This week has seen some progress in video game adaptations Splinter Cell, which landed Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) in a lead role, and Deus Ex, which will be written and directed by Scott Derrickson (Sinister). While it appears the Hollywood Adaptation machine for new movies is still running strong (for better or worse), sometimes an old property deserves to be revisited, refreshed and rebooted. Today’s suggestion first graced the screens thirty years ago and spawned two (terrible) sequels, a TV series and a cult following. An early work from director Don Coscarelli (Phantasm), this swords-and-sandals picture was a very loose adaptation of a book series from award-winning author, Andre Norton. Hit the jump to see why there’s more to this property than you might think. Hollywood! Adapt this: The Beastmaster.
While The Beastmaster wasn’t exactly a critical darling (currently at 50% on Rotten Tomatoes), it has established a cult following thanks to its constant airings on TBS (The Beastmaster Station) and HBO (Hey, Beastmaster’s On!). The regular reminders drew enough of an audience to warrant a sequel, 1991’s Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time, and even a third installment, 1995’s TV movie, Beastmaster: The Eye of Braxus. There was a reboot of sorts in the late 90s and early 2000s with three seasons of the TV series BeastMaster starring Daniel Goddard. So what was all the fuss about?
What It’s About:
Before we get into The Beastmaster movie, let’s talk briefly about the book series. Norton, the first woman to win the World Science Fiction Society’s Gandalf Grand Master Award, wrote the original book in 1959. It told the story of Hosteen Storm, a former soldier and Navajo commander, who possessed telepathic and empathic connections to genetically altered animals. It was more a story of revenge against a man who wronged Storm’s family in the past and is a far cry from what The Beastmaster adaptation became.
Coscarelli, who was reportedly offered the director’s chair for 1982’s Conan the Barbarian but turned it down over disappointment in the script, wrote and helmed The Beastmaster instead. The similarities between the two movies, which screened the same year, are striking: a chosen warrior orphaned as a young boy trains his entire life to exact revenge on the sorcerer who killed his family and destroyed his village. Along the way, he encounters half-naked women, witches, wizards and horrific creatures. Even the assault on the temple steps to kill the villain are almost identical. So what sets The Beastmaster apart?
Basically, the only thing Coscarelli ported over from Norton’s series is the protagonist’s ability to communicate with animals. A child of prophecy marked by the very priests he wars against, Dar (Marc Singer) holds dominion over a black tiger, an eagle and a pair of mischievous ferrets. That facet alone is the only thing that makes the property stand out as something unique and it’s used in the film with great affect. Dar is able to scout long distances ahead by looking through the eyes of his eagle, can overwhelm opposing forces with the strength of the black tiger and uses the ferrets to steal keys, enter narrow spaces, chew through ropes…and steal women’s clothes. There’s humor and action and magic and mayhem in The Beastmaster, doled out in equal measure with misogyny, animal cruelty, downright awful storytelling and sub-par fight sequences. Yet The Beastmaster could still be a diamond in the rough if it acquires some proper polishing.
There are many, many flaws with Coscarelli’s Beastmaster that audiences today would never stand for, both on screen and behind the camera. Storywise, Dar, our heroic protagonist, uses his power over animals to trick and damn near rape the central love interest, a half-naked woman named Kiri (Tanya Roberts) who is your basic damsel in distress, but is later revealed to have a bit more to do with the plot (sort of). (It’s interesting to note that Conan had a similarly macho protag but managed to handle the sex scenes in less creepy fashion by contrast.) You’ve also got a vanilla villain in Maax, played by Rip Torn (who could not care less about his performance), whose sole purpose is to kill the warrior prophesied to bring about his downfall…and do it in the most roundabout way possible. The only one who really seemed to be taking things seriously besides Singer was John Amos (Coming to America) who played the glorified bodyguard, Seth.
The film clearly reminds us that although “No Animals Were Harmed” has been around since 1940, some mistreatment still slips through the cracks. The eagle was apparently pretty stubborn and wouldn’t fly on cue, so they dropped it out of a trap-door in the bottom of a hot air balloon. One of the ferrets dies in the film (presumably not in real life) and the other is nearly drowned in quicksand in an early scene that establishes Dar’s character as kind of a douche. The black tiger, Sultan, which was actually a normally-colored tiger that was coated in black dye, died not long after the film due to complications from an allergic reaction to the colorant.
So if there’s so much awfulness, why reboot The Beastmaster? Although it was a straightforward swords-and-sorcery story at its heart, the coolest thing about it was the hero’s ability to work in concert with the animals. That’s something that deserves to be explored for a new generation of audiences. Watching The Beastmaster as a kid, I couldn’t help but get excited at the prospect of having a tiger as a pet and partner or being able to watch through the eyes of an eagle as it soared over the landscape. And with the oversaturation of digital/computer-generated effects and creatures these days, it’d be refreshing to see actual flesh-and-blood animals working on screen alongside their human counterparts. Real-world animals aside, Beastmaster also featured some fantastical creations, such as the humanoid bat-people, who could feast upon an entire human by wrapping their wings around them and digesting them down to the bones. Awesome!
The question is whether to continue with the trend that Coscarelli’s first film began (which was derailed by the horrendous sequel that tripped into modern-day Los Angeles) or to revisit Norton’s original books. There’s a caveat in either case. Swords-and-sandals epics are hit or miss: the Clash of the Titans franchise, while not great film-wise, has had a successful box office run; the Conan the Barbarian reboot was a flop. Norton’s books swing closer to sci-fi than fantasy, with visits to other worlds, alien races and genetically altered animals. I only need two words to remind you of the hazards with this approach: John. Carter. So is it worth it to revisit The Beastmaster at all?
The Final Word:
I still think there’s a kernel of worth in exploring a Beastmaster reboot, but it’s going to take a truly visionary filmmaker with a passion for refreshing the franchise. As I always try to look for added value in adapting properties (ie educating kids about geography and world culture through Carmen Sandiego), there’s an opportunity here to bring the plight of endangered and illegally hunted animals to light. Tom Hardy recently signed up to produce and star in a pair of anti-poaching features, as well as Animal Rescue, which more or less centers on a man protecting a puppy from his abusive owner. I’m not saying Hardy should become The Beastmaster, but I am saying that there are already projects underway that take a look at real world problems in contemporary films, so why not another one that happens to have a fantasy slant?
Off the top of my head, here’s an idea: how about Beastmasters? Imagine a film franchise that explores Beastmasters in different locales rather than focusing on one wandering loner. Essentially, these characters would be like the wargs from George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series, each bound to animals from their particular homelands. This would give a filmmaker the creative freedom to stray from the aesthetic of Dar and the original film while still keeping the core elements of the cult classic. Picture a fur-wrapped Northerner who can communicate with polar bears and killer whales, contrasted against a Zulu warrior who commands the lion as King of Beasts or the Amazonian who prowls the jungle like a jaguar and slithers over branches as the boa.
The Beastmaster could use a bit of world expansion, which would allow it to break free from the constrained “prophecy/warrior” storyline and do something interesting. Regional Beastmasters would, at the least, bring a cool new look and a variety of palettes to the property while introducing kids to exotic animals they might never see otherwise. And here’s an interesting thought, who said that all Beastmasters were intrinsically heroic? I’m not condoning animal-on-animal violence, but for the sake of the story, that would be kind of a cool wrinkle to throw into the hero’s path. I still say The Beastmaster is worth another look and if a filmmaker has an original take, I’m all for it.
If you haven’t seen the original film, take a look at the trailer below:
As always, leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below. Be sure to get caught up on all of our previous articles of Hollywood! Adapt This. Tune in next week when we’ll plead our case for a live-action adaptation of a long-running animated series about giant fighting robots. Not, not that one. No, not that one either. Any other guesses?