There And Back Again: Fantasy Cinema and Literary Legacy

Fantasy cinema, taking the themes and ideas of fantasy literature and putting them up on the big screen, is an increasingly powerful force in cinema. Like superhero films, this genre has been driven by recent successful adaptations, starting with The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). And just as J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (1954) has shaped fantasy literature, so Peter Jackson’s adaptation of that epic has shaped fantasy cinema.

But is fantasy cinema making the same mistakes as fantasy literature?

fantasy cinema the lord of the ringsThe Road Goes Ever On, And On, And On, And On, And…

Fantasy literature did not start with Tolkien and his drinking buddy C. S. Lewis. Fantasy was as important as science fiction to the action adventure pulps that dominated early paperback publishing. Barbarian swordsmen quested across deserts while knights battled witches and dragons.

But it was the success of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings that gave prominence and greater credibility to the genre. With its focus on world building and its roots in mythology and history, the series engaged the popular imagination like nothing before it.

As with any popular work of literature, from Hamlet to Fifty Shades of Grey, success led to imitation and set genre patterns. Tolkien inspired a host of fantasy writers, many of whom followed his approach. This meant following the deep structures of the professor, the world building and the mythological emphasis. But it also meant copying shallower features – the elves, the dwarves, and the tendency towards epic series.

Browse the fantasy department of any bookstore and you’ll see the results – shelves full of long, epic series, many of them dealing in similar themes of questing and sword-wielding heroism. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it is also the greatest guarantee that we will see more of the same.

fantasy cinema the hobbitAn Entirely Expected Journey

Jackson’s big screen adaptation of The Lord of the Rings was as grand and ground-breaking as the books themselves. It combined cutting edge special effects with the visual flare Jackson had shown in early low budget works such as Bad Taste (1987). The results were spectacular both aesthetically and in their box office returns.

And so the films, just like the books, spawned imitators. And again, these imitations often missed the point, focusing on setting up series based on existing fantasy novels, rather than on the combination of innovation and thematic engagement with the source text that made Jackson’s films so successful. Results ranged from the reasonably enjoyable Chronicles of Narnia films (2005 onwards) to the disappointing adaptation of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising (2007). Just taking an existing fantasy and turning it into a series was not enough.

Even Jackson now seems to be making the same mistake. His Hobbit films (2012 onwards) attempt to recapture the tone and length of The Lord of the Rings, rather than taking what worked in the book and applying modern tools to create something special from it.

fantasy cinema pans labyrinthEndless Worlds To Build

If the failures of imagination in fantasy cinema reflect those in fantasy literature, so too do the reasons for hope.

While the shelves of bookstores may be crowded with derivative fantasy series, they also contain works of innovation that show the leaps of imagination only fantasy can provide. Beautifully written and unusual novels by authors such as China Miéville, Guy Gavriel Kay and Mary Robinette Kowal demonstrate how much more fantasy can achieve.

So too in the cinema, films such as Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and In Your Eyes (2014) show that fantasy can be a genre filled with innovation in style, technique and content, that can say something new, that can fill us with passion.

Fantasy cinema is following a similar path to its literary forebear. That may mean some failures, repetitions and disappointments, but it also means hope. All we need do is set aside the imitators and look for what is new and truly great.


Andrew is a freelance writer based in Stockport, England, where the grey skies provide a good motive to stay inside at the word processor. He’s had over forty stories published in places such as Daily Science Fiction, Wily Writers and Ann VanderMeer’s Steampunk anthologies. He blogs about books, film, TV and writing at

7 thoughts on “There And Back Again: Fantasy Cinema and Literary Legacy

  1. Pingback: The Dark Tower: The Drawing of the Three by Stephen King | Andrew Knighton writes

  2. My question is would you consider the old, classic fiction like “Frankenstein,” E. A. Poe, and H. G. Wells fantasy, albeit a scientific environment for it? If so, it opens up many avenues for what fantasy could be.

    • Poe undoubtedly wrote fantasy, and I think you can make arguments for Frankenstein as either science fiction or fantasy. And of course there are other classics as well as modern works that take the genre in very different directions. You’re right, there are so many more directions this could go in, and maybe if we’re lucky we’ll see more of them on the screen one day.

  3. Really interesting piece, Andrew! You’re right, as usual. The funny thing is, there’s a wealth of great fantasy material out there to make movies of. Why it’s not all tapped is beyond me, but perhaps that’s a good thing.

    • You’re absolutely right, but I suspect that Hollywood has developed a very specific idea of what fantasy should be on screen, and they’re mostly picking things that fit that mould.

  4. My comments here will be similar to those on your other recent post Andrew. Adapting such classics as LOTR and The Hobbit may be suitable for the young generation who never intend to read the books. For those of us who read them as children, it is the imagination that makes them work, and personally, I do not need to see it realised.
    However, I do feel very differently about excellent work such as ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, as these are written specifically as film projects.
    As always, and interesting and insightful article.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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