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15 Dec, 2021 23:06

The sad state of on-screen fantasy, 20 years after ‘The Lord of the Rings’

The sad state of on-screen fantasy, 20 years after ‘The Lord of the Rings’

In December 2001, 20 years ago this month, ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’ was released in theaters. Since then, attempts to adapt and modernize the genre have mostly ended in disaster.

The first film in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary trilogy was a massive success, both commercially and critically, and the next two films – ‘The Two Towers’ (2002) and ‘The Return of the King’ (2003) – were just as well-received, with RotK receiving Academy Award nominations in 11 categories and winning all of them, including Best Picture. Taken together, the three films are perhaps the best consecutive nine hours, 18 minutes (11:26, if you’re watching the extended editions) of cinematic narrative ever put on screen.

For the fantasy genre, it’s been all downhill from there.

Before 2000, neither fantasy films nor superhero movies were famous for quality. While some efforts had gained footholds in pop culture consciousness – Christopher Reeve’s ‘Superman’, Michael Keaton’s ‘Batman’, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ‘Conan’ – both genres were fairly regarded as chock-full of schlock. At the turn of the millennium, that changed in a big way. Yes, 2000’s bafflingly bad ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ stumbled, but LotR soon showed the world the enormous potential of elves, dwarves, and dragons, when they’re put to film with modern technology, care for source material, and creative excellence across the board. Was a golden age of fantasy films about to begin?

Superheroes are fine

At the same time, ‘X-Men’ (2000), ‘Spider-Man’ (2002), and ‘Batman Begins’ (2005) were crashing through the door that ‘Blade’ (1998) had managed to crack open. These movies demonstrated what a skilled and earnest director with a budget behind him could accomplish with these iconic comic-book characters, and although the third film in each respective series is largely seen as a bit of a bust, those initial outings remain much loved, and the second films (‘X-Men 2’, ‘Spider-Man 2’, ‘The Dark Knight’) are still regarded as some of the best in the genre. Plenty of super-powered stinkers were released as well, of course, but the success of those films paved the way for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, beginning with ‘Iron Man’, whose 23-film ‘Infinity Saga’ is a truly historic long-form film narrative that will likely never be rivaled, either in storytelling scope or in studio profit.

(Of course, the MCU remains a going concern even after ‘Thanos’, but as the current creative direction seems to be a three-pronged approach of “introduce new non-white-male character,” “make male character female,” and “make white character non-white,” signs are replete that returns are diminishing, but that’s another article entirely).

But as superheroes took flight, what happened to fantasy? Like comics, an enormous library of fantasy fiction already existed to be mined, so studios began digging. D&D's failure relegated that property to made-for-TV sequels (although it’s being resurrected with some star power), but so many other fictional worlds, filled with swords, sorcery, mighty beasts and every other Tolkienesque trope, waited in pages for their chances to be lovingly adapted to screen.

An age of fantasy mediocrity

As it turns out, there’s a significant creative difference between “lovingly adapted” and “sloppily exploited.”

Ursula Le Guin’s beloved ‘Earthsea’ stories were the first victims. In 2004, the Sci-fi Channel adapted the first two books into a two-part miniseries. Le Guin herself hated the project so much that she disowned it entirely.

In 2005, the first installment of the next huge prospective post-LotR cinematic fantasy universe was released. ‘The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe’, the first (published) book in C.S. Lewis’ seven-book ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ series, looked to be a surefire winner. Lewis and Tolkien were famously great friends, and much of the same creative talent from Jackson’s Tolkien trilogy was working on Narnia. Fans were excited, and the adaptation was fine, but that’s all it was. The movie met with enough success that Prince Caspian followed in 2008, then ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’ in 2010, but box office receipts and reviews declined with each, and the series ended with a decidedly un-Aslan whimper.

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At the tail end of 2006, ‘Eragon’ was released. The book by the same name was a newcomer, not a venerable old property, and teen author Christopher Paolini had done nothing particularly new (comparisons to ‘Star Wars’ and Tolkien were many and apt), but he did it well enough. The movie was a critical disaster, though, and franchise plans were canceled.

2008 brought ‘Legend of the Seeker’, a middling effort at adapting Terry Goodkind’s ‘Sword of Truth’ books to syndicated TV. A 2011 ‘Conan the Barbarian’ reboot came and went. Peter Jackson revisited Middle-Earth with ‘The Hobbit’ trilogy from 2012-2014, but Tolkien’s short adventure story couldn’t fill three films’ worth of run time, even with extended cameos and added side quests, and the movies didn’t live up to their preceding trilogy. Terry Brooks’ ‘Shannara’ novels became a teen drama on MTV in 2016, lasting two seasons.

Game of Thrones sets new standards

None of that mattered, though, because HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ was going to be the one fantasy epic to rule them all.

From 2011 to 2013, the first four seasons of GoT were appointment television for millions. Author George R.R. Martin, the anti-Tolkien, had written half of a grimdark fantasy series filled with amoral characters, gory violence, and graphic sex. The show’s narrative outpaced the novels during the sixth season, however, and the seventh and eighth had to rely on Martin’s outlines and the showrunners’ own storytelling skills. Pretty much everyone hated it, the final three episodes in particular, and in the end, ‘Game of Thrones’ suffered the most stunning collapse of fan support since the finale of ‘Lost’.

Streaming services, desperate for compelling content, still recognize the potential in the genre, but finding “the next ‘Game of Thrones’” seems to be their goal, not “the next ‘Lord of the Rings’.” Ironically, this includes Amazon’s upcoming actual ‘Lord of the Rings’ prequel series, whose hiring of “intimacy coaches” and casting calls for actors comfortable with nudity prompted a petition from worried fans. As HBO is developing at least one ‘Game of Thrones’ prequel series as well (another has already been canceled), one might think a bit of counter-programming on Amazon’s part to morally ambiguous megalomaniacs having sex and murdering each other might be in order.

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‘The Wheel of Time’ shows that may not be the plan.

Robert Jordan’s massive 14-tome epic was ripe for a big-budget adaptation, but six episodes in, it’s raised the ire of many who hoped for a faithful adaptation of the books. Brandon Sanderson, who finished writing the series after Jordan’s passing, has criticized the violent GoT-style additions to the story. Do Jordan enthusiasts, many of whom read the books as teenagers and now have children of their own, really want to see the severed hands of a burning Aes Sedai, or trollocs feasting on human innards, or a little girl’s dead-eyed corpse, or graphic uroxicide, or a love scene between middle-aged lesbians – especially as those latter two are not in the books? Will they let their own kids, even older ones, watch? Should they? What might have been a fun family viewing experience has been filmed as something many adults couldn’t stomach.

Identity politics to rule them all

Worrying, too, for fans of Tolkien’s Eurocentric world of Middle-Earth is WoT’s conspicuous obsession with “diversity.” Where Le Guin had a beef with the whitewashing of the ‘Earthsea’ characters she wrote as having darker skin, ‘Wheel of Time’ producers are swinging the pendulum the other way, making unexpected casting choices that have media outlets gushing. Fantasy fans, familiar with worlds populated with all manner of humanoids of different species, sizes, and color, have no problem with “diversity,” but it isn’t a merit in and of itself, and it certainly isn’t a substitute for compelling characterization. Of course, the biggest gripe about the “woke” sensibilities of the show is that, from the opening voiceover, the Dragon Reborn might be a woman, which readers know completely changes a foundational aspect of the story. What purpose did such a change serve? It’s difficult to say, but inclusive girl-boss equity something, something, so stop asking questions.

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What preachy identity politics is Amazon preparing for Numenor and Lindon? What graphic sex and violence is headed to the Second Age? Maybe none, but these days, chances are slim. If Hollywood wants to continue mining fantasy books in search of box office and prestige television gold, they’d be well-served to remember a few things.

First, fantasy is escapist. With the apparent exception of Westeros, we don’t want to visit somewhere that any sane person would want to escape from, especially when we've already visited as readers. “Danger” doesn’t have to mean rape, torture, and gore.

Second, maintain the tone and content of the books, including the level of sex and violence. We don’t want to see how clever, subversive, or surprising you can be with the settings or characters, and if what you're adapting – Game of Thrones, or The Witcher – is replete with hard-R content, well and good, but for Wheel of Time or Tolkien, it's jarring and unwanted. If you liked the books enough to spend millions to adapt them to screen, adapt them in the way Peter Jackson did with The Lord of the Rings: not necessarily beat-for-beat or scene-for-scene, but faithfully and respectfully.

Finally, leave out modern woke identity politics. Their inclusion dates the production, annoys a significant portion of the fans, and detracts from the story. Many of these books are classics, timeless, beloved by generations, and your addition of that non-binary body-positive elf isn’t needed.

Maybe the last decade or two hasn’t been great for fantasy on screen, but perhaps this shadow will soon pass. It won’t, though, until filmmakers and screenwriters rediscover what’s enduring about the genre, and that isn’t graphic nudity, buckets of gore, or leftist identity politics.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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