Tuesday, August 27, 2013

What Makes a Good Fantasy Movie?

Over at io9.com, Charlie Jane Anders asks "Why does live-action fantasy fail at the movies?" She then proceeds to give a few possible answers, including:

  • Terrible movies
  • Studio interference
  • Nobody's figured out how to do magic
  • Game of Thrones-mania hasn't hit movies yet
  • The dire influence of Joseph Campbell

As she herself points out, there have been some incredibly successful fantasy movies and movie series in recent years. Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit, Harry Potter, and (ugh) Twilight all lead the pack. Against those 16 movies, she lists 17 box-office failures (including The Last Airbender and Eragon) and two mixed bags (Clash of the Titans and Percy Jackson).

However, I think she's asking the wrong question. To be honest, I'm not sure what amounts to a nearly 50-50 track record counts as "live action fantasy fails at the movies." I think the question is, "What makes a great fantasy movie?"

Here's a hint: it's exactly the same things that make a great science fiction movie, or superhero movie, or western, or horror film, or war movie, or drama, or romantic-comedy, or any other sort of movie you'd care to name:

  • A good script
  • Decent acting
  • A budget suitable to accommodate the first two points

And that's it! (The third bullet implicitly includes special effects.) I don't think there is any particular conspiracy among the movie studios to put out fantasy movies that don't hit all three of those points. There are enough awful science fiction movies, superhero movies, and romantic comedies that have exactly the same failings as the worst fantasy films.

Ms. Anders could have just stopped at her first point. A good movie is a good movie, regardless of genre, and there are no special rules that apply to fantasy movies that don't apply to other genres.

Many of the commenters in Ms. Anders' post make the point that the most successful fantasy films already have a built-in audience from fans of the books upon which they are based. Fair enough, but there are a ton of top-notch fantasy books and series that would make terrific books:

  • Elric 
  • Elfquest
  • Conan (if they do it more faithfully to the books)
  • Chronicles of Amber 
  • The Dying Earth (Rowan Atkinson as Cudgel the Clever!)
  • The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant 
  • Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser
  • Dragonriders of Pern
And from a gaming perspective, there's so much terrific Dragonlance material that would make excellent movie fodder that it's scary (yes, there was the one animated film, which I liked, but we're talking live action here). There's also a huge built-in audience for some Forgotten Realms movies using Drizzt and company. Why that's not being pursued rather than yet another generic D&D movie I will never know.

The point is that these movies don't need the studio to butt out. They don't need a "cool" visual for magic. They need a good script and decent actors and the confidence in the team for the studio to give them the budget they need to make it happen. If they can do it for superhero movies, it can certainly be done for fantasy movies. Just ask Peter Jackson.