Maslow and Conan

When I started thinking about writing this post I was torn between two topics: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and Conan the Barbarian not-the-story-but-the-movie. I’m not going to try and analyze the latter based off the former, as tempting as the ridiculousness of that is. I’m not, because I haven’t finished the movie. I was watching it as homework for a short I should be writing. I actually bought a DVD player (we had never needed one before as we don’t really consume film type media), and my dear First Reader and I cuddled on the couch (also a first, we tend to abandon the living room to the teens who take up every available square inch of flat space) and we turned on the flick. We expected cheesy, corny, all the tropes of B movies. What we didn’t expect was that about half-way through (Conan and his sidekick are about to find the temple of the two-headed snake) we’d get bored, really bored, and wander off to do something else. We’ll come back to it. It’s homework for me, after all. It’s just that, on that hierarchy of needs, it’s not even on the scale.

I could put up with the first part of the movie where the Ahnold bulks up to monster-size with no apparent source of protein or nourishment at all. I could see the whole barbarian gladiator scene. It was very slow, and awkward, but ok. The scene where he finds the magical sword? You know what I mean, when he bangs the sword that has been in a humid environment for who knows how long – although it can’t have been that long, as those skeletons were still articulated – and all the ‘rust’ falls off leaving it perfectly sharp and whole? That has to be magic. Can’t be real. And it’s odd that there, were he’d been chased by wolves, that the movie director/writer suddenly acknowledges that Conan has needs and gives him a sword. But I’m not trying to apply the comparison, because it’s a movie about a story that, well, shouldn’t have too much logic applied. The scene following… ok, let me pull back a little. We’re sitting in the living room. My son, who is 14, and not sheltered although I’ve done nothing to make him unsheltered if you know what I mean, is in the office. The office is broken off from the living room by a bookshelf, one that doesn’t have a solid backing, so you can see through the shelves past books, and over it. Anyway, we suddenly hear ‘oh my god, ew…’ and the boy sidles past with his hand up to shield his eyes while he makes a beeline for his room. I can’t blame him. That was more of the Ahnold than I was expecting to see, or wanting to. Plus, the, er, climax of that scene had me in giggles. When she turns into a demon at her critical moment… poor Conan.

In the end, I wanted sword-swinging blood and thunder and got sloow, painful character development and acutely silly sex scenes. I went into the movie with needs, and it met none of them. I love character development. I can enjoy a slow, satisfying build up with gorgeous set scenes in a movie. This one? Was missing on a cylinder or two. And not two in a balanced way. Which is fine. I’m pulling some literature off my shelves between the office and the living room to read – I have nearly a full set of H Rider Haggard and he never disappoints with campy barbaric action. I’ll finish watching Conan out of curiosity if nothing else. Is there another Conan movie that people like better?

To come back to my original thought for this post, because I’m fairly sure I’ve talked here before about Maslow, but I think it’s been a while…

This can be useful when plotting. The more advanced your character – and civilization – the further up the pyramid of needs his concerns are going to be. Where it gets interesting is when you knock the guy who’s at the top of the pyramid down a few rungs, or all the way to the bottom. I think this is behind the popularity of post-apocalyptic fiction. We like the idea of scrapping for our very survival, those of us who have spent our lives at the top, looking back with a wistful feeling for the ‘easier’ times. Those of us who have had to live without running water, electricity, security of body, etc? We know better. But it’s a civilized man’s fantasy, to become that basic barbarian again and hack and hew to protect himself and eventually those he loves.

If I sounded like I thought that last bit was a bad thing, you’d be incorrect in your interpretation. I love that my husband, my First Reader, who would stand between me and any danger, has that protective barbaric streak. It’s sexy, for one thing, because biology and I understand why, because security. He makes me feel safe, and as a woman, my needs are driven differently than a man’s needs are. Viva la difference! If we both wanted the same things in the same intensities, we might find ourselves in conflict. But as he needs me to be safe, if we were ever knocked back down to that first rung, he would sacrifice to fill my needs before he filled his own. As I would sacrifice to fill my children’s needs before I filled my own. Fortunately, this isn’t a debate I, the writer, need to have. I can stand here in my yoga pants (with pockets!) and Marvin the Martian tee shirt writing at my standing desk using internet to convey my thoughts to a bunch of other writers out there… and you see that tippy top of the pyramid? Creativity? Yeah, what I’m doing right now is all my needs are met. I have clothes, shelter, coffee, I could go back to bed after I wrote this up, I have two bathrooms with flush toilets (you appreciate those kinds of amenities after a few years of outhouses at sixty below zero. The first year we lived in Alaska, the outhouse didn’t even have a roof). Mmm. Yeah, i’m happy. So happy, I can afford to make a few characters suffer.

So that’s my thought for the week: have you considered your character’s needs? Have you deprived them sufficiently, and further, have you shown your readers how the character reacts to the deprivation?

(header image is from Wikimedia on one of my own nebula backgrounds. It was a png and needed a little something.)


  1. One of the issues with the script is it had to be ‘fixed’. Oliver Stone (yes that Oliver Stone) wrote the original – as a post apocalyptic movie with Conan riding a motorcycle.

    It also suffers, in my opinion, from the Carter/de Camp re-writes of the original Howard stories.

    1. I… might have enjoyed the take with Conan on a bike. There’s nothing wrong with taking a great story and wrenching it into another time like that. But it would have needed to be true to the original, and that I don’t know if he could have done.

  2. The 1982 Conan movie is not actually that good a representation of classic sword & sorcery, although there is plenty of furious action once you get a bit further along. You stopped before Conan even met the love-interest yet, or encountered the main villain again since he was a small child.

    If I remember right it opens with that Nietzsche quote “That which does not kill you, only makes you stronger.” And the movie is at some level a journey of what makes a man who he becomes.

    IMHO a much better example of movie S&S is “The Beastmaster,” if you can endure Marc Singer that long as there are some silly bits. Or for a real brutal example, the first “Deathstalker” movie.

    1. The Beastmaster was a horrible movie. It was supposed to be based on the Andrea Norton book but the script was so botched she made them remove her name from the credits.

      I watched it and it was a solid waste of time.

      As for the Conan move, there is some excellent music. The composer, Basil Poledouris, was fantastic. Ignore the movies, but the soundtracks for Starship Troopers, Robocop, The Hunt for Red October, Quigley Down Under, all had exceptional musical scores.

      I especially recommend KLENDATHU DROP from Starship troopers.

      He’s one of the most underrated composers of our time. Do an Amazon search on his name and you’ll be surprised at how many soundtracks he did.

      1. Having never read Norton’s original book and having no investment in “accuracy of adaption” and just accepting The Beastmaster movie on it’s own merits, I strongly disagree that it was “horrible.” It is a fast-paced, fun, action-packed movie with evil cultists and weird witches and a prophecy and a beefy hero and a beautiful princess and a barbarian horde. It hits pretty much every classic sword & sorcery trope.

        1. Any resemblance to Norton’s book of the same name is (mostly) coincidental. Norton’s id science fiction not sword and sorcery. No beautiful princess, no barbarian horde. Space ships, ray guns, extraterrestrials, whole thing takes place on another planet — you get the idea.

          You can enjoy each for what it is — don’t expect one to resemble the other.

      2. The soundtracks for “Phantasm” and “Escape from New York” were impressive enough that I bought them in CD…

    2. This movie was specific homework by an anthology editor. So yes, the music is good stuff – I’ll look for the soundtrack for writing to. And I’ll finish watching it! Sounds like we gave up too soon.

      1. IMAO the two best things about the movie are James Earl Jones (& when isn’t he?), & (in it’s own right) “The Riddle of Steel” (though Jones’ delivery makes it better).

  3. What might be called “Needs Hierarchy Mismatch” occurs a lot in stories in which civilized people are thrust suddenly into a barbaric situation.

    For example, in every disaster story there is the stereotypical Privileged Guy who won’t accept that things have changed and insists on acting like (and being treated as) a five star resort customer even when the private beach is knee-deep in man-eating mutant eels. Generally he is also the Guy Who Gets Eaten First So The Main Characters Can See How Serious The Situation Really Is.

    On the other end of the spectrum you have the Ends Justify Me Being Mean characters who wholeheartedly embrace barbarism at the first flickering of the lights. Those sorts make for nice secondary villains. Stephen King, in particular, relies heavily on characters who use the doctrine of Survive At All Costs as transparent rationalization for being bullies for the sake of bullying.

    There are two things to keep in mind when writing characters who quickly drop several levels on the Needs Pyramid.

    First, how accurately can they judge the real situation? Given the characters experiences and life backgrounds, what conclusions would they draw from the evidence? Can these characters tell the difference between a temporary interruption of services to a city and the collapse of the infrastructure? Will they be able to determine how widespread the situation has become without access to news reports? Will they know that a loss of electrical power can be survived for weeks, while a shutdown of running water will render a city uninhabitable within days?

    The other thing is being able to match the perceived level of crisis to an appropriate response. How bad do things need to get before one steals food? Takes over an abandoned property? Uses violence against other groups of survivors?

    The fact that different people will have different understandings of the situation and will also abandon their civilized restraints differently is what drives much of the conflict in such stories. The character who loudly insists on “waiting for the authorities to take charge” and the one who wants to break into the police station to arm the survivors are both going to be problems if the real situation lies between those extremes.

    I never felt that the writers of The Walking Dead, for example, were all on the same page on these points, which led to the “Soap Opera, Soap Opera, OMG Zombies!, More Soap Opera” kind of format that show had.

    1. I think that some of this applies whenever you take someone out of their comfort zone and into a strange situation. Foreign planet? Mundane experiencing supernatural society (or lack of) for the first time, Country girl in the city or vice versa.

      Whenever you are thrust out of your comfort zone you default to survival mode. “How do I do what I need to do to obtain a threshold of comfort again?” You can toy with that to bring your reader along into your world and into accepting the rules thereof. Now, sometimes it can be over done (White Gold Weilder), and sometimes I feel like they accepted the odd, too quickly, but I think that goes back to what you said, that different people will have different understandings, and different reactions to the situations. Whether its accidentally walking into the men’s room with it full of men, or Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

      On another subject: We loved Krull, All the old Conans, The Beastmaster (Beastmaster 2 wasn’t as good), John Carter of Mars, the Scorpion King, And all the other B-grade, wonderfully cheesy S&S movies, BECAUSE they are what they are; unapologetic fun, mind (and often eye) candy, where good wins and evil is defeated, at least for now.

  4. I think, to do real justice to Conan, you have to love the genre and the stories, and be willing to work inside them. I’m not sure most modern film people would be willing to do that, because of the challenge of the character and the situations (what?? No chick-in-chain-mail to save the day? No waif-fu? But, but…) They’d probably try to make Conan likeable and “warm-fuzzy” or something equally horrible.

    The movie… I like the second half, and the first ten minutes or so. And I heartily third the sound track recommendations, especially _Hunt for Red October_. Just be careful if you get the CD. A run of them had nasty flaws in them, as did a run of _Last of the Mohicans_.

    1. Robert Howard’s Conan stories are the Real Conan.

      Not saying that somebody can’t enjoy the Conan stories by other authors. 😉

      Of course, I agree that the movies haven’t done justice to Howard’s character.

      As always, YMMV. 😀

      1. Some of the original Conan stories were published in Weird Tales, which has a fairly complete set (at least up through the 1950s) at

        I haven’t compared the Conan stories yet, but as I’ve snarfed down the OCR texts for my local stash, I’ve noticed some stories were reprinted in two, three, or even four magazines over time, and the lengths can vary noticeably between them.

  5. Outhouse, check. 60 below, check. But no ROOF? That’s where I draw the line. Alaska must be full of barbarians!

    1. Nah, but you can watch the stars, and you never need to burn a match after you finish. Plus the reading light’s so much better! (Types she who used to spend summers in… Houston.)

    2. The trick to it was having a piece of styrofoam for a toilet seat, and bringing it in the cabin between uses! Also needed a broom in the outhouse to brush the snow off.

  6. The biggest use I find for the pyramid is going up it and asking how does the character’s purpose in this story fulfill the character’s needs on this level — and then how to does it undermine the character’s needs at this level.

    After all, slaying a dragon can preserve your life, save your loved ones, make you great among the society, and fit your dedication to being a hero (the woefully misnamed “self-actualization” stage). It also risks your life and the rest of your loved ones, having yourself regarded as stuck-up and a show-off, and of course revealing to you the limits of your heroism, even if it’s something so simple as learning that it’s a lot of work. (I had fun with some of these ideas in Dragonslayer)

  7. As long as you can crush your enemies, drive them before you, and hear the weeping and lamentations of their women, you will fill the pyramid. Just saying.

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