Make the audience do your thinking.

[Warning! This post contains spoilers for H.P. Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness.]

Via Ross Douthat, an interesting piece in The New Yorker about filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, which among other things documents his efforts to adapt H.P. Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness for the big screen. One line that made me hopeful:

“[O]ne of the most disquieting aspects of Lovecraft’s novella is that the explorers are being pursued by monsters in a vast frozen void, and del Toro wanted to make the first horror movie on the scale of a David Lean production.”  

That is exactly the sort of style one should seek in adaptation of Madness, in my opinion, so I’m glad to hear that. On the other hand, del Toro also seems to take particular delight in making the monsters of the story especially horrifying and grotesque. This is a fine thing by itself, and there is a distinct art to creating compelling creatures that follows a long cinema tradition.

But, in my opinion, the monsters are not of primary importance in Madness, or in Lovecraft’s work generally. Lovecraft did describe his monsters in great detail, it’s true, but this was part and parcel of his literary style overall. The feeling of oppressive “cosmic horror” is what’s key–the precise nature of the monsters is not important.

For me, the truly terrifying part of Madness is contained in these lines, perhaps the most fascinating lines in all of Lovecraft’s work, in which the protagonist muses over the alien “Old Ones”, killed by their creations:

 “Scientists to the last—what had they done that we would not have done in their place? God, what intelligence and persistence! What a facing of the incredible, just as those carven kinsmen and forbears had faced things only a little less incredible! Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star spawn—whatever they had been, they were men!” [Emphasis mine]

All of the evocative setting, and all of Lovecraft’s meticulous descriptions, build to this moment, where sinister parallels are drawn between the fate of the bygone civilization and humanity in a disturbing, and (by Lovecraft standards) emotionally powerful revelation.

I disagree with the title of the New Yorker article. Personally, if I were adapting it, the Shoggoths–like whatever the assistant sees at the novel’s end–would be left entirely to the imagination of the viewer, though I would carry it a step further than even Lovecraft did, and make it so the Shoggoth was never even seen by the protagonist, only by his assistant. Though I can see, whether he would want to or not, that del Toro would never be able to sell this idea.

And, I mean to say, it’s del Toro’s film. I’ve never seen his other work, but I hear he’s good. He’s made more award-winning movies than I ever have. I’m not trying to attack him or say I don’t think his movie will be good. I’m saying he has a good idea to make the movie, but if he gets to do it, it needs to be done right if it is to avoid being the typical horror film.

What's your stake in this, cowboy?