The filmmakers behind Horns had a wealth of material at their disposal. Author Joe Hill‘s novel easily could’ve been adapted into a miniseries, which is an idea even the film’s director, Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes), endorses. It’s not a gigantic book, but it tells more than one story, both tonally and structurally. Hill’s novel goes from comedy to horror in a matter of pages. In the movie, those transitions often happen in seconds.
Pulling off those tonal shifts is a challenge and they’re certainly not meant for every filmgoer. Joe Hill, on the other hand, wants to see more of those kinds of movies. He also wouldn’t mind less adaptations like The Prince of Tides, a film he highly recommends staying away from.
Hill had plenty more to say in our discussion with him at Comic-Con, including why having a sexual fetish beyond high heels is important.
When you saw the film for the first time, were you able to get into it or were you constantly thinking about your source material?
In a lot of ways, for me, the movie is more fun than the book. The book was hard to write. I’m really proud of it, but it’s a real tangle of emotion for me. You know, you hear musicians say really pretentious things sometimes, like, “I don’t know how people dance to that song. I was in so much emotional torment when I wrote it.” It’s, like, get over yourself, but it was a hard book to write. I can just look at the film.
How attached are you to the movie? Say, if you weren’t happy with it, would you be able to easily move forward?
Oh yeah. The book is its own thing. It doesn’t matter. If someone makes a film out of your book and it’s brilliant, that doesn’t make your book any better. All the words are exactly the same. If someone makes a movie out of one of your books and it’s a mess, they didn’t make it any worse. Adaptations are their own thing. Stories live on in a variety of ways, and it’s always been that way. Shakespeare adapted his plays from fables, and since then people have adapted his plays into films. A good story can mutate into different forms, and explore those forms in different ways. It’s great if you can get someone psyched and they runoff and do their own thing, whether it’s a straight adaptation or someone gets inspired to write their own book.
If the adaptation is bad, maybe some people will still check out the book, if they hear it’s better than the movie.
Maybe. I don’t know if a bad movie is ever really good for a book. Probably not. I think you hope the film will be decent. I love the novel The Prince of Tides. The movie? Woof. It’s terrible.
That’s probably the greatest downside of a bad adaptation: some people will associate the title with the movie, not the book.
That’s right. I probably think Prince of Tides has lost millions of potential readers because the film was terrible, which is really sad, because Pat Conroy is a brilliant writer and you hope people discover his work.
What advice did you give the filmmakers when it came to adapting Horns?
I think my main advice was it has to be free to be its own thing. When they adapt a book for screen, there are two ways it can suck. One, it can totally abandon the source material, which makes you ask: why even bother with an adaptation? If you wanted to tell your own story, just tell your own story. Secondly, it’s so slavishly faithful you end up with something dead on the screen, something that has no internal life. You hope the people making the film will keep the soul and heart of the story intact, but do something creative that’s their own thing. You have to strike a balance between getting the good stuff from the book and adding your own good stuff. I feel everyone involved with Horns did that and brought a tremendous amount of artistic freedom to it. They made something faithful, while also something that stands on its own.
What are some of your favorite adaptations?
There’s an M.R. James short story called “Casting the Runes” that was made into a terrific 50s-era horror film called Curse of the Demon. That’s a classic. Jaws is my favorite picture and, in some ways, it surpassed the source material, while staying true to some of the essential ideas. It’s such an astonishing work of adventure and horror. There’s also The Exorcist, which is an unusually great adaptation. That’s also a movie with the devil in it…
[Laughs] Maybe an inspiration for Horns?
[Laughs] I think that a lot of people who work in film do find the devil as a aspirational figure. They’re naturally dawn to celebrating the devil.
[Laughs] What figures are writers drawn to celebrating?
They certainly understand the idea of pointless eternal suffering. Any writer who’s been trapped inside all day writing the fifth draft of a scene that sucks can relate to eternal torment.
On those days you’re stuck on a scene that sucks, how do you get through it?
I don’t have too many days like that. I love to play the suffering writer card, but the truth is it’s a pretty great job. I’ve always liked to make things up. I like finding that tiny little sentence that goes off like a blasting cap setting off a bundle of TNT. I love to find a really dynamic sentence or paragraph. I’m very fortunate I do what I do.
The book takes a lot of tonal risks, which is difficult to do in a film. As an author, since you have so much time to focus on a certain tone, is it easier to make those jumps?
Fortunately novels are allowed to cover a lot of emotional range. It’s trickier these days in film, because people really want a film to be just one thing. They want a scary film to be scary. They want a romantic film to make people cry. They want a comedy to have them laughing so hard. The reason we have these one-note movies now is they’re easy to market and they know how to sell them. Sometimes they’re great movies. A film can be all about one thing. To give one great example, Steven Spielberg’s first real film, Duel, really does one thing brilliantly.
I grew up on the films of the 70s, like, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and William Friedkin. These were people who loved to mixup the meatloaf and the mashed potatoes. With those films you had comedy, adventure, romance, and horror in the same picture. You got all those things in Jaws.
I think it’s important to fight for films that will do more than one thing. When you only fixate on one thing, it’s like having a weird sexual fetish, you know? I wouldn’t putdown anyone’s sexual fetishes, but there’s probably room for a lot of exploration in sex. You kind of hope someone won’t only get stuck on high heels. If high heels is the only thing that gets you off, that’s a little disappointing, in a way. God love ya, but you hope you’ll experience more variety in life. I feel that way about film.
Horns opens in theaters October 31st.