A filmmaker’s thoughts on adapting H.P. Lovecraft to the screen.
When discussing his adaptation of ‘The Thing on the Doorstep’, Director Eric Morgret commented that he felt of all Lovecraft’s stories, this was the one closest to a traditional ‘three act structure’.
That struck a chord with me because; out of everything I’d ever read of Lovecraft’s, TotD (as we’ll call it from hereon in) was the only tale that leapt from the page into a visual space somewhere in my mind’s eye.
Ten years ago, I wanted to adapt TotD even before I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker. I had some ideas on how you could do a faithful adaptation in just a single room (which would have been necessary due to a lack of finance).
It would have been more like a play than a film – but I felt that within those confines, the malice of Asenath Waite, the descent into madness of poor Edward Derby and the complete sense of helplessness of Daniel Upton could be brought vividly to life.
So why didn’t I make it?
On some level I knew I wasn’t ready. I hold HPL’s work in too high a regard to give it anything less than my best. And whilst I felt that this story could be told in this fashion, the question was should it?
I’ve waited a very long time to see Lovecraft’s work brought to the screen in a way that captures the essence, the dark soul of his writing. To date I’ve been disappointed.
This isn’t intended to be a disservice to my fellow Lovecraftian filmmakers – given the huge amount of work and dedication it takes to will a film into being, I salute any and everyone that walks the same path we’ve walked in making Arkham Sanitarium. It’s hard – harder than you can possibly imagine unless you’ve attempted it yourself.
So why do we do it? It’s certainly not for the money – Arkham Sanitarium’s future earnings are uncertain – we’ll be happy if we make back the money we’ve personally invested into it. We’ll be delighted if we make any profit at all.
We do it because there’s a story to be told – and because we believe we’re the right or quite possibly, the only people that can tell that story.
So getting back to TotD of ten years ago – I didn’t make it because to do so would have been a compromise. I could have told the story, but not in a way that I would have been happy with – too much would have had to have been changed or discarded to make it work. And these stories deserve far better than that.
My first completed screenplay, Survivor’s Diary took around 5 years to write – it was done in a freeform, haphazard fashion – I knew some of the characters but the start, the end and all the events in-between were a mystery to me. The jigsaw gradually took shape over those 5 years as ideas would pop into my head. Eventually there were enough pieces to build a fairly complete picture so I started writing and the end result was a 130 page first draft.
This is not the way to write a screenplay.
After completing Survivor’s Diary, I spent some time acquainting myself with the many mistakes I’d made. I read books by Syd Field and Blake Synder on the craft of screenwriting and realized that almost every rule they espouse in their respective texts I’d broken in the writing of Survivor’s Diary.
This isn’t unusual – I’m sure there’s many screenwriters out there that have made the same mistakes I have on writing their first screenplay.
Much of what Synder says in books like his eponymous ‘Save the Cat!’ I find deeply depressing as a filmmaker – Synder coaches people to be successful screenwriters and if that’s what you want to be then his advice is most likely invaluable.
What you should know is that successful screenwriters don’t write authentic Lovecraftian horror. Or horror of any kind. Synder recommends romantic comedy is where it’s at if you want to make a good living as a screenwriter in Hollywood – and if you read his books you’ll have to concede that he has a point.
As an aspiring filmmaker with ideas of my own that most definitely weren’t romantic comedies, I found myself drawn to Syd Field’s approach. Field doesn’t pass personal judgement on whichever genre of filmmaking you’re happy working within, he just gives you the rules and the insights you need to turn out a professional screenplay.
And one of the things he advocates is the Three Act Structure (you see, I am going somewhere with this
The three act structure divides a screenplay into three parts called ‘the setup’, ‘the confrontation’ and ‘the resolution’. Field also further divides these acts as a means to help aspiring screenwriters cope with the 120 blank pages staring at them when they first put pen to paper.
The three act structure is a contentious issue amongst screenwriters (some see it as damaging to the profession, others find it a useful guide) – this article isn’t going to debate the pros and cons of it, but it’s interesting to use The Thing on the Doorstep as an example of how a screenwriter might apply this technique to Lovecraft. Warning: Spoilers ahead!
The Setup deals with introducing the main characters and setting the stage for what’s known at the turning point – the end of the first act and the point in the story where the major conflict of the story has been revealed.
Lovecraft begins TotD with the wonderfully cinematic conceit of revealing the ending of the story at the beginning – Daniel Upton’s just been to Arkham Sanitarium and killed his best friend, Edward Derby.
The story continues by describing Upton’s close friendship with Derby and introduces the villain of the piece – unusually for HPL’s stories a woman, and a scheming, malicious one at that.
For me, the end of the first act is Edward’s wedding to Asenath – all the players have been identified and a sense of impending doom has been established – the reader is on the roller-coaster and may know where the ride is taking them but like Upton himself, they’re powerless to stop the inevitable.
The second act, the confrontation concerns itself with Derby’s descent into madness – Upton continues to describe the events that have led him to put six bullets into his best friend and Edward’s increasingly erratic and uncharacteristic behavior has Upton and the reader questioning what is real and what is Derby’s fevered imaginings. The second act ends with Derby, his mind shattered by what he’s endured (or believes he’s endured) being committed to Arkham Sanitarium.
The third act, the resolution, begins with the titular Thing on the Doorstep – Edward’s mind, banished into the rotting corpse of Asenath crawls, claws and stumbles its way to Upton’s doorstep to deliver a final message and warning from the grave. Upton, finally convinced of the veracity of this immortal threat travels to the Sanitarium and executes (literally) Ed’s final wishes. This brings us full circle to the beginning again.
On the surface of it, Morgret is right – TotD is a fine example of the three act structure and something that should make an easy transition from Lovecraft’s original short story to the screen.
It’s not that simple though – whilst I agree that TotD is a good fit, in writing Arkham Sanitarium I’ve come to realize that all of the stories we’ve chosen to adapt (TotD, The Shunned House, The Haunter of the Dark) fit within this structure. Here’s another example:
The Haunter of the Dark begins with the same conceit as TotD – a narrator tells us that Robert Harrison Blake has died under contentious circumstances and, by studiously examining the events and the notes in Blake’s journal it may be possible to shed some light on what actually happened the night Blake met his demise.
The first act begins with introducing Blake, his fascination with the black arts and hints at the horrors that Blake encountered on his last visit to Providence (as described in Robert Bloch’s ‘The Shambler from the Stars’). Blake’s obsession with The Church of the Starry Wisdom propels us towards his exploration of the Church and the end of the first act.
The second act begins with Blake’s exploration of the Church and the discovery of The Shining Trapezohedron – an ancient device used to summon ‘The Haunter of the Dark’ – an avatar of the Outer God Nyarlathotep. Blake seals his doom by gazing through the stone and over the next few days (as seen through the notes in his journal) vacillates between trying to understand and fight his nemesis and bleak acceptance that it’s too late to prevent the inevitable.
The third act is the night of Blake’s death and his last frenzied notes in his journal prior to a violent storm knocking out the power in Providence and unleashing The Haunter of the Dark from the steeple of the Church.
Lovecraft’s work has a fairly linear progression running through it. Often he tantalizes at the beginning of a story with a reveal of what’s to come and his most frequently used conceit is the big reveal at the end of the story – sometimes the very last line. From a screenwriting perspective, these aren’t big obstacles to a writer.
Typically you’d want your monster to occupy a decent amount of screen time in the third act (and to at least have a presence that permeates all three acts) but you can do that without having to change the original story to any great degree.
So with this in mind – and given that, when looked at through the right lens any of Lovecraft’s tales could fit the three act structure, why does this perception exist that Lovecraft is so hard/impossible to adapt?
The problem is that Lovecraft isn’t cinematic.
So what do I mean by that? After all, isn’t the grotesque underwater necropolis of R’lyeh cinematic? How about the desert city of Irem? Or the corrupt center of the universe where the blind idiot god Azathoth is kept impotently sleeping by the insane piping of daemon flutes? (all of these are in Arkham Sanitarium by the way
Lovecraft describes some truly epic locations and antagonists that could be quite spectacular on the cinema screen. The problem lies in the linear nature of his work, the faceless narrators, formulaically weak protagonists, two dimensional supporting characters (assuming there are any) and a tendency to push all of the ‘real’ horror to the last few lines of his stories.
Not every Lovecraft story has these handicaps (from a screenwriting point of view) – The Thing on the Doorstep has none of them – it’s inherently cinematic and that’s what I suspect Eric Morgret and I latched on to when we first read it.
So now we know the real issues facing someone adapting Lovecraft’s work, how do we overcome them?
Firstly – and this is my own personal point of view – if you want to create a successful Lovecraft adaptation, you have to set it in the period HPL wrote his stories i.e. the 1920/1930’s. These stories only work in a world before the Internet, mobile phones and nuclear weapons.
There’s a reason the (three Indiana Jones films are set in the 1930’s – it’s a world where large parts of the globe are still unexplored, where a two-fisted archaeologist/soldier of fortune can face off against the Nazis in pursuit of the Ark of the Covenant – Indy wouldn’t work in the modern day. Sure – you could tell a story like Indiana Jones (National Treasure/Sahara) but it wouldn’t be Indiana Jones – the same applies to Lovecraft.
Secondly, you have to understand what Lovecraft is and realize that if you walk this path you’re creating an inherently un-Hollywood movie. Lovecraft is about slowly building suspense – it’s intelligent, verbose and typically more akin to the detective genre than ‘traditional’ horror. Any successful adaptation has to take itself seriously – and the end result will be an unremittingly bleak film – this is after all, what Lovecraft wrote about.
Some people may disagree with this and point to films such as Re-Animator as successful Lovecraft movies – I’d counter by saying that Re-Animator is a successful horror movie – its relationship to the world that HPL describes in his stories is fleeting at best.
Lastly, a short story is a short story.
One of the pitfalls I see filmmakers falling into is trying to turn a single HPL story into a feature-length film. You can’t do this – plain and simple. In order to pad out a Lovecraft short story to that sort of length you have to add stuff, you have to change stuff. Then you’re not making a Lovecraft movie any more – you’re making something ‘inspired’ by HPL’s works.
With these observations noted, how did we tackle the script for Arkham Sanitarium?
Rather than cover the entire process, I’ll focus on The Haunter of the Dark – out of the three stories we’ve adapted, this was the most challenging.
HotD (as we’ll call it) is a long narrative from the perspective of a faceless interested party reading from the deceased Blake’s journal – the narrator adds nothing to the story – they’re unnamed, unrelated to anyone in the story and so pretty redundant. The first decision I made was to axe the narrator.
This presented a problem – throughout Arkham Sanitarium, there’s a considerable amount of voice-over – Upton’s in The Thing on the Doorstep and also Phillip Whipple (our naming of the unnamed narrator in The Shunned House). I knew we’d need a narrator of some kind for HotD but I put that to one side to work on other issues with the story.
The Thing on the Doorstep as you’ll recall, has that wonderful intro with Upton narrating events that have already transpired. This became a common feature in all three stories but in order to make it work for HotD I had to rethink things a bit.
In the original story, Blake’s experiences are witnessed only by himself and the only record is his journal. After the triumvirate of Asenath, Edward and Upton in The Thing on the Doorstep and even Phillip and his elderly uncle Elihu in The Shunned House, the prospect of telling Blake’s story solely from his perspective seemed awkward and it also robbed Blake of any real personality – I realized I needed another character for Blake to talk to and to witness the events with him.
The answer was staring me in the face for a long time – Lovecraft briefly mentions a doctor – Ambrose Dexter (named in Robert Bloch’s follow-up to HotD) – the doctor was said to be unconvinced of the reportedly mundane nature of Blake’s death and furthermore threw the Shining Trapezohedron into the Narragansett Bay. This appealed to me – the character was already mentioned in the story (albeit briefly) and it gave me someone for Blake to confide in – this opened up lots of potential in the dialogue.
So that’s how I arrived at my beginning – a tense scene where an obviously disturbed Blake sits in the candlelight muttering ‘My name is Robert Harrison Blake… and I am on this planet.’ (taken from Blake’s journal in the original story). A focus pull reveals an apprehensive Ambrose in the background and leads into the narrator’s voice over – delivered conveniently by Dexter.
One of the things I’ve tried to do in the screenplay is get every last detail of Lovecraft’s descriptions into the dialogue – where possible I’ve used his prose in its original form. The friendship I wrote between Dexter and Blake allowed me to bring a lot of HPL’s little details into the story in a far more fluid way than relegating them to the V.O.
In the original, events take place over several months as Blake’s fascination with The Church of the Starry Wisdom grows. I struggled to find a way to make this work convincingly in my adaptation and eventually decided that it just wasn’t important. The events could happen much quicker without compromising the story. Also, there’s lengthy passages in the original where Lovecraft describes Blake’s journey towards the Church – sadly this had to go – and purely for budgetary reasons. I try hard not to make these sacrifices but if you can still tell the story (the way someone might retell it to you) then I think that’s OK.
With what I considered ‘the fat’ trimmed away (with no disrespect to HPL intended), I found that the screenplay was running short – without an additional story thread inserted HotD would have come in at around 20-25 minutes. I needed to do the unthinkable and ‘pad it out’ – but how? I was breaking one of my cardinal rules in adapting HPL’s works. Luckily, another throwaway line in the story gave me an interesting opportunity.
Lovecraft comments that Blake’s previous visit to Providence ended ‘amidst death and flame’ – a reference to Bloch’s The Shambler from the Stars. For a while I considered using that backstory in HotD but given that in some territories Lovecraft is still considered to be in copyright, I didn’t want to muddy things further by lifting from Robert Bloch.
What I did do was fill in the gaps – if Blake had been involved in an incident where a tenement building was burnt down and a man had apparently died because of his actions, what would the consequences have been? In my adaptation, Blake is arrested for arson but declared unfit for trial due to his raving about the horrors he witnessed that night. Where would they send Blake for treatment? Everybody’s favorite sanitarium of course
This gave me a nice tie-in to Arkham Sanitarium itself and allowed me to reuse a character I introduced – Doctor (Howard, not Herbert) West. It gives West some interesting backstory and also allows me to play with Blake’s memories in some unpleasant ways – all without breaking any of the fundamentals of the original story.
There’s many other small and not-so-small changes between the original and my screenplay of HotD but I hope when you get a chance to see the finished film that you’ll find it a careful and thoughtful adaptation. One last spoiler – in Arkham Sanitarium you get to see The Haunter of the Dark – and what a great monster it is
Andrew G. Morgan September 2011