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Tales from Development Hell: At the Mountains of Madness.

By Ryan Fleming

HP Lovecraft. Unfilmable?

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Unfilmable is mostly spoken about as a certitude, that certain works cannot be adapted into a filmed medium. It is in fact an inconclusive state. We know this because many works that were previously deemed unfilmable have already been filmed. William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch was adapted in 1991, Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho in 2000, and JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings from 2011 to 2003. Tastes and technology change, so what might be unfilmable for years will, in all likelihood, eventually be filmed. One work still awaiting its adaptation is HP Lovecraft’s 1936 novella At the Mountains of Madness, though it has come very close to being filmed during the 2010s by Guillermo del Toro.

The works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft have a reputation as being unfilmable. Esoteric, exposition heavy, and uncinematic being frequent explanations. Despite this, there had been numerous adaptations during the 20th Century. Most prominently from producer Roger Corman starting in the 1960s and director Stuart Gordon from the 1980s. There was also The Call of Cthulhu (2005) which used the concept of being a silent film produced in the 1920s shortly after the publication of the original short story. Those productions were either B-movies or experimental films. Not in terms of their quality, but in the backing of their production. Del Toro’s At the Mountains of Madness seemed wholly different when announced in 2010.

Ville Assinen's depiction of the Mountains of Madness.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Unlike Corman or Gordon, the latter of whom was just starting out in his career and the former whose reputation precedes him, del Toro was already an established name director with a record of commercially or critically successful films. His earlier pictures trod a line between fantasy, horror, and science fiction. His adaptation of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy (2004) and its sequel even touched upon many themes inspired by Lovecraft’s fiction. In other words, he was perhaps the ideal candidate to direct a mainstream Hollywood adaptation of Lovecraft’s works. The film had actually been in development since 2006 but del Toro found financing difficult from Warner Bros citing an adaptations status as “a period-set, R-rated, tentpole movie with a tough ending and no love story.”

Universal Studios proved more receptive to the pitch. At least with the producer who eventually became attached to the project. James Cameron in 2010 was coming off directing the highest grossing film of all time to that point (again) with Avatar (2009). It is almost impossible to predict success in film as with any other endeavour, which is why studios look to stack the deck as much in their favour as possible. If a filmmaker had directed, produced, and written the highest grossing film of all time not once, but twice, then their confidence in a project carries a lot of weight.

Del Toro suggested bringing in the weird fiction literary critic ST Joshi as a consultant on the production. Cameron proposed making the film in 3D, which had seemingly graduated from gimmick to art form with his efforts on Avatar. Cameron also suggested Tom Cruise in the lead role. Cruise would be the only actor whose name was ever mentioned in conjunction with the project. Production was expected to begin in May 2011.

Shoggoth. I guess it will be CGI.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

A director with a proven track record and two decades of experience. A Hollywood A-lister in the lead role. A producer who had just equalled a feat accomplished by one other filmmaker in history. That’s three major names attached to this production. Had they been trying to adapt a superhero comic, then the major Hollywood studios would have been falling over each other trying to finance.

They were not trying to adapt a superhero comic book, however. They were not even trying to adapt a modern bestseller. Or an obscure work by a household name. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos remained, appropriately enough, a cult interest. Its only forays into film, or indeed any adaptations of Lovecraft’s work, had been the aforementioned experimental or B- pictures. Along with workers’ rights and works entering the public domain, film studios get very cold feet if there is even the slightest chance of every production not being the biggest money-maker ever devised by humanity. Del Toro had experience as much for the four years he had been trying to get the film financed by Warner Bros and, unfortunately for his At the Mountains of Madness, Universal would prove just as reticent.

It was the R rating that proved the casus belli for Universal. Likely had it not been that, it would have been the period setting. Or it would have been the lack of a love story. Or the lack of a happy ending. It could very easily have been all of them. Del Toro insisted on the R rating. Universal remained steadfast in their refusal. For most of the 2010s, the trend was that even most horror films would be rated PG-13. The matter of whether specifically 13-16 year olds should be allowed to see a film without an accompanying adult may seem an abstruse one to anyone with a semblance of common sense, but these are Hollywood film studios and film censors.

As the debacle of the rating for At the Mountains of Madness wore on between Del Toro and Universal, it would actually be an entirely different film released in 2012 that would be the death knell for the Lovecraft adaptation. 1979’s Alien owes a lot to Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon stated in 2009 that his script was strongly influenced by the works of Lovecraft tonally. HR Giger, designer of the titular creature, stated he was drawn to O’Bannon’s original script because of its similarities to Lovecraft. Writer David McIntee also noted those similarities, as well as to the 1975 Doctor Who serial The Ark in Space, citing it as the best film in the vein of Lovecraft’s works ever made, all without being an adaptation. How apropos then that thirty plus years after its release, it would be a prequel to Alien that would spell doom for the only potential adaptation that might have challenged its status.

An Old One, as envisaged by Tom Ardan.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Prometheus (2012) had been in development by Alien director Ridley Scott and James Cameron (director of its first sequel – 1986’s Aliens) since 2002. It had originally been proposed as a sequel with series star Sigourney Weaver returning. Cameron left the project after he was approached by studio 20th Century Fox on another project in the series, a crossover that would become Alien vs Predator (2004), that he believed would kill the validity of the franchise. The project was revived in 2009, first as a reboot then as a prequel, with Scott eventually announced to direct.

The delays in At the Mountains of Madness arising from the disagreement over the film’s rating allowed Prometheus to be released ahead of it. The notion of an expedition to an artificial structure in a forbidding, hazardous environment finding within said structure the answer to humanity’s origins as well as the beings that came before them appears in both works. Del Toro cited a redundancy in adapating At the Mountains of Madness so soon after Prometheus, but there was never any word that the R vs PG-13 classification issue was ever resolved. Regardless of the true cause, both Cameron and Del Toro left the project.

The project has come up again on-and-off over subsequent years. Del Toro mentioned in a 2013 interview wanting to try once more to get it made. In a 2017 interview, he revealed his continued frustrations in getting it made but gave no indication he had given up entirely, citing the recent success of R-rated genre films like Deadpool (2016) and Logan (2017). After signing a multi-year deal with Netflix, he revealed in 2021 that amongst the first projects he pitched to the streaming services was At the Mountains of Madness. In 2022, he shared test footage of special effects from ILM on his Instagram account.

The project appears to have become something of a white whale for the director, but what if he had been able to scratch that creative urge back in 2011?

Let’s imagine that del Toro has the deviousness to agree to a PG-13 rating but film it with the vision of an R-rated film. He would not be the first director to release a film cut one way for marketing to cinemas and another more in line with their directorial desires to home video. Or one could imagine that someone at the studio has the chutzpah to roll the dice on something not attempted before, but let’s not get too far into the realms of fantasy. Filming begins in May 2011 on schedule, Del Toro directing a script from himself and Matthew Robbins, James Cameron producing, Tom Cruise starring, and in a grand total of three dimensions.

Right of the bat, we can presume that Fox won’t be cancelling ot delaying Prometheus as a result of At the Mountains of Madness going ahead. There would be more bravado from Fox that theirs would be the R-rated science fiction horror about a scientific expedition to an alien place which people would prefer to see. After all, theirs was the proven film franchise.

The two films would likely be portrayed as duelling even if they were not released in the same vicinity of the year. Calling to mind the likes of Antz vs A Bug’s Life in 1998, Armageddon vs Deep Impact in 1998, Elizabeth vs Shakespeare in Love in... in fact, most films released in 1998, it seems. If del Toro’s effort has anything going in its favour, it is that star power had not entirely passed from actors to fictional characters by 2012. In that year, the star power of Tom Cruise would have topped the combined star power of Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron, and Idris Elba. This is not an indicator of acting ability, but rather public familiarity and perception.

Fox may slap the Alien name onto Prometheus as Alien: Prometheus. After all, the big space beasties had been stars for longer than Tom Cruise and are only half as uncomfortable to see around other people. It is likely that even in an evenly matched fight that the Lovecraft adaptation absorbs some of the $403.4 million box office of Prometheus. Scott’s film did not place in the top 10 grossing films of that year, a year dominated by superheroes, British spies, and hobbits, all topping a short $billion at the box office.

Imagine del Toro’s effort manages to beat Prometheus. Absorbing part of the historical audience, as well as those drawn by the association with either Tom Cruise or James Cameron. It would prove the viability of a period set, genre-blurring, R-rated tentpole film adapted from pre-World War II pulp fiction. The major difference between those works and all the other works already being adopted by Hollywood being that most of the pulp works were in the public domain. The studios could have their fill and then some of the works of Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, Robert E Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and Manly Wade Wellman. It’s likely they would not have a clue what they would be doing, but like a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters, when Hollywood keeps trying something, occasionally they make it work. Adaptations of weird fiction could replace hauntings and possessions as the fashionable horror film genre of the decade.

The 2010s were also the era of cinematic universes, speaheaded by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and could readily be applied to Lovecraft’s works. Iniversal would seem foolish not to roll the dice on a Cthulhu Cinematic Mythos if At the Mountains of Madness has even a smidgen of success. Del Toro may be invited to oversee subsequent films in such a strand, Cameron might be an overseeing executive; Tom Cruise may battle Deep Ones on the Massachusetts coast.

Such attempts could easily generate controversy given Lovecraft’s well-documented racist views. 2014 saw the World Fantasy Awards change their statuette from a bust of Lovercraft. A successful adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness could see such controversies not only happen sooner but also more prominently.

Del Toro had already become involved in Pacific Rim (2013) before the cancellation of At the Mountains of Madness. He had struck a deal to produce and co-write Pacific Rim whilst directing his Lovecraft adaptation. Whilst busy in the director’s chair for the film he originally sought to make, he would be unavailable to direct Pacific Rim as he did historically. James Cameron may, however, still be on track to release Avatar: The Way of Water in 2022, after first being announced in 2010.

At the Mountains of Madness could have changed the trajectory of horror films and big budget pictures during the 2010s, as well as definitely changing the career of its director who in 2018 would win the Academy Award for Best Director for The Shape of Water (2017). If it had managed to do that whilst also delivering a bloody nose to the Alien franchise and beating Prometheus, then it may be unlikely that Fox pursues a sequel to their prequel that became Alien: Covenant (2017). We may not know what they do with the franchise instead, but any universe without Alien: Covenant is closer to a utopia than our own.

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Ryan Fleming is the author of the SLP book Reid in Braid.


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