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 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.
An 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.
Endless 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.