re rather frustrated that there are essentially no good Lovecraft adaptations out there.
Yes, of course there are Lovecraft-inspired films which are reasonably well done, but when it comes to direct adaptations of his lore or stories, there’s a bit of a gaping hole (with one exception, which I’ll get to towards the end). But why is this the case? I believe there are several aspects about his work which simply make him difficult to translate to film.
The fear of the unknown
Not only does Lovecraft tap into the fear of the unknown, but his writing is usually centred around the fear of the incomprehensible unknown. We’re not just talking a fear of something we don’t know and could learn to know, but the fear of something which lies outside of the grips of our imagination. Films, being a scenic and sonic medium, necessarily portray things which are based in reality – even when they’re set in an otherworldly universe (Sci-Fi, Fantasy). But how do you capture the nature of something so different and horrific that it makes onlookers go mad? No matter what you display on the screen, it will be a disappointment, and if you downplay it too much the film might not grip the audience properly.
The fear of human insignificance
In many ways, Lovecraft was a product of his age. Living in the first half of the 20th century, he felt the gnawing sense of insignificance which emerged out of human progression – and which plagued many philosophers and psychologists around that time. Friedrich Nietzsche’s critique of nihilism, especially, seems to shine out of Lovecraft’s writings – whether he was aware of it or not. We get the same sense of fear of the meaninglessness of life, and how small humanity is when facing the rest of the universe. But how do you capture nihilism in film? How do you reflect the spirit of an age when it’s so psychological? That’s right: you don’t!
While there have been many great psychological horror films out there – The Shining springs to mind – they’re few and far between. It’s a difficult genre to get just right, and Lovecraft relies entirely on psychological horror. The fears he explores are primal, basic, hidden beneath all sense of rationality, and portraying this in film requires a great deal of skill and subtlety. Too much relies on the imagination, on tapping into a psychological area we are hardly aware of, to allow for films to do him justice – making Lovecraft a risky area to attempt.
The horror relies on his writing style
I’m not going to debate whether Lovecraft’s writing is any good, although there are large discussions in other circles. Generally, people often criticise his deliberately archaic style and his overuse of adjectives and his simplicity (despite both former aspects!). But I believe that all this adds to the sense of horror in his writing. In the same way that his subject matters are weird and otherworldly, so is his style. It reads like English and it’s easily understandable – but it’s strange, eerie, and matches the mood perfectly. But here’s the problem. If the horror relies on his writing style (whether it’s good or not), how would you translate that into a visual medium without a written narrative? Simple: it’s not possible.
That one good Lovecraft adaptation
If you read through this article so far and thought to yourself, ‘well, that would be excellent material for a silent film in the style of the 20s’, then I’d agree entirely! Thinking of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, the silence, pacing, and weirdness of early silent films would provide an excellent style to portray one of Lovecraft’s stories. And indeed: one particular Lovecraft adaptation has done it exceptionally well.
The Call of Cthulhu from 2005 is an excellent, low-budget and very faithful rendition of Lovecraft’s story of the same name. They even kept the camera quality similarly old-fashioned and less than optimal. This allows us to experience a wonderful bit of Lovecraftian horror since it captures the right tone succinctly. I’d recommend it highly.
Sadly, there’s not really a large enough market for this kind of thing. So we’ll probably never get anything quite like it again. But at least – and this is a good thing – many directors use Lovecraft-inspired techniques in their horror films, even if they’re never comprehensive and only hint at the source material. However, it does mean that we’ll never really go completely without Lovecraftian elements.
Essentially, it all boils down to this. Transcribing the indescribable and incomprehensible to film is inherently difficult. The range of aspects that a Lovecraftian story consists of makes him generally unsuited to movies. This is the case even if individual elements can be adapted. Unless, of course, there was a decent market for old-fashioned silent films.
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