Essay by S.T. Joshi
Lovecraft's opinion of film was not high. This should not
be surprising: to one so devoted to the written word, the
crude films of Lovecraft's early years could only engender
a shudder of aesthetic disgust. Moreover, Lovecraft's first
love in the performing arts was drama, and on the whole he
preferred the stage to the cinema. He wrote in 1934: "I first
saw a play at the age of 6. Later, when the cinema appeared
as a separate institution (it had been part of the Keith vaudeville
circuit since 1898 or 1899), I attended it often with other
fellows, but never took it seriously. By the time of the first
cinema shows (March, 1906, in Providence), I knew too much
of literature and drama not to recognise the utter and unrelieved
hokum of the moving picture."
All this may, however, be a bit disingenuous: Lovecraft's
early letters testify to a considerable enjoyment of films
of the 1910s and 1920s--not merely horror or fantasy films,
but comedies and melodramas as well. In 1915 he actually wrote
a poem to Charlie Chaplin ("To Charlie of the Comics"), and
about this time he declared himself "a devotee of the motion
picture," remarking that "Some modern films are really worth
seeing, though when I first knew moving pictures their only
value was to destroy time."
On the whole, however, Lovecraft was highly disdainful of
the film medium, especially when it attempted to venture into
horror and the supernatural. His most notorious utterance
occurs in a letter of 1933: "As a thorough soporific I recommend
the average popularly 'horrible' play or cinema or radio dialogue.
They are all the same--flat, hackneyed, synthetic, essentially
atmosphereless jumbles of conventional shrieks and mutterings
and superficial, mechanical situations. The Bat made
me drowse back in the early 1920's--and last year an alleged
Frankenstein on the screen would have made me
drowse had not a posthumous sympathy for poor Mrs. Shelley
made me see red instead. Ugh! And the screen Dracula
in 1931--I saw the beginning of that in Miami, Fla.--but couldn't
bear to watch it drag to its full term of dreariness, hence
walked out into the fragrant tropic moonlight!"
But there are some words that can be said on the other side.
Consider Lovecraft's raptures over seeing The Phantom of
the Opera in September 1925: ". . . what a spectacle it
was!! It was about a *presence* haunting the great Paris opera
house . . . but developed so slowly that I actually fell asleep
several times during the first part. Then the second part
began--horror lifted its grisly visage--& I could not have
been made drowsy by all the opiates under heaven! Ugh!!! The
face that was revealed when the mask was pulled off
. . . & the nameless legion of things that cloudily
appeared beside & behind the owner of that face when the mob
chased him into the river at the last!" Lovecraft reserved
those double and triple exclamation marks only for state occasions.
He also saw The Lost World in October 1925, but we
have no letter testifying to its reaction to it; one would
imagine he would have been impressed by this film, a landmark
in its use of special effects in depicting dinosaurs in South
America. Lovecraft also regretted missing The Cabinet of
Dr. Caligari (1921), "for it was by all accounts the best
fantastic cinema ever produced." One would like to think he
would have appreciated the nightmarish futuristic visions
of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, since they coincide so
starkly with Lovecraft's own foreboding prophecies of a future
controlled by soulless machines.
Films are not entirely absent even from Lovecraft's fiction.
In their introduction to The Lurker in the Lobby Andrew
Migliore and John Strysik point out the clear cinematic imagery
found in the early prose-poem "Nyarlathotep" (1920). One of
Lovecraft's last works, "The Shadow out of Time" (1934-35),
was manifestly inspired in part by the striking historical
fantasy *Berkeley Square* (1933), based on a play by John
Balderston. Lovecraft saw this film four times in late 1933;
its portrayal of a man of the twentieth century who somehow
merges his personality with that of his eighteenth-century
ancestor was clearly something that fired Lovecraft's imagination,
since he had written a story on this very theme himself--the
then unpublished The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927).
Of the film Lovecraft writes: "It is the most weirdly perfect
embodiment of my own moods and pseudo-memories that I have
ever seen--for all my life I have felt as if I might wake
up out of this dream of an idiotic Victorian age and insane
jazz age into the sane reality of 1760 or 1770 or 1780 . .
. the age of the white steeples and fanlighted doorways of
the ancient hill, and of the long-s'd books of the old dark
attic trunk-room at 454 Angell Street. God Save the King!"
In his letters Lovecraft keenly dissects some possible conceptual
flaws in Berkeley Square, especially in regard to the
element of time-travel; he felt that he had eliminated these
flaws in his masterful novella of mind-exchange over time.
Perhaps Lovecraft did not approach films in the proper light,
especially films that adapted existing literary works. He
seems to have believed that the sole criterion of excellence
in such works was the faithfulness of their adaptation of
the original text. But a "film adaptation" is very much an
adaptation--a transference of moods, images, and effects from
one medium to another. Many have asserted that Lovecraft's
tales are "unadaptable" to film or any other medium; and in
a sense that is true, if one assumes that such an adaptation
will mechanically seek to duplicate the effect of the written
word onto the screen. Such an undertaking is futile from the
start. But as the The Lurker in the Lobby demonstrates,
the true value of a "Lovecraft adaptation" is the degree to
which filmmakers have used Lovecraft's works as a springboard
for the release of their own imaginations.
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