The peril of the written word, especially in the digital age, is that nothing you write ever dies. It's always available, ready to be Googled and mocked in the ages to come. So, I don't want to get too giddy in predicting film trends because there's a 99% chance I'll be wrong. But the rumblings of the trades suggest we're in for a revival of pulp-based films. In the past two years, we've seen Tarzan, Solomon Kane, Conan the Barbarian, The Shadow, John Carter of Mars, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and of course, Doc Savage revived, even if it's just in a scriptwriting stage. (I have the feeling I'm missing one or two more.) But three out of eight actually getting in front of camera's isn't too bad. If you're generous and count the gone-but-not forgotten Zorro or The Green Hornet, you can even go for four or five, depending how favorable you'd like to be. If you're really, really going to go all the way with pulp history, you could even include The Killer Inside Me, though one could make the case that Jim Thompson transcended the genre. However you color in the pulp lines, it's pretty clear that there's a new Hollywood interest in this colorful literary genre.
It's not a surprising one, either. A lot of these characters have that shiny thing known as "marketability" and "name recognition." Even if many people have never actually read Robert E. Howard or Edgar Rice Burroughs, they know these characters, and that's enough when it comes to green-lighting a film. These days, a bit of clever wording can probably convince audiences there was a graphic novel or comic book as the basis, and maybe that alone is enough. (Witness the marketing for Spartacus: Blood and Sand. There's no actual graphic novel as the basis of the show, but they kept hinting there was.)
What's rather funny is that Hollywood is going backwards with their curiosity. Pulp is generally considered to be the grandfather of the comic book industry in business practices and in character ideas. A cursory glance over the characters shows enough vigilante heroes to make Batman and the Punisher sweat under the collar. They could be in serious trouble if all those old pulp guys like The Spider and Moon Man got together and decided to take back a little of those millions of merchandising dollars. (I'm not saying those particular heroes are descendants of those characters, by the way. Just joking.)
You would think adaptations of pulp would have come first to the big screen. A character such as Doc Savage would ostensibly have been cheaper and easier to make serials or television shows about than Superman. But he never got his shot. A few of them did get some airtime in the serials and in quickie, low-budget films but they're hardly the sort of cinema that's passed into legend. (Maybe in some corners they have, but they certainly don't get a lot of airtime or reminiscing, do they?)
I have a hard time believing audiences couldn't accept the colorful characters of pulp in movie form. People have loved these edgy, sexy, not-always-good characters for most of the 20th century. Even if we've never read a proper pulp story, we know vaguely what it means to the point that everything slightly cartoonish or comic-booky is labeled pulp (you heard it a lot in Avatar discussions) even when it has nothing in common with this lurid genre. (Hey, I've been guilty of that too. You can probably find a lot of Cinematical posts where I did just that.) No one in Hollywood can tell me Iron Man is any easier to sell than Dan Turner, though it's fair to say that only one is going to sell Big Gulp cups.
And maybe that's what hampered pulp adaptations for so long. These stories were adult. The art was always about buxom ladies, muscled men, and well-aimed guns. When you can't even have a character point a gun at the screen during a trailer (remember when Zack Snyder had to replace Ozymandias' with a walkie-talkie?), how can you ever really adapt Dan Turner? The implied sex alone sends it past PG, doesn't it? We live in the age of the juvenile, where Spider-Man is rebooted back into high school so that he doesn't ever have to deal with the problems of The Spider, the vigilante who refused to marry his fiance because he worried that his death or unmasking would doom her. That's pretty sexy. That's also anathema to modern filmmaking for some sad reason.
But maybe there's hope for this dusty, neglected genre yet. Maybe all these tentative options are the sign of a watershed. Maybe Solomon Kane and The Green Hornet will be seen as trailblazers, and ten years from now we'll be talking about the age of the fedora'd hero. (I refuse to believe they'll be adapted in anything less than a suit and fedora.) Maybe the trend will go in reverse, and superheroes will mature into pulp heroes, who don't ask us to believe in adamantium, SHIELD, or the astral plane. There's something to be said for that kind of accessibility, and the "ordinary" vigilante who doesn't come with a line of t-shirts. As much as people seem to love superheroes, many still get turned off by the "kiddie" element of their outlandish suits and powers. Having a guy with a gun and a girl is a lot more palatable to many people.
Of course, why does it have to be a guy? One thing I love about The Spider is that his fiancee, Nina Van Sloan, assists him in his crimefighting. That isn't defined by simply sitting at home washing his costume, either. She was right out there in the thick of things, getting beat up and brainscrambled. When are you ever going to see Mary Jane do that? There was also the Domino Lady, who fights crime in a black mask and an impeccable 1930s evening gown. She has no superpowers, just gumption and smarts (and being pulp, sexiness) but she knocks out and drugs the bad guys, steals from them, and then donates to the poor. I'd love to see her on the big screen, but given that we couldn't even get a proper Catwoman, I may be wishing too big.
All in all, this entire piece may be a lot of improbable wishing. But there's some intriguing ideas out there in development land, and I'd love to really experience a renaissance of old school glamor, sex, and violence. I'm not sure how long it could last (a lot of the characters just ripped one another off) and they're not the original stories we all crave in our movies. But the offerings of pulp are lot more meaty and mature than basing movies on toys and board games. And isn't that something every genre fan can get behind?
And on that note, I hope some Cinematical readers who really, really know their pulp offer up some other if-wishes-were-horses selections. I'm always dying for something to read -- and frankly, you never know who might be reading and who'll turn your favorite into the next big thing ....