As well as illustrating At the Mountains of Madness I wrote the adaptation and I wanted to write a word or two about that process. Warning: may contain spoilers… but only very, very minor ones.
Lovecraft wrote in a letter to Fritz Leiber in November 1936 (a letter published in an excellent book called Fritz Leiber and H.P. Lovecraft: Writers of the Dark, edited by Ben J.S. Szumskyj and S.T. Joshi, which I heartedly recommend because it also contains Fritz Leiber’s ‘To Arkham and the Stars’ which is just such a brilliant story – but I digress):
“Characterisation is undeniably a woefully weak point with me, and I am usually so intent on depicting or suggesting phenomena that I lack the patience to develop and motivate the human figures (of no interest to me except as indices of the phenomena) as I should in order to make the total picture convincing. The weakness is also aggravated by the dream-attitude which habitually underlies my attempts to crytsallise moods a cosmic adumbrations. The way I think of strange phenomena and outside intrusions is as a dreamer helplessly and passively watching a panorama flit past him, or floating disconnectedly through a series of incredible pictures. Everything connected with motive and action is absent – a mad universe obeys strang new laws, and the spectator has no wish but to watch, and no acts save to stare. If the panorama or pictures happen to contain people, what they do or why they do it remains shrouded in mystery – this mystery contributing to the dream-concept part of its essential force.”
A book like At the Mountains of Madness isn’t a straightforward book to adapt but therein lies the enjoyment of adapting. Firstly you have its structure. The story itself is reasonably linear but there are points where Lovecraft jumps forward in time and back again. Then there’s no dialogue – it’s pretty much all narration – even Lake’s report back to the camp. But certainly no scenes of exchange although exchange is implied in the narrative in some parts. Adaptation in this instance is like a jigsaw puzzle and requires a little detective work.
Now, regarding the process of adaptation itself; when you read a story aloud, you’re already adapting because the minute you arrive at a section of dialogue you attribute voices to each character to differentiate them from one another. A section of description read aloud may get greater emphasis in a reading because there will be elements that really stand out to the reader – the individual. The very process of picturing something written is the process of making it your own.
I really needed to create dialogue where there was none. It became an exercise in breaking down the narrative and giving characters lines written by Lovecraft but modified to accommodate dialect (which brings us back to that primary stage of adaptation, of lending voices to characters so you can tell them apart). Add to that a character design and you’re already part way to fleshing out a character that was otherwise just a name or a point of reference in the original text.
The whole process begins months before I sit down and put pen to paper. First things first: I absorbed the book. I got an audio recording of it, put it on my iPod and would just play it non stop for the first month or two (I cannot accurately recall but I was working on Holmes at the time). I’d read the story over and over again, I’d read a lot of essays and letters and all the stories just to get a better understanding of who Lovecraft was, why he wrote the things he wrote and where he was going with it all.
I even started to dream about it – weird dreams of falling (not sinking) to the bottom of the ocean and seeing these upside mountains that turned out to be the undersides of icebergs! Not too hard to figure out what that was all about! But anyway – I’d then start the process of identifying voices in the book (hearing things that weren’t there! Oh dear!). Thinking things like “Oh, Pabodie would say that”. etc.
Now to clearly illustrate the process here’s a section written by Lovecraft:
“The falling temperature bothered me considerably after our long voyage through the tropics, but I tried to brace up for the worse rigours to come.”
Now, that’s the narrator, William Dyer, speaking. And what will follow is my treatment of that in the script – Lake and Pabodie each have introductory captions:
(Lake is pleasantly surprised to see Dyer on his feet.)
Professor Lake of the biology department.
Good to see you’re on your feet, William.
First the tropics and now this bitter cold.
(Pabodie places a firm hand on Dyer’s shoulder and smiles.)
Professor Pabodie of the engineering department.
Brace up. There are worse rigors to come.
So from that brief line in the book regarding the weather I managed to get a scene that really served to introduce Professor Lake and Professor Pabodie.
We get to the line “brace up” from the original text and it was one of the first voices I heard. That line belonged to Pabodie; The pragmatist; The inventor who’d prepared everything for this journey south. He’d made the drilling equipment, prepped the fuel in the planes. He’d thought of everything. So he’d naturally tell someone to prepare themselves. What I really like about that line is in light of what is to come, Pabodie has seriously underestimated the situation! It found it to be a nice little bit of (almost darkly humorous) foreshadowing on Lovecraft’s part. So the line from the book survives and not just that but a character who’d most likely say it gets to speak those lines and we get a taste of what Pabodie is all about. Likewise Lake, I saw the rivalry between him and Dyer to be almost like the rivalry of two brothers. Dyer’s insistence to stick to the plan and Lake’s desire to change those plans – this dichotomy provided the drama and suddenly “what they do or why they do it” as Lovecraft put it became less of a mystery. A later line in the book would provide Lake’s motivation:
“We might have known from the first that human curiosity is undying, and that the results we announced would be enough to spur others ahead on the same age-long pursuit of the unknown.”
And it’s this age-long pursuit of the unknown that really drives Lake to take the expedition west, the soapstone fragments he discovers being all the carrot he needs. Later on in the adaptation, I employed the same reason to explain why Dyer picks up where Lake had abruptly left off. And so Dyer is powerfully motivated to explore the mountains by the same dogged “age-long pursuit of the unknown” that Lake prescribes to early on in the book.
The author’s first signing will be at Leeds’ Thought Bubble Festival on Saturday 20th November, when he’ll take requests to draw any monster from Lovecraft’s Necronomicon on the title page at no extra cost.
Gosh! Comics also have a run of limited edition bookplate edition available, while stocks last.