Monday, July 6, 2009

Gor, Lost in Adaptation or merely Lost? (Fini)

The Movies

Adapting novels into screenplays to adapt into movies is a lot like translating an ancient text written in a long dead language. The journey from hieroglyphs to contemporary English, French, or German is arduous. Subtle contexts of meaning often get lost in translation. No matter how fluent the translator may be there is no avoiding this. Witness the atrocious, often unintentionally funny, English dubbing of sword-and-sandal imports or the differences in word choice found in different Bible editions. Of course how well a translation retains the spirit and concepts of the original depends on how faithful the translator stays to the source. Good translations take time, witness the years of work that often go into translating classical works. No two translators present quite the same text for the works of Homer, Plato, or even the Bible.

A prime example of how a movie differs from the novels on which it is based can be found in the artwork of Gor. It may not be an entirely fair critique to judge a book (series) by it's cover(s) yet we can learn much from them. .


1. Assassin of Gor, artist Boris Valejo; notice one woman is bound in chains and the other is knelling in supplication to the dominant male. 2. Kajira of Gor, artist unknown; the full scene depicts a male fighting some outlandish Gorean beast as a bound female slave looks on. 3. Outlaw of Gor, artist ?; a female is staked out and bound in chains while two men fight over (her) their prize. 4. Now compare to an actual screen cap from the movie GOR, in which a woman is not only lacking bonds she's wielding a sword in defense of her village.

Obviously, having not read the novels, it's hard to judge whether women wielding swords and being heroic goes totally against the grain of Gor as written. Yet here's another typical quote from a fan site:

"You!" said the trainer, gesturing to another girl with his Whip. "To his feet! Beg for love!" This girl hurried forward and knelt before Drusus Rencius. "I beg for love, Master," she whispered. "You!" said the trainer, indicating another girl. She, too, hurried forward. She knelt before Drusus Rencius, her palms on the floor, her head to the very tiles. "I beg for love," she whispered. "I beg for love, Master."

-Kajira of Gor, pg 139

Most quotes posted on fan sites seem to be snapshots of slave-master relationships; with females predominantly in the submissive role. Even taken out of context they speak volumes. In the novels women are portrayed as submissive chattels whose role in Gorean society is essentially that of eager sex slave. A golden premise for exploitation filmmakers. Alas the opportunity to create a cult classic on par with The Perils of Gwendoline, The Story of O, Emmanuelle, or the infamous nazisploitation Ilsa trilogy was squandered. Like them or loathe them the Gor novels, and Gorean Fantasy, like the works of the Marquis de Sade, have an audience. Even literary purists who would place Gor novels into the nearest garbage receptacle will admit the movies weren't Gorean Fantasy. They may herald this as a good thing, but that's only because John Norman's books have such a polarizing effect; for some.

But so what if the novels aren't well known or well liked? They have spawned a sub-genre all their own. This strange, and often controversial, sub-genre of fantasy exists in a black hole nexus of moral ambiguity. Given the nature of the novels, a faithful adaptation, even sans the Tarns, would likely of had limited appeal. Studios are concerned solely with making money, which too often means pandering to "mainstream" audiences, which begs the question: Why buy the movie rights to such a controversial novel series in the first place? But, having purchased the rights, why then proceed to murder the author's vision and film a counterfeit version of Gor?

Now there's a loaded question. After all there really is nothing new under the sun. Every writer borrows ideas and, like a kitchen alchemist, mixes them together in what they hope will be a winning formulae. Should filmmakers really be held up to a higher standard than the writers themselves?

Yes. Because the filmmaker is not creating they are interpreting, or rather breathing life into the text; or such is the task they should be doing. Alas filmmakers have become like the authors of distant antiquity who borrowed the names of famous biblical or mythological figures to lend authenticity to their own writings. Filmmakers have taken to borrowing the name and title of an established author to pass off their own work, which in any other industry would be considered criminal fraudulence. Sadly filmmakers get away with this time and time again. They've produced counterfeit Bible stories, forgeries of historical events, and, Hollywood's most recent favorite, the remake dubbed a "re-envisioning", which are almost always bogus and patently fraudulent fabrications totally unrelated to the source material. Sometimes they work yet, too often, they do not.

Ingres - Grand Odalisque

But would the Gor movies really have been any better if the books had been adapted more faithfully? Perhaps. Then again the filmmakers were obviously clueless. As I mentioned in part one of this article I've never read the novels, yet I recognize them for what they are: an derivative blending of Edgar Rice Burroughs style of heroic fantasy laced with undertones of Arabian Fantasy. The scenes of slave girls so many find offensive are no different than the romanticized odalisque of Orientalist painters.

Moor Bath

Indeed there exists an entire sub-genre of erotica, which does not have the same stigma attached to it as Gorean Fantasy, that's very similar to it in many ways. It's full of slave girls, masters, and harems. And it has gotten better treatment in it's movie adaptations, why? Is it because Gor was published as genre fantasy rather than literature?

Harem Interior, Bath

This is the crux of the question about movie adaptations of genre fiction be they pulp planet stories, Harlequin romances, comic book fantasy, hard science fiction, horror, or crime dramas; be they set on distant alien worlds with strange sounding names like Barsoom, Arrakis, Gor, Pern, Amtor, or Middle-Earth. If filmmakers are not going to respect the author's written word and faithfully represent the source material what's the point? Liberties may be taken with narrative accounts of certain figures such as Genghis Khan, Caligula, Nero, or Cleopatra, as indeed the bulk of literary works about such personages is built upon speculation. Yet, even here, there are certain known and established facts about these historical figures that must be abided by.

Novels, unlike distant historical events, are not open to speculation. The authors words are plainly recorded in black and white. Alas filmmakers continue to despoil literary works without repercussion. The Gor movies were low budget productions that wandered far from the source material, thus alienating the fan base. Nor did they provide much for mainstream audiences or genre fans to like. Their plots were a threadbare fabric of generic clich├ęs woven around shallow and transparent characters. Had the eponymous Tarns not been written out and replaced with horses, had there been some attempt to include science fiction elements, had. . If only. . But there wasn't. The Gor movies will never be more than campy, cheesy, unintentionally funny nonsense; and remembered for being as far removed from their source material as an atheist is from an Orthodox patriarch. Perhaps they could have been more, alas we'll never know.

# End of Line

Copyright © C. Demetrius Morgan


Pat Powers said...

Well I think you have got it exactly right, filmmakers really should be faithful in their adaptations, and not just for moral reasons. However, if you are going to not adapt the book faithfully, you'd damned well better study what made the book a success so your film will be a success. The writer for "Gor" and "Outlaw of Gor", Harry Alan Towers (famously incompetent as a writer, it turns out) clearly did not spend so much as a second doing that. As you say, you did not read any of the Gor novels, yet you identified exactly what made the books successful without any trouble at all: a combination of softcore harem sexual fantasy and planetary romance. (I'd argue that sword and sandal is the proper genre as much of Gor is set in a Roman-type culture, though I do think transplanting it to another world and introducing intelligent aliens and dinosaurs keeps it fresh). If Towers had done a merely competent job of putting those elements into a script: alien sword and sandal adventure combined with lots of naked, sexy slavegirls having bondage-y romances and sex, it would have been a huge hit, I suspect. Instead, his script had the almost childlike stupidity and awfulness his work is generally known for.

I'd argue that two current TV series HAVE done exactly what I think should have been known for the Gor movies: The Starz series "Spartacus" and the HBO series "Game of Thrones." (The whores in GoT are pretty good slavegirl analogues and may even BE slaves for all I know -- it is a slaveholding society.) In both cases, lots of sword-swinging adventure and lots of hot, naked, sexy slavegirls or slavegirl equivalents. And both very sccessful. How about that?

Anonymous said...

I agree with almost everything you have written.
I read the some of these books when I was in my teens and enjoyed them quite a bit but the series became more sexual fantasy as they went on. Try the first 3, (Tarnsman, Outlaw & Priest-Kings,)they are good, silly, fun.
I would say that I have no objection to films being loosely based on a book or play but that must be made crystal clear and not stop any more faithful adaptaion being made.