Five Things Netflix Must Get Right for Conan

While details are sparse at the moment—with no mention of showrunners or writers—the news is out, and one niche corner of fandom has cause to raise flagons in celebration: Conan the Cimmerian is coming to Netflix! For years, sword and sorcery fans have been living through a drought and subsisting on scraps. Now, finally, we may be invited to witness a true feasting of swords!

Already, this announcement has sparked heated debate among the fan base. Some folks seem concerned that Netflix will, by default, change Conan’s gender, race, sexual orientation, and cook up a legendary ‘sjw’ stew from Robert E. Howard’s source material. Others seem worried that Conan’s masculinity will be scoured away and cleaned up for the comfort of the masses (even though Conan’s masculinity isn’t really of the toxic variety). While I’ve seen scant supporting evidence for these viewpoints, and believe these fears to be largely unfounded and rather silly—especially when I consider the success of other morally ambiguous series like Game of Thrones, Vikings, and The Witcher—this conversation has made me wonder what Netflix should do with this property if they wish to create a Conan show worth its weight in Ophirian gold.

Know, oh prince, these are the five ways Netflix can create a successful series out of Conan the Cimmerian.

Bring on the Violence!

Howard wrote action like no other. His scenes of blood and thunder are vivid, visceral, and most importantly, memorable. His special brand of gruesome poetry has become a hallmark of the sword and sorcery genre, often imitated, but rarely matched. This is an area where the choreography and effects crews need to deliver. Skulls should split like melons, heads should leap from shoulders, and Conan should awe the audience with his martial prowess. If gore hounds aren’t able to eat their fill each episode—if we fans are not talking ad nauseam about particularly violent scenes in tones of relish—something won’t be right.

(Finally) Get the Character Right

Conan is not as he’s often portrayed in pop culture. He’s talkative, on occasion, and can be surprisingly articulate. He is also intelligent, cunning, and opportunistic. He isn’t afraid to run from a fight if it means saving his hide. He isn’t the typical dumb barbarian so many parodies have made him out to be. Most importantly, the show must explore the Cimmerian’s peculiar sense of honor. His proclivity to protect his friends and keep his bargains are among his most endearing traits. Where civilized men spin cowardly schemes and plots, Conan must stand apart and become the moral center. Yes, you heard that right. Sure, he may be a thief, pirate, and usurper, and it’s fair to point out his drinking, whoring, and penchant for ultra-violence, but when you boil him down, Conan is a man of his word and a good friend to his allies. It is essential, then, that Howard’s driving theme of civilization vs. barbarism be on full display. Doing so is no small feat, of course, which brings me to my next point.

Get the Casting Right.

This is perhaps the biggest challenge. Look, I love Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the casting director must look beyond bodybuilders or wrestlers. While there’s an argument for Jason Momoa getting a second shot, this seems unlikely. Momoa is a great aesthetic fit for the character, as was Arnold, but there’s much more to bringing Conan to life. Whoever fills the sandals (and we should finally see him wearing sandals) will need to truly capture the character. In short, this show needs a great actor—someone with charm and charisma; someone who can brood and emote; someone who can express melancholies and mirth; someone you want on your team; someone you would never cross. The creative team needs an actor with range, and they need him to be an imposing physical specimen. That’s a lot to ask, I realize, but it will be essential if they’re going to make this work.

Respect and Represent the Source Material while Also Catering to the Medium

Mediums differ. You can’t just copy and paste short stories to the screen. A slavish adherence to the source material won’t work, period. And while they could hew very close without venturing too far beyond Howard’s yarns, they would quickly run out of budget and content. You have to be realistic about these things. Conan has had many careers—wanderer, thief, pirate, king. It isn’t unrealistic to think each season could focus on one or two of these periods in Conan’s life. While Howard’s stories should serve as the foundation, I fully expect minor characters—both allies and villains—to take on larger rolls. The show will need to focus on many intersecting plots, not just Conan’s. Using Howard’s tales as a springboard, the writers should expand and extrapolate.

Don’t Turn it into Generic Fantasy

The Hyborian Age needs to come to life. It needs to feel lived-in and real. Howard created a pseudo-history, one that reflects many kingdoms and cultures from our own. It is a curious mishmash of times, people, and places, but ultimately feels grounded. When the weird elements surface, they have greater impact because the settings and circumstances are believable. We should see ugly slums and shining kingdoms; bleak and ominous landscapes, but also wondrous vistas. We should be awed by ancient-world architecture, but also terrified by mysterious, forsaken ruins. The production designers have a golden opportunity here, and I hope they bring their A-game and receive the financial support they’ll require.

And there you have it. While it’s very tempting to consider which showrunners, directors, and specific actors might be best for the series, I always find it safer for my expectations if I focus on the what, and not the who. Surely, you have your own constructive thoughts on the matter, and I’m more than willing to listen. But whatever you do, don’t call on Crom; that grim bastard never listens!

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Matthew John

Matthew John is an English Language Arts teacher and employee of Monolith Games (Conan, Batman: Gotham City Chronicles). He lives with his wife, two children, and countless cats and dogs in Nova Scotia, Canada. When time allows, he likes to write short fiction, waste time at the gaming table, and chat sword and sorcery on the Rogues in the House Podcast. His work has been published in Skelos (SkelosPress), Weirdbook (Wildside Press), and Robert E. Howard’s Conan the roleplaying game (Modiphius Games).

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[…] SETTING THE BAR WHERE IT BELONGS. [Item by Dann.] I came across this via Grimdark Magazine: “Five Things Netflix Must Get Right For Conan”. I didn’t see any mention of this development until recently. FWIW, I think their points are […]