Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Where Are the Successors of "Lord of the Rings"?

We're quickly coming up on the tenth anniversary of Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. There have already been special theater screenings and the fancy new Blu-ray set hit shelves a few months ago. Many fans have been revisiting the films, and I expect I will too in a few months. I've been a fan of "Lord of the Rings" before I ever heard of Peter Jackson, and seeing those films live up to the potential of their material, and the way they impacted the entertainment landscape, was a great experience. However, as I look back over the fantasy films that came in the years after, that were directly influenced by the trilogy, I'm left wondering why the fantasy genre hasn't benefited more from the popularity of "Lord of the Rings."

In the immediate wake of Peter Jackson's success, the old school fantasy fans were buzzing over what major fantasy series would be next in line for an adaptation. Would Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melniboné find his way to the screen at last? How about Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time"? I was privately gunning for the Prydain Chronicles and a planned "The Last Unicorn" film. Now that someone had managed to faithfully adapt "The Lord of the Rings," one of the touchstones of fantasy literature, anything seemed possible. Up until that point the fantasy genre had been characterized mainly by children's films and effects-driven B-movies, like the "Dungeons & Dragons" flick that came out a year before "Fellowship." Now, for the first time, fantasy films full of hobbits and wizards were garnering real critical acclaim and had a level of prestige unknown to previous efforts.

And then, well, nothing really changed. The success of "Lord of the Rings" did help inspire Disney to pounce on the Narnia books, and have "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" ready by Christmas, 2005, two years after "Return of the King." Ditto New Line's decision to adapt that heavily watered-down version of "The Golden Compass," which became such a notorious flop. But these and nearly all the other fantasy films that followed were aimed squarely at children, including the 2003 "Peter Pan," "Percy Jackson," "Inkheart," "The City of Ember," "The Spiderwick Chronicles," and "Eragon." Occasionally there was a "Stardust" for older viewers, but everything else seemed to be following the "Harry Potter" template, and it's clear that the success of that franchise really had more of an impact on the kind of fantasy films we saw in the 2010s.

Where I think think the "Lord of the Rings" left its biggest impression was with the action-adventure epics like "300," "King Arthur," "Robin Hood," and "Troy," that came back in vogue with their scenes of massive warfare and carnage, echoing the Battle of Helm's Deep from "The Two Towers." A couple had fantasy elements like "Clash of the Titans" and "Prince of Persia," but you could tell that the studios where more comfortable sticking with what they knew, which was swords and sandals, medieval warfare, and the occasional mythological adventure. Again, these were films of much smaller ambition that were designed to be splashy action spectaculars. They were big only in the sense that they were very concerned with showing off fancy effects work that looked great on an IMAX screen. Few of them did anything remotely interesting with their source material.

And speaking of source material, I'm grateful that most of the recent fantasy adaptations have been either remakes or based on very recent books and games. The few times that filmmakers did use older sources, like the aforementioned "Golden Compass," it was rarely with a fraction of the care and consideration of their material as Jackson's crew showed with "The Lord of the Rings." After the Sci Fi Channel mangled Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea books and Walden turned "The Dark is Rising" into the awful "The Seeker," I stopped hoping Hollywood would go anywhere near my favorites. If there was a moment where faithfulness to story and integrity of character were paramount, I think it's passed us by. You could make arguments for Narnia and Harry Potter, but in the ten years since "Lord of the Rings" arrived, we've really had no comparable fantasy films to follow.

Yet, I think attitudes have changed over the years. Fans expect more from adaptations of existing properties, and are quicker to hold filmmakers accountable for changes they don't like. And the studios can sometimes be convinced to take risks that they wouldn't have ten years ago. Okay, so Ron Howard's "The Dark Tower" project fell apart, but somehow PIXAR convinced Disney to let them make a live-action "John Carter" film. And the push for more effects-heavy blockbusters to take advantage of 3D and IMAX surcharges is keeping the theatrical pipeline full of titles like the "Conan the Barbarian" remake and "Immortals" - hardly awards fodder, but one of them might be someday. And in a really interesting twist, somehow the success of "Twilight" and "Alice and Wonderland" has spawned a slew of upcoming fairytale films.

So fantasy is alive and well at the multiplexes, and in a much better place than it was in the 90s. That's certainly something to celebrate. And better yet, genre works are starting to make inroads into other media as well. In the end, the most direct beneficiary of "Lord of the Rings," aside from those upcoming "Hobbit" movies, may be HBO's "A Game of Thrones," which I'll be talking about it at greater length in upcoming posts.

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