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Red Sonja Throws Open The Gates For Television's Next Great Fantasy Universe

Grab your swords and a pint of mead, as Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age is returning to the screen. As of 2023, a new "Red Sonja" movie has already begun filming, with Matilda Lutz set to play the "She-Devil with a Sword." On top of that, Netflix reportedly plans on producing a live-action "Conan the Barbarian" series at some point. 

While both characters are historically linked thanks to the original "Red Sonja" and "Conan the Adventurer," it's currently unknown if Sonja and Conan will feature in each other's upcoming adaptations. That said, the "Red Sonja" movie is a good start for getting the ball rolling and creating an appetite for more Howard adaptations — reigniting interest in a fantasy universe that would, frankly, work much better on the small screen, with all the benefits that serialized storytelling has to offer.

Some of Howard's literary works have been adapted as movies and series in the past, but this was long before "Game of Thrones" paved the way for prestigious fantasy television universes. Overall, "Conan the Cimmerian," "Solomon Kane," "Kull the Conqueror," and "Red Sonja" haven't fared well on the screen, but that could all change now that television has caught up with the types of stories that Howard helped pioneer all those years ago. 

Previous Robert E. Howard adaptations are missed opportunities

The Arnold Schwarzenegger-led "Conan the Barbarian" and its sequel, "Conan the Destroyer," are the most well-known adaptations of Robert E. Howard's beloved pulps. The first film remains the gold standard of sword-and-sorcery epics, while the sequel is lots of silly fun. Still, the saga feels incomplete due to the fact the long-gestating "King Conan" sequel seems unlikely at this point. The cartoons ("Conan the Adventurer," "Conan and the Young Warriors") and live-action TV series ("Conan the Adventurer") from the 90s aren't terrible by any means, but real "Conan" adaptations need bloodshed and barbarity. 2011's "Conan the Barbarian" certainly brings the ruckus, but it's also ridden with action movie cliches.

Elsewhere, the original "Red Sonja" was critically lambasted, though it's quite fun as a slice of camp 80s shlock. "Solomon Kane" is a criminally underrated action-horror treat that's gained a cult fan base throughout the years, but where was that audience when the film needed to make an impact at the box office? Meanwhile, "Kull the Conqueror" is the worst casualty of Hollywood botching Howard's stories. It was originally envisioned as a third "Conan" movie until Arnold Schwarzenegger passed on the role, so they repurposed the script and cast Kevin Sorbo as the titular Atlantean warrior. The final product is a dull, uninspired tragedy.

The good news, though, is that Hollywood loves recycling things, so it's never too late to rectify old mistakes. Furthermore, the current pop culture landscape will appreciate Howard's brand of storytelling.

Grimdark is hot right now, and the Hyborian Age is very grimdark

Robert E. Howard is the godfather of grimdark, which is a form of fantasy that's known for its morally grey characters, hyperrealistic worlds, and brutal violence. Howard's work is grounded in its approach to fantastical storytelling, and his heroes are certainly flawed. Conan has his own ethical code, but he's selfishly driven and prone to questionable behavior. For example, "Rogues in the House" sees him slaughter a priest and accept a random assassination mission just to get out of jail. Conan's generally happy to engage in killing for money or power, but he's a product of ruthless times. Kull adopts a similar approach to life, but that's understandable considering that he was enslaved by pirates for a while.

Solomon Kane isn't civilized, either. He's an English Puritan who believes that he's acting on the will of God, but he's really a functioning, sword-wielding, pistol-shooting madman. Kane is easily Howard's most complex protagonist and a TV series is the best on-screen outlet for exploring the intricacies of his warped psyche, as well as for chronicling his myriad of monster-hunting exploits. The 2009 "Solomon Kane" film is a solid portrayal of the character as a flawed fella, but it doesn't cover enough ground.  

Shows like "Game of Thrones," "House of the Dragon," and "The Witcher" have brought grimdark to the television masses. So, right now is the perfect time to dig into the complex grey areas of Howard's anti-heroes — and they're strong enough to carry their own adventures for years to come.

Television is the best medium for Robert E. Howard adaptations

Robert E. Howard's heroes are all nomadic travelers who explore hidden tombs, dense jungles, lost cities, unexplored lands, and the high seas. During their travels, these adventurers discover new cultures and battle strange monsters, sorcerers, spirits, demons, wild animals, warriors, and more. Some of the characters, such as Kull and Conan, even go on to attain great power and lead revolutions. Basically, Howard's stories lend themselves to a simple episodic format, but there's enough material to create long-term overarching storylines with strong character arcs. 

It's rare for television franchises to abandon their tried-and-tested formulas. They require each show to be different to some degree, but they follow similar blueprints. Fortunately, Howard's individual series establish their own identities while adhering to familiar beats. Kull's tales take place during the Thurian Age, which predates the Hyborian era by thousands of years and is heavily inspired by Atlantean mythology. Solomon Kane's yarns are set in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and they bring more Gothic horror sensibilities to the table.

Some of Howard's lesser-known stories deserve some love, too. For example, "Bran Bak Morn" takes place during the Roman invasion of Britain and is connected to H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulu Mythos. In theory, a Howard television universe could produce more spin-offs than "Yellowstone."

Is a Robert E. Howard television universe even possible?

Unfortunately, no single entity has secured the film and television rights to the entire Robert E. Howard universe yet. As of this writing, the "Red Sonja" IP is owned by Red Sonja, LLC, and Funcom controls "Conan the Barbarian" and other Howard properties. Millennium Films currently has the film rights to "Red Sonja," and Netflix has an exclusive option to adapt "Conan" projects. For this dream of a post-"Red Sonja" television universe to come to fruition, these parties would need to weed through some complex legal nonsense and come to an agreement. 

Fortunately, "Conan the Cimmerian," "Solomon Kane," and Howard's other fantasy series aren't beholden to each other. It's implied that they're all set in the same universe, but it's never confirmed. It isn't imperative for all future adaptations to be part of the same franchise.

But wouldn't it be more fun if they were? Furthermore, there are probably fun ways to bolster the shared universe concept without compromising each series standalone qualities. Of course, there's no reason why the rights holders can't come to an understanding that benefits every party involved. If Disney and Sony Pictures can partner up for multi-year content licensing agreements, anything is possible.