Thursday, November 2, 2017

Flash Gordon

Flash Gordon, by Arthur Byron Cover
December, 1980  Jove Books

Flash Gordon came out when I was around six, but I didn’t see it until the following year, when it was on HBO. I watched it all the time, loving the visuals and the Darth Vader-esque henchman Klytus; it wasn’t as good as Star Wars, but there was something cool about it. I didn’t understand why all the adults said it was stupid.

About seven years ago the movie came out on Blu Ray and I bought it for the heck of it…it was the first time I’d seen it since 1981, or whenever it was on HBO. The first thing that occurred to me was that it was more Barbarella than Barbarella at times; I’m a huge fan of Barbarella, that mix of kinkiness, psychedelia, and intentional camp, and Flash Gordon is along the exact same lines. The part where Dr. Zarkov’s capsule is sucked into an astral whirlpool could actually be a scene from Barbarella, and I choked on my cheap wine when, late in the film, a bound Prince Barin (aka future 007 Timothy Dalton) delivered the deadpan line, “Tell me more of this Houdini.”

In the meantime I’d grown to love the original ‘30s-‘40s Flash Gordon comic strip by Alex Raymond (not to mention the excellent – and faithful – serial version). Raymond’s Flash Gordon is planetary romance as it should be done: on the level, but as escapist as could be, with clear-cut heroes and villains and a healthy heaping of kinkiness. In fact it’s this dark, perverted side of Flash Gordon, strong in the initial Raymond strips and the ’36 serial – as well as in this 1980 film – that makes me prefer it as an adult to Star Wars (which to tell the truth I can’t stand anymore).

The Acidemic review of the ’36 Flash Gordon serial (link above) inspired me to go back and revisit the ’80 film. I still like it, and I’d still rather watch it than Star Wars. I saw some online reviews that claimed this novelization was even more kinky than the film, giving the story even more of a spicy pulps vibe, with talk of group sex and drugs and various sadomasochistic stuff. So of course, I got the book posthaste. But folks, I hate to report that those reviews are a bit exagerrated, not to mention misleading. In fact, the novelization is more along the lines of a collaboration between say Ron Goulart and Howard Rheingold.

Sadly there was never a novelization of Barbarella, but if there had been, it likely would’ve been a lot like this. Arthur Byron Cover pens his novelization as if it were 1967 instead of 1980; his Flash Gordon has more in common with the psychedelic sixties than the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, filled with full-bore psychedelia and New Agey concepts. Meditation, drugs, trances, astral voyaging into the cosmos, references to Jefferson Airplane, the works. There’s even a leftist spin to the narrative as would be expected by one of those hippie-lit authors of the ‘60s; Flash’s opening section, for example, begins with an arbitrary diatribe against Vietnam, Nixon, etc.

This ‘60s vibe is particularly evident in Flash Gordon himself. In Raymond’s original strip, Flash was an elite human being, a professional athlete who was also part of the upper crust of society. This was slightly retained in the ’36 serial; in the just-as-entertaining 1979 animated feature, he was changed to a government agent. But in the ’80 film, all of that is removed and Flash is just a dumb jock. Not so in Cover’s novelization; Flash is a paragon of leftist virtue-signaling (even Dale Arden thinks of him as “such a liberal”), constantly pondering his own emotions and the emotions of others, even complaining about the “sexist, male-dominated societies” of the day.

In other words, Cover’s Flash Gordon is a total snowflake, folks, and in this day and age would probably have his own daytime talk show. Yet at the same time he’s a powerhouse NFL quarterback, New York Jets, and just won the SuperBowl for them. Cover provides inordinate background for each of the main characters, and we learn that Flash was born in Alabama, raised by his dad when his mom died in childbirth, and lost his southern accent from listening to the sports announcers for football games on the radio all the time. He is fully in tune with the cosmos, though, having attained a sort of “spiritual awareness” that makes him more than human – but less of an emphathetic character than the film version, or even the original Raymond version of the character (who was pretty much a cipher).

These inordinate backgrounds extend to Dale Arden and Dr. Hans Zarkov; the former we learn in some of that “spicy” stuff other reviewers have mentioned became involved, temporarily, with group sex due to an overly-demanding boyfriend. But there’s no detail (indeed, there’s no sex at all in the book), and Dale in fact comes off as pretty unlikable in the novel. Easily triggering the sensitive types of today, the Dale Arden of Raymond’s strip was a classic damsel in distress, always in need of Flash to save her. Cover tries to invest his Dale with more of a “city girl” sort of gumption, but mostly this extends to her whoring past. As it is, Dale is still a damsel in distress, and spends the majority of the tale waiting for Flash (or some other man) to save her.

Whereas the film, in my view, capably mixes the action with the comedy, the novel unfortunately falls flat in the attempt. For Cover has fallen prey to one of the biggest sins, in my book – the characters themselves don’t take anything seriously. Despite that the Earth is about to be destroyed by the machinations of Ming the Merciless, and despite that our heroes are plunged into one desperate situation after the next, they still find the oppurtunity to trade knowing banter, mocking everything. 

This is the sort of stuff the reader endures throughout:

“We’ve all been under a strain,” said Dale. 

“Absolutely,” said Flash. “Unexplained phenomena invariably lend life a surreal texture that makes us all subject to Sartre’s nausea.” 

“I couldn’t have put that better myself,” said Zarkov.

Or like when Dale is certain she’s about to be taken advantage of by whatever aliens they encounter, upon their arrival on Mongo – a certainy, by the way, borne from her knowledge of “spicy pulps:”

“In other words, Dale, [Zarkov is] saying the universe is too sophisticated a place for you to have to worry about being taken against your will,” said Flash. “The chances are your adventures will be much more exotic.” 

“Absolutely,” said Zarkov. “Let’s forget these hoary cliches of spicy pulp fiction and come to grips with the sheer inventiveness of reality, you know, like a genuine Chekhovian character.”

Mind you, this is after the trio have taken a trip through a sort of black hole and crash-landed on an alien planet, where they stand and watch, trading such dialog, as a platoon of alien soldiers march toward them. This sort of thing occurs throughout the novel, and is intended as “knowing” comedy. You can judge for yourself how funny it actually is.

Granted, all this might be in the original Lorenzo Semple, Jr. script, but the filmmakers wisely didn’t translate it to the screen. The movie I think can still be enjoyed as straight but fun adventure as well as a knowing parody – I should know, as I experienced it both ways, the former as a kid and the latter as a (drunk) adult. The novel though fails in the attempt; its mixture of high-brow “literature” and low-brow self-mockery (not to mention annoyingly-frequent pop culture references like Frank Frazetta, the Blue Meanies, Captain America, Fellini, etc – even Erica Jong’s Fear Of Flying) comes off as unwieldy on the page.

And while Flash may be a jock in the film, in the novelization he is as distant to the reader as some Timothy Learyian concept of a psychedelic demigod, so ascended from mundane, worldly concerns that the reader cannot connect with him. I mean every other page we’re reading how Flash “immers[es] his soul into his corporeal self” and the like. Thus the action scenes, what few there are, suffer – and suffer drastically. Zarkov and Dale themselves fail to come much to life; in fact, Zarkov and Flash are so similar in the novel that I had a hard time telling them apart, something you could never say about the original comic strip or the ’36 serial, not to mention the 1980 film itself.

The narrative is basically identical to the film; only in the incidentals does it differ, usually in backgrounds for various characters and, as mentioned, dialog. About the only “new” thing is we learn that Flash saw Dale before he boarded the doomed airplane with her, something one could figure from the film, anyway, given a line of dialog from Flash about seeing her before. But here we learn that Flash has come out to the woods to find “spiritual awareness” after his SuperBowl victory, and Dale, an independent travel agent, has come here to escape that group-sexing boyfriend…though we learn in incidental dialog that in the meantime she’s done a bunch of country boys while staying here. As I say, Dale’s a bit of a whore in the book.

Cover throws his full literary powers into the rampant description that takes up much of the narrative, bringing to life Mongo and its colorful inhabitants (the film is a damn riot of color, and looks phenomenal when compared to the washed-out looking movies of today), yet for all that I had a hard time forming mental pictures from his descriptions. He does however make Ming’s wanton daughter Aura come off as suitably sexy – and here in the novel it’s not only implied that Aura and Ming have a sexual relationship (one that begins, usually, with Ming whipping her before leading on to the main event), but also that Aura gets off on sodomy.

Otherwise, the novel doesn’t offer much new – just as I say in the incidentals. Like Flash’s awesome “Flash” shirt was given to him by an anonymous female fan, and he wears it in the hopes that she’ll see him in it. Or that Vader-esque Klytus recently went through some sort of transformation which robbed him of his soul, but gave him all sorts of cybernetic powers. Or that Ming the Merciless has no concept of good or evil but is so in tune with the cosmos that he can bend it to his will when meditating. Oh, and we also learn that Dale’s had her tubes tied – this after Flash delivers to her the line “We’ll tell our kids someday,” a line that made it into the film, but here Dale wonders, “Should I tell him about my operation?”

I don’t know…on the whole I’d have to say Cover’s novelization of Flash Gordon really annoyed me, with its pedantic, sanctimonious, ultra-snowflake of a protagonist, and the New Agey vibe didn’t mesh well with the “knowing” in-jokery. Indeed, much of the dialog falls flat throughout. And given the superheroic nature of the protagonsts, not to mention the sad fact that they themselves don’t take anything seriously, the novel fails to make much of an impression. Unlike the film, which certainly does.


Steven Johnson said...

Concur re the film: no movie with Brian Blessed in it can fail to be epic! I may have to rewatch it as an adult myself ...

pete doree said...

Couldn't agree more about the film, and I'll always give it a go when it pops up on TV. For some reason, the scene early on where Zarkov is trying to force his cowardly assistant into the rocket ship always has me in stitches ( 'Get your toothbrush and whatever!' )
But that book either sounds like a work of demented genius, or a complete and utter nightmare.
In the days before movies on tap, we always bought the novelization, so I can only imagine what little me would've thought of this one - if anything has to be as light as a souffle, it's Flash Gordon!

allan said...

"Unexplained phenomena invariably lend life a surreal texture that makes us all subject to Sartre's nausea."

Shades of Rosenberger!

Maxwell said...

Is there any reason somebody couldn't write a novelization of Barbarella now? Or would that just be a pointless leap into a legal quagmire?

Marty McKee said...

Good grief, this book sounds terrible. The movie is great though, and the Filmation animated series is pretty darn impressive too.

Karlos N said...

Hi Joe. I was lucky enough to meet the might Brian Blessed last year. No shocks to hear he's exactly how you would expect - loud, funny, and bursting with the greatest anecdotes anyone ever told.

I asked him about Flash Gordon (much to the audience's dismay - why? - and his utter delight - and he told me something that was not in his autobiography (which is well worth a read, btw!)

He said that, just before filming, he rang Buster Crabbe and asked him if he wanted to cameo as the "man who loads the luggage on the plane at the beginning of the film".

Crabbe was delighted and accepted. Blessed thought it was just a formality to run it past Dino De Laurentiis, but was shocked when he said no as "Crabbe is old, we are making the new!" - and so Blessed had to tell Crabbe no.

Blessed then told the audience what he really thought of De Laurentiis, which is to say, nothing like how he describes him in his book!

Blessed was really open and honest, and my final question about FG saw him talking non-stop for almost 30 minutes about it and how much he loves the film and his role in it.

Track down the UK DVD from a few years ago - Blessed's commentary is amazing!

Joe Kenney said...

Karlos, thanks a lot for your comment! That's very funny. I imagine Brian Blessed must be a character. In addition to Flash Gordon he tore up the screen in I, Claudius, which I'm sure you've also seen. I bet that guy has tons of ribald stories. Enjoyed that about Buster Crabbe...too bad De Laurentis buzzkilled it. Sounds like that's all De Laurentis ever did; supposedly John Milius wanted to bring Frank Frazetta on the Conan the Barbarian shoot as an advisor or something, but D.L. refused...judging from that "Painting with Fire" doc about Frazetta, my theory is it might've been because Frazetta refused to sell D.L. one of his paintings. Maybe D.L. held a grudge. Anyway I wish I had that Blessed commentary, but it doesn't appear to have been included on the Blu Ray. Cool he remembered Buster Crabbe. That guy is so forgotten today that I read he started a pool-building company in the '80s or something, Buster Crabbe Pools or something, and some reporter discovered that the people who now work there had never even heard of Buster Crabbe and didn't know he was an actor, etc. Anyway, thanks again for sharing that story.