One of the questions fans of weird writer, H. P. Lovecraft, are always asking revolves around “faithful” cinematic adaptations of Lovecraft’s work. There are a few that ardent fans can get behind, such as the very literal adaptation of “Call of Cthulhu” by the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society––but, then again, it was a 90-minute, black and white, silent film adaptation meant to mimic the types of films available at the time the story was published, in the late twenties. But it is quite a literal re-telling of the famous story and, for all the nested narratives and low-budget aesthetic, it’s a pretty good time. On the whole, specific film adaptations of Lovecraft’s work are more up to a viewer’s personal taste than cinematic quality. It’s hard to balance what fans tend to want––a majority of which want a horror film––and what Lovecraft was trying to do––to create a sense of reflective, psychological terror.
The thesis Lovecraft stuck to over the course of his short but prolific career focused on the idea of cosmicism––that humanity is rather small and ineffective in its place within the universe––and, through his admiration for writers like Poe, Chambers, and Blackwood, tried to alternately find the horror and the terror in such a concept. The distinction between the two goals is that horror tries to frighten its audience either with monsters, action, gore, frightening scenarios, etc.; and terror is the sinking, hopeless, and helpless feeling generated by the content or theme of the story; that is, even if a story itself is not horrific, it can be terrifying. Though Lovecraft is known for his tentacled monsters, overwritten prose, and not-so-subtle racism, what he excels at––and why he’s remembered––is that there is really no better place to go for a story about cosmic insignificance that’ll warp your dreams even if you don’t find his story particularly effective.
Because Lovecraft is so focused on crafting an oeuvre that explores the realm of humanity’s inefficacy––and how humanity deals with that––not a lot happens in his stories and his characters aren’t that interesting. Lovecraft’s most famous monsters are, for lack of a better explanation, unavoidable natural disasters. They are natural creations of the universe but on a much larger scale than humanity can even comprehend. So, even though Cthulhu’s general image is of an overgrown destroyer of cities, Lovecraft makes it clear that it’s not out of malice, noting in “The Call of Cthulhu” that Cthulhu and his kind are “free and wild and beyond good and evil[.]” Everything Lovecraft writes serves this theme. In that sense, his stories are more akin to preaching than engaging fiction. Aside from a few stories––“The Dunwich Horror,” “Shadow Over Innsmouth,” and perhaps “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” being the notable exceptions were they to have the director, writer, and budget behind them––Lovecraft’s stories work best as prose and not as literal translations into other media. We know because it has been tried since the sixties.
Like a good sermon, however, his themes are infinitely applicable. This is why I would argue Lovecraft is not as culturally viable as fiction which is Lovecraftian. For what they do more than for what they are, Lovecraft’s ideas can excel in other forms other than written prose only when those creators take that philosophy and do something unique and engaging with it. Standouts include John Carpenter’s The Thing (yes, it is based on a novella by HPL contemporary, John W. Campbell, but the close connections between Campbell and HPL and of his novella “Who Goes There?” and “At the Mountains of Madness” makes for some interesting research), Ridley Scott’s Alien, Frank Darabont’s The Mist, and the Joss Whedon project of The Cabin in the Woods, but none are literal, nominal, nor ostensible adaptations of Lovecraft’s work; they are all imbued with his sense of cosmic indifference, though, something which makes movies that, while often horrifying, terrify their viewers long after the credits roll.
Another worthy addition to that list of fine Lovecraftian films is Gareth Edward’s Godzilla. The movie has been generally divisive, especially among Godzilla fans, of which I don’t necessarily consider myself a member. But I’m not arguing about whether it’s a good Godzilla movie––though I think it is. My Godzilla credentials are limited. The only legitimate Godzilla film I’ve seen is the redundant American release of the 1954 original. Despite the strange narrative approach, the social commentary of the movie is profound even sixty years later. I don’t think it hurts to say that rubber monsters slapping each other doesn’t interest me very much––there’s a reason why most Godzilla and Godzilla-like movies are fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000––and the original Godzilla is not that at all. The creature is a walking metaphor, a theme on stubby legs which represents man’s hubris at playing with science it didn’t truly understand. The creature is a lurking Japanese memory of the war, of foreign catastrophe and, perhaps, even guilt. Despite being a man in a rubber suit, the original Godzilla is a wholly appropriate post-war statement. One which breathes fire.
Going into Edward’s Godzilla, I secretly yearned for a Godzilla that meant something rather than just a two-hour wink-nudge to kaiju fans. Luckily, even though this Godzilla is drastically different in story, origin, and scope from its predecessors, it is a Godzilla for the modern age. More personally important, it makes Godzilla a Lovecraftian force of nature.
The ties between Godzilla and Cthulhu aren’t strained: a creature that sleeps at the bottom of the ocean, to surface indeterminately and cause wanton destruction is an apt description of both creatures. More than that, however (and where this Godzilla departs from its original incarnation), is that this creature is divorced from humanity completely. No longer is Godzilla a by-product of human ignorance; Godzilla belongs to a time before man, an earthly inhabitant arguably more native to the planet than humanity’s claim to it. More than that––bad writing aside––Godzilla and its ilk in the new movie are unpredictable and unstoppable forces of nature; to them, humanity means nothing. This Godzilla doesn’t pick sides because it is neither “good” nor “bad”; it is, as Lovecraft said, a “free and wild” creature which is “beyond good and evil” because it is not recognize humanity’s moral constructs––rules that we created to get a long with each other, not with nature.
Like any Great Old One, a viewer would wonder if Godzilla even really notices the humanity it stumbles over; perhaps it sees so much change between its periods of consciousness that it just assumes buildings and elevated train tracks are this era’s forested hillsides. That is what matters, though; we don’t know (though the movie does let us down by having Ken Watanabe correctly guess everything, which is dumb). And in that ignorance, in that incomprehensible modus operandi, Godzilla becomes undeniably Lovecraftian because not only does humanity not seem to matter to the creature, but the movie makes it clear that there is nothing humanity can do to make it matter. We throw militaries at it and nothing noticeable nor important happens. It walks through skyscrapers like a horse through grass. In the end, all humanity can do is hope it survives this unavoidable and inevitable cataclysmic natural disaster. Call it an action movie or monster movie, but––for all it could represent in the modern political strata––one thing Godzilla can safely be called is Lovecraftian because of the creature and all of its implications: Godzilla destroys, yes; that’s horrifying. What’s terrifying is that Godzilla waits.