A staple of the horror genre, H.P. Lovecraft’s influence has reverberated long after his time. Though Lovecraftian themes have made their way into horror film in everything from Alien to Evil Dead, straight adaptations of Lovecraft’s work have yet to find mainstream success to the same degree. Why is this? To many, the answer is that Lovecraft is simply unfilmable. To quote John Carpenter, “Some of his best stories are just impossible to visualize,” (Petley, 43). Still, it seems a shame that such foundational works in horror, steeped in Lovecraft’s distinctive imagery, should elude cinematic adaptation, the consequent introduction to entirely new, contemporary audiences, and the expression of his work in formats (such as IMAX) inaccessible during his time. Breaking Lovecraft’s writing into its constituent parts and examining the “filmability” of each will, I hope, allow us to challenge this notion of Lovecraft as unfilmable, inspiring filmmakers to push against these prescribed notions and employ their creativity to effectively bring Lovecraft’s work to the silver screen.
Perhaps the most essential element of Lovecraft’s writing is “cosmicism,” or, “the aesthetic crystallization of that burning and inextinguishable feeling of mixed wonder and oppression which the sensitive imagination experiences upon scaling itself and its restrictions against the vast and provocative abyss of the unknown,” (Petley, 39). Essential to this cosmicism is a sense of scale, with Stephen King characterizing it as “mak[ing] us feel the size of the universe we hang suspended in,” (Petley, 43). There is something about Lovecraft’s writing that makes the reader grapple existentially with their sense of self scaled against the vastness of the universe. Translating this cosmicism to the screen encounters difficulties, certainly, not the least of which is the variability of screen size. While cosmicism instilled in the imagination is to a degree unbounded (at a certain point, the brain simply becomes unable to conceptualize on this scale), film is inherently limited to the size of whatever it is viewed on. Inevitably, there will be those who watch the filmic version of a Lovecraft story on their TV, or worse, their phone, where attempts at scale will be respectfully appreciable at best and laughable at worst. A viewer will hardly be formally forced to conceptualize their insignificance when comfortably lying in bed watching on a screen roughly the size of their hand.
Simultaneously, however, film provides a unique opportunity to formalize this sense of cosmicism, making it tangible in a way not afforded through text. While reading, the sense of scale is bounded by the reader’s imagination – scale becomes incomprehensible when it surpasses the bounds of lived experience, which is why models of things like the solar system are so fascinating to us. These models allow humans to conceptualize the vast distances of space, making possible a comprehension of just how small we are on the cosmic scale. The Moon already seems so far away when we look at it at night, just wait until you see how far Pluto is in comparison! While screen size can be limiting in the case of TVs, laptops, or phones, the converse is true when considering the cinema. IMAX screens in particular are expansive, providing a unique opportunity to first situate the viewer in the film’s world when they connect with the protagonist or audience surrogate and then impose scale onto the viewer – both diegetically with the audience surrogate grappling with scale within the film, and for the viewer themselves, faced with a screen that encompasses their entire vision. This sense of scale is heightened in the dark conditions of the theater, the black void beyond the edges of the screen (if the edges are even visible from the seat) allowing the viewer to accentuate what is bounded by the screen with their imagination filling in the space beyond, seeded and inspired by what’s displayed. These effects can be further exaggerated with modern tech and CGI – creating monsters bigger than life or tracking, panning, and pulling from the relatable scale to the cosmic – though true scale has existed throughout film history, such as in D.W. Griffith’s 1916 Intolerance, specifically the scale of the ancient cities and crowds.
Another key element of Lovecraft’s writing is reality. As Lovecraft puts it, “To make a fictional marvel wear the momentary aspect of exciting fact, we must give it the most elaborate possible approach – building up insidiously and gradually out of apparently realistic material, realistically handled,” (Petley, 41). The cosmic horror of Lovecraft’s work relies on a slow perversion of the ordinary and known culminating in “momentary” bursts of “exciting fact.” Ostensibly, this slow perversion is easily filmable: these are subjects that are known to us after all. There are challenges, however, in executing this perversion. In Lovecraft’s Colour out of Space, for example, he describes animals’ footprints as, “not quite right,” (Lovecraft, 83). How could this be demonstrated filmically, particularly to an audience that is likely not familiar with what rabbit tracks “should” look like? One solution comes from Lovecraft himself: these “not quite right” descriptions are Nahum’s explanation to others. Nahum “was never specific, but appeared to think they were not as characteristic of the anatomy and habits” of the animals making them “as they ought to be,” (Lovecraft, 83). These difficulties in conveying subtle variations from the norm can be demonstrated through narration or exposition in precisely this way. Another solution is again presented through CGI, editing, and other post production tricks afforded to film. One could tweak this or that setting in post-production to subtly adjust everything from the hue of the shot, to the proportions of a character or object, to the audio range or discordancy, creating this feeling of “not quite right” for the viewer.
But what about more drastic perversions of or complete departures from the norm? Lovecraft is famous for describing things as “indescribable.” He does this many times in Colour out of Space, referring to the meteor as “display[ing] shining bands unlike any known colours of the normal spectrum,” (Lovecraft, 81). The eponymous color works its way throughout the world of the story, always referred to in this indescribable way. This by definition cannot be accurately or adequately captured on film, as that would require choosing a known color for filmic representation. Though this approach was abandoned later in the film, Huan Vu initially creatively addressed this issue through the use of black and white in his 2010 adaptation Color out of Space. Simply remove color from the film entirely, have a character remark on its unusual nature, and let the viewer’s imagination serve the same role in film as when reading the story.
Lovecraft described his imagination as it pertains to his writing as “passive witnessing – the idea of being that of a sort of floating, disembodied eye which sees all manner of marvellous phenomena,” (Petley, 38). Lovecraft’s characters’ “sole function… [is] to perceive,” (Petley, 39). The original writing philosophy of Lovecraft is to write from the perspective of a camera capturing a marvelous world around it, a philosophy that pushes towards translation of his works into film. Should filmmakers solve the question of how to represent the necessary parts of Lovecraft’s distinctive style, film becomes a verdant ground for his works.