Science-fiction horror has had a rocky ride. It’s a genre filled with classics like The Thing and Pitch Black, and clunkers like “Doom”. But even if opinion on its artistic success was ultimately divided, Prometheus was a highly-anticipated movie from a number of perspectives. Long-time movie fans clutched the edge of their seat waiting to see Ridley Scott’s first epic science-fiction movie since the days of Blade Runner and Alien. Spectacle-seekers waited wide-eyed looking at the scope and beauty of the movie’s visuals. Art direction geeks were hooked by the return to the aesthetics of H. R. Giger.
One person was frustrated before it even hit the screen, however: Guillermo del Toro.
Find out why after the jump!
On his blog, Del Toro alluded to a long-time passion project of his: an adaptation of a 1931 short story by Howard Phillips Lovecraft entitled At the Mountains of Madness. This story recounted a scientific expedition to a hard-to-reach site in Antarctica, investigating a set of strange wildlife and architectural samples. Along the way, the scientists come to a head over whether to press on into the unknown, or to go back and warn the world what they’d found.
The story is worth a read: it’s in the public domain in some parts of the world, and is also available as a part of a number of collections. It’s even been adapted as an award-winning graphic novel two years ago. And once you read it, you’ll be able to see bits of it everywhere. In “ancient astronauts” conspiracy theory; in cryptozoology; in science and horror fiction of every shape and size. You’ll see it in the X-Files (especially the “goo in the snow” arcs), in Ridley Scott and James Cameron’s Alien movies, in the plots — so to speak — of video games like Doom, and the original Quake game.
But when Guillermo del Toro saw where Prometheus was going, he realized that it was more than context, setting and theme that Prometheus took from At the Mountains of Madness. Prometheus appeared in fact to be a literal retelling of the same story, in a similar way that The Magnificent Seven and A Fistful of Dollars were setting-transposed remakes of Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai dramas, The Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai) and Yojimbo.
Prometheus appeared, to Del Toro, to be At the Mountains of Madness, but in space. The mountains, if you will, of Ren and Stimpy’s Space Madness. And so, with a heavy heart, he abandoned his adaptation. And with a heavy heart, fans of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror read about his decision.
Now, just because a story has been adapted doesn’t mean that the original, with its original context and characters, can’t be adapted again. Kurosawa’s Yojimbo was based (loosely) on Dashiell Hammett’s classic crime novel Red Harvest, set in a corrupt mining town in the 1930s.
But it can also be argued that in many ways, between Red Harvest, Yojimbo, and A Fistful of Dollars, the themes and setting changed. Notions of class distinctions, industrialization, and economic interests were very different between the story of a hired corporate detective, a dispossessed ronin, and a cynical gunslinger. But it can be argued that between Lovecraft’s story and Ridley Scott’s movie, the setting and themes did not change. At the time that At the Mountains of Madness was written, it was science fiction: scientists, ships and aircraft traveling to the unknown, to search for clues to the origins of life on Earth. It just happened that between 1931 and 2011, the location of “the unknown” had to move off-planet as our technology evolved.
But no need to take my word for it, or even that of Guillermo del Toro. Prometheus is out there for you to watch (you may have seen it already, but it’s coming to Blu-Ray!) and Mountains is available to read, or in an excellent graphic novel adaptation. Decide for yourself how much change 80 years have brought to the exploration of the horror at the edge of the unknown.