Before comic books came into popularity, many people would go to their local newsstands and pick up magazines that contained stories ranging from grim, gritty detective stories to “saucy” romantic trysts. Among these stories were also notable characters that can be seen as the precursor to the modern superhero.
While the day of the pulp magazines is gone, some of these characters have found new havens in other mediums. For the purpose of this article, we will focus on the characters that made the transition from print to screen.
The earliest film that featured a character from the pulp genre was “Tarzan of the Apes,” based on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The film actually adapts the first part of the novel, with the second part adapting in the sequel, “The Romance of Tarzan,” which has since been lost. The “Tarzan” character has appeared in over 88 movies, but this film is still regarded as the most faithful adaptation of the novel.
The next landmark film to feature a pulp fiction hero was “The Mark of Zorro” released in 1925 and starring Douglas Fairbanks. The success of the film prompted the publisher of the original novel, “The Curse of Capistrano” to have the author, Johnston McCulley, write more Zorro stories, despite having the main villain killed and the hero’s identity revealed at the end of the original story. This film also introduced Zorro’s iconic costume, which was absent from the original novel.
Before the days of television and Saturday morning cartoons, people would take a weekly trip to their local movie theater to watch news reels. Before they played the newsreel, and sometimes before main features, they would show episodes of what were called serials. Two characters that had such serials were Buck Rogers, and the competing Flash Gordon.
Universal Pictures produced serials using both characters, producing a total of 3 Flash Gordon serials from 1936 – 1940 with a Buck Rogers serial produced in 1938, reusing a lot of the sets from the second Flash Gordon serial, “Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars.”
Robert E. Howard is the only pulp author to have had the most characters adapted to film and other media. The first of his characters adapted was Conan, played in 1982 by Arnold Schwarzenegger for two films. A third film was planned but then retooled after Schwarzenegger refused to reprise his role. His third character, Solomon Kane, appeared in a film produced in 2010 that was met with positive results, people often comparing it to “Highlander”
At the time of this article, a character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs will be appearing in his first theatrical outing. That character is best known as John Carter of Mars, first appearing in 1912. You can find the review for “John Carter” here. (put link for review here)
Next week: An online exclusive look at the adaptation of television series to the silver screen.