Adapting Lovecraft: Making the Incomprehensible Known

By Yammile

H.P. Lovecraft, in my opinion, is both one of the greatest writers to ever live but also one of the most controversial people to live as well. Born and raised in Providence, Rhode Island, he lived there for much if not all his life. Since he rarely left home, it is reasonable to conclude that this was why Lovecraft was afraid of almost everything. He was afraid of the unknown and has been described as a racist, homophobe, and xenophobe, amongst many, many other things. The one thing it seems he wasn’t afraid of was white, middle-class, educated, well-to-do folk like those who are often the protagonists of his novels. They also almost solely take place in or around Arkham, a town in New England that is predominately white, and around the ‘famed’ Miskatonic University, which is described as being as prestigious and exclusive as Harvard. Furthermore, the actual creatures that the make can sometimes be seen as analogous for racism or xenophobia towards another race. Stories like The Shadow Over Innsmouth when it comes to the most direct form of analogies. However, when it comes to other things, most of his monsters are entirely based in the unknown and the unknowing because Lovecraft was afraid of just about everything, especially things he didn’t understand, which in this case applied to the entirety of anything outside of New England.

         Lovecraft’s most infamous story is without a doubt the Call of Cthulhu, which details the story of man going through the notes of his deceased uncle which eventually leads to the discovery of an eldritch old god lying dormant beneath the remnants of a civilization. While this story is full of plenty of early 20th century racism, none of the actual monsters draw on that. The eldritch old god, Cthulhu, is depicted as this creature that is so horrifying that the people who see it are driven to insanity at the mere sight of it, if they aren’t eaten by it first. This theme of things being so horrifying that they drive you insane is very common in Lovecraft’s writings. It’s something that commonly permeates into adaptations around his mythos, especially in games. Almost every Lovecraft based game I have come across in some way incorporates an insanity system into the game. This insanity always makes the game harder and is usually equated to being the death of a character, since they are driven so insane, they can no longer function as part of normal society. It is this aspect of Lovecraft, the horrifying and the deranged, that make it so hard to adapt into fiction.

         Capturing the abject fear and horror that is intertwined into Lovecraft’s narrative is something that adaptations have struggled with for decades. Games seem to be the only medium able to properly convey this horror through a mix of game mechanics and unconventional storytelling that is not suited to cinema. When we watched clips from the Color Out of Space adaptation, it was startlingly clear that these directors were struggling for a proper solution to how to represent something that is so horrifying and capable of driving people to insanity. Apparently, in 2 out of the 3, it was to turn the color into this blinding shade of hot pink which is somehow an improvement on the option the 3rd adaptation took which was to just equate it to nuclear radiation and boil the color down to being a more-complicated version of uranium. Neither of these options quite encapsulate the actual horror of Color Out of Space: the horror of the unknowing. Because the audience can see the color, we can thus rationalize it and then explain it. Even more so, looking at it doesn’t drive them to insanity or shock as it often does with characters in Lovecraft’s story. In doing so, it takes away the most horrifying element of Lovecraft: the unexplainability of the unknown.

         I think that this inability of cinema to properly capture the horror of Lovecraft is why certain stories like the Call of Cthulhu and the Shadows Over Innsmouth haven’t been adapted as much. Stories like Color Out of Space only need the color to be adapted while other stories require the actual monster be adapted well and if it’s not, it won’t have that same horrifying effect as it did in the book. It is the horror of Lovecraft and his ability to craft his many many fears into horrifying monsters and stories that make him such a great writer. If an adaptation isn’t able to properly capture that, then it’s doomed to fail. This is why games have such an edge over cinema in terms of adaptation, especially tabletop games that don’t require you to physically see the monster in question. It leaves the horrifying nature up to your imagination. In my opinion, the best way to sell the horror of Lovecraft is to keep the horror out of sight until the very last moment. And then, when their guard is down, strike in one single horrifying instant that the viewer will never forget.

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