Home » Things Unseen: Why it’s so Hard to Adapt H.P. Lovecraft to Film

Things Unseen: Why it’s so Hard to Adapt H.P. Lovecraft to Film

Why it's so hard to adapt Lovecraft to film - a still from the film from beyond

As someone entrenched in the horror genre, both in film and fiction, I get the same question a lot: “Why are there no good Lovecraft movies?” And there are, you just have to know where to find them. But I understand the point. You don’t have to look to find quality adaptations based on the works of Stephen King, Bram Stoker or EdgarAllan Poe. But with H.P. Lovecraft, it’s different. Given the fan base, it shouldn’t be. But there are lot of factors that have prevented the horror author from having the same filmic success as others.

Ironically, the fan base is one of the reasons for Lovecraft’s lack of success on the screen. Unlike most major horror authors, he never had a hit in his lifetime. His stories were really discovered a few decades after his death. Moreover, he’s not a mainstream author. His fans are primarily from the hardcore horror community, the academic community and the role playing community. Unfortunately, none of these groups seem to really have much pull at the box office. That’s why there actually are a ton of films based on Lovecraft’s work, but none of them are of a very high budget. Most are never even released theatrically.

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Herbert West from 1985's Re-Animator.

Of course, some of it comes down to the material itself. Lovecraft’s stories, by and large, contain no female characters or people of color, which makes a faithful modern adaptation very difficult. On a much broader level, the stories aren’t told in a very structured way, extremely introverted, and never really reveal the monsters that the stories are actually about. On the page, this is great for creating a sense of paranoia and dread but it’s almost impossible to recapture on the screen.

This doesn’t mean there haven’t been Lovecraft movies that have worked. Re-Animator worked perfectly and is always the go-to recommendation for something based on the author’s work. That particular film gets frequently criticized for not being Lovecraftian enough, but if that’s true then the same critique should be directed at the original story as well. Re-Animator is a very faithful adaptation. It’s full of black humor that had always been in the narrative because the author had been forced to do it as a sort of assignment and wrote the whole thing with a sense of biting sarcasm because of that.

From Beyond is also closer to the material than one would think. It’s a very sexualized body horror picture, which seems outside Lovecraft’s wheelhouse, but in actuality it totally plays into Lovecraft’s own fear of flesh and sexuality. Places beyond the realm of our own sensation, barriers between dimensions and the things that exist on the other side, those are all heavy aspects of the short story that are front and center in the film.

from beyond 1986On the whole, though, Lovecraft will always be nearly impossible to adapt. At best, we’ll have films like Hellboy with Lovecraftian influence. It’s hard to imagine big budget passion projects like At the Mountains of Madness ever getting off the ground the way the filmmakers intend. For every feature like Re-Animator or From Beyond there will always be projects like The Unnamable and The Lurking Fear, low-budget monster movies that are OK as such but don’t transcend to anything more than that. Lovecraft is a writer of big stories, otherworldy monsters, things that would take a lot of money to work on film.

Ultimately, a Lovecraft movie the way the author’s fans really want to see one is a virtual impossibility. It would take a producer who’s willing to invest a lot of money solely on the idea. One who can convince a studio that even without a big name or marketing campaign and without the widest possible audience, it can still work. That’s basically the same as saying there’s no chance at all. I think there are some exceptional films based on Lovecraft stories, some that are even better than the stories themselves. But you have to do some digging to find them. Although, when you think about it, that’s how the author was discovered in the first place.

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Written by Nat Brehmer
In addition to contributing to Wicked Horror, Nathaniel Brehmer has also written for Horror Bid, HorrorDomain, Dread Central, Bloody Disgusting, We Got This Covered, and more. He has also had fiction published in Sanitarium Magazine, Hello Horror, Bloodbond and more. He currently lives in Florida with his wife and his black cat, Poe.
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