How Pulp Writers of Decades Passed Set the Stage for Modern Fantasy Films

Literature inspires film, of course, but few might recognize that this correlation often goes beyond simply adapting works for the screen from the page. Early 20th century escapist fantasy writers set the stage for contemporary fantasy film, and their influences remain strong even years after their passing. Most fantasy fans credit Tolkien for the bulk of sword and sorcery themes, but other authors, such as Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, also helped to lay the groundwork for not only the memorable characters we find today, but also their epic nature and distinctive tropes.

An important entry in the development of the modern fantasy film was John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian, based largely on the writings of Robert E. Howard, and the Conan the Barbarian comic book series that Marvel Comics released in the seventies. The screenplay which was originally penned by Oliver Stone, although Milius altered Stone’s script significantly. The film, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as the titular swashbuckler, performed well in the box-office during its initial theatrical run and is still regarded as a cult classic which can be streamed in its entirety on the internet, and is still shown regularly on television.

The film was not only a compilation of both Stone and Milius’s own ideas and plots from the original Conan stories, but also Howard’s successors, Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. At the core of the film, however, was Howard’s base setting and character development. It was Howard who recognized the difficulties of historical accuracy, in addition to the extensive, time-consuming research that would be necessary. Howard chose to implement a timeless setting, also known as a “vanished age” which would avoid any issues regarding historical anachronisms, as well as wasted time on long exposition and explanations. Howard’s technique, using Earth, but Earth at a mythical or sparsely documented time, is a strategy we can find in a plethora of contemporary films: including any and all mythological Greek and Roman storylines.

Robert E. Howard’s work was also well known for its relentless, gory violence, a trait that can be found in its second namesake film, Conan the Barbarian (2011), as well as Troy (2004), 300 (2006), and Gladiator (2000). In addition to exemplifying Howard’s blood-and-guts style, these films are evidence of Howard’s lasting effect and large influence on not only sword and sorcery (historical fiction and fantasy) but also “sword and sandal.” The Hollywood obsession with ancient empires, mystical powers and destined heroes all fell in line with Conan’s storyline, and would spawn a number of films such as Hercules (1983), Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Immortals (2011).

Apart from, but sharing common fantastical subjects with, the sword and sandals movement, a similar era of fantasy was being inspired, due large in part to authors Fritz Leiber and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Lieber and Burroughs both contributed to sword and sorcery, and fantasy fiction as a whole, despite the often science fiction veneer to their works. The fantastical elements of their work were generally blended with planetary romance, and/or some sort of alien world described in lush detail, such as a far distant future or planet. Burroughs worked with lost worlds in The Land That Time Forgot, John Carter of Mars, (both of which were adapted into films) and his Pellucidar series, which focuses on another world located in the center of Earth. Fritz Leiber also excelled in all fields of speculative fiction, from fantasy and horror to sci-fi, and specialized in alternative histories, such as in his Change War series. One of the most seminal pieces of sword and sorcery was actually Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, a series of short stories and novellas. Like Burroughs’ work, Gray Mouser was set on an an alien world, Nehwon.

The work of Leiber and Burroughs, besides inspiring the film offsprings of their own stories, can also be found within planet, magic and science mixed films such as Avatar or Star Wars. Their influence is also rampant within the dystopian trend, with releases such as Wizards, The Matrix, The Hunger Games, and Elysium – all of which successfully blend fantastical elements, a dash of science fiction, and alternative Earth based setups.

A final area of fantasy not directly traced back to the most credited author, J.R.R. Tolkien, is the “horrors in this world” sector, which has resulted in films such as Pan’s Labyrinth, any films based on Stephen King’s work, or even Ridley Scott’s films such as Alien and Prometheus. Much credit is owed to H.P. Lovecraft, the undisputed king of the cosmic horror story, or, paranormal and alien entities just around the corner, underneath your bed, or in your backyard. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness is one example of this – the plot revolves around a scholarly expedition to Antarctica, where ruins and a city built by ancient astronauts houses a multitude of horrors. Other works of Lovecraft’s that perpetuated this theme include The Dunwich Horror, The Colour Out of Space and The Shadow out of Time. In fact, Guillermo del Toro, director of Pan’s Labyrinth (about a young girl in 1944 Spain and her profoundly disturbing and fantastical journey to the Underworld) has plans to also direct a rendition of At the Mountains of Madness.

Genre enthusiasts love connecting the dots between cinematic tropes in contemporary filmmaking and their favorite books from days of yore, but it would perhaps interest the uninitiated to pick up a collection of Howard pulp stories, or an old Leiber paperback, and discover that, for everything that might feel dated and esoteric about the texts, there are many themes that are just as present in the pop cultural collective consciousness as ever before.


Brandon Engel is a blogger who works in Chicago. His chief interest include: horror literature; vintage animation; environmental law; and film. Visit his blog at for more up-to-date information.


  1. Burroughs was indeed a huge influence. Even more amazing when you consider that his work was written almost a hundred years ago. I'm sure even Tolkien was influenced by his work.
    Lovecraft's mythos and Dreamwords were such in depth and unique fantasy concepts. He's often overlooked because he wrote horror.

  2. I miss the old books and the old adventure movies in which it was all about the passion for the work not about sick personal passions.....


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