The height of '80s low-budget sword-and-sorcery camp, The Beastmaster holds a unique place in being one of the worst films I've ever seen as an adult while also being one of the best I had seen as a small child. Despite having grown up on the 1982 flick, it was only recently, during a late-night internet wandering, that I discovered it was based on a series of books.
The original story, as well as its sequel Lord of Thunder, was written by Alice Norton using the pen name Andre Norton—under the assumption that having a feminine-sounding name would hurt her career. A retired librarian and former bookstore owner, Norton began her writing career about a decade before the book was released and was in her late sixties by the time the movie was brought into production. She notoriously disagreed with the direction the screenwriters took.
The book The Beast Master is a sci-fi epic within the framing of a classic Western. The main character, a soldier named Hosteen Storm, travels with a crew to a planet known as Arzor. While he and his team are officially on Arzor to herd the livestock on the planet, Hosteen often seems distracted, secluding himself in the style of a classic Western loner hero. Although Hosteen slowly adapts to the planet, he continues to disguise his real purpose there. He encounters hostility from both the humans and the aliens on the planet—specifically from a man named Bister, who hates all people from Earth.
Traveling across the planet with a few mutated, genetically altered animals, with whom he communicates using a very specific form of telepathy, we ultimately discover Hosteen is on a mission of revenge against the man Quade, who he believes to have murdered his father years ago. By the time we learn of this, Quade has become an integral part of Hosteen's life on Arzor and they have formed a relationship as uneasy allies, testing Hosteen's belief in his quest for revenge. Eventually, Quade saves Hosteen's life in a fight-to-the-death with an enraged Bister, and Hosteen realizes he has to choose between vengeance and honor.
The first book sets up an ongoing series which was only partially delivered on by Norton herself. She penned the sequel, but another writer followed her loose notes to release further sequels years later after the release of the film. It's a pretty decent light read, standard of other best-selling Westerns and sci-fi novels of the time, but still well-written with an intriguing main character.
That was the story of The Beast Master, and then 1982 happened—bringing us a film version in which almost none of the story remained intact. Love it or hate it, there will be no mistaking the plot of this book and the plot of the film as having anything more than a passing resemblance to one another. In fact, The Beastmaster doesn't so much even have a plot as it has kind of an overlying theme. The main character is no longer Navajo, and the entirety of the book's commentary on that aspect is completely erased from the film.
Instead, we have an incredibly blonde guy named Dar in place of Hosteen, played by a very brawny Marc Singer. Usually best known for his role as Dar, Singer has appeared in countless television series, up to and including an appearance on The CW's Arrow in 2015. Also featured is his love interest Kiri as played by Tanya Roberts, better known to contemporary audiences for her role as Midge on That 70s Show. Fun fact: Kiri was very nearly played by Demi Moore, and the part of high priest Maax was specifically written for notorious real-life maniac Klaus Kinski—who allegedly withdrew over a pay dispute. (I believe in my heart that there is a dimension where that version of this film exists.)
The book is generally going to be considered better in just about every way by every person to ever compare the two, but the movie has one thing the book does not: a wilding Rip Torn with a beak glued to his face trying to throw babies into firepits like it's his job.
In 1993, an executive for TNT stated that The Beastmaster was second only to Gone With the Wind as far as popularity among their viewers. Despite the fact that it is considered pretty much universally to be a bad film, it isn't necessarily worse than other science fiction or fantasy movies of the time. It even developed enough of a following to spawn two sequels and an ongoing series that ran for three seasons.
While the book is unquestionably better, it's difficult to view the films as having much to do with the novels, particularly when the original writer of the books wanted nothing to do with them. It might not be fine cinema, but I admit that I watched the hell out of The Beastmaster as a kid, so I can't begrudge it for its flaws too harshly. In other words: maybe The Beastmaster was neither good or bad; it simply was.
If I were Andre Norton, though? I'd be busy haunting everyone involved in the film to this very day.