Fantasy and SF Movies

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This is sort of off writing topic, but I was pondering this and thought I’d toss it out there.

Why aren’t there more fantasy movies? There’s an enormous plethora of SF movies (though they frequently go to horror and there aren’t nearly enough that aren’t about fighting insect aliens). I was thinking about the fantasy movies and Game of Thrones recently and was wondering, in this day of CGI and the popularity of fantasy, why aren’t there more movies?

Okay, I know there are a fair amount of them out there, and Harry Potter is going great guns,  so I’m going to narrow the scope to epic fantasy. We get a fair amount of King Arthur stories and of course the LOTR, and then we got Eragon, Reign of Fire, and the Narnia movies. But when you really think about it, there aren’t that many fantasy movies. Especially good ones. Why is that?

I’m thinking there may be a couple of things. First, I noticed in GoT (which is much much longer than a movie) and also in LoTR, that there isn’t actually a lot of magic going on. Some, but it’s very judicious. I always want more magic, but I can see how the use of magic by wizards or such might look cheesey, especially if not done well, and of course, I’m betting a lot of fantasy has to be done on a shoestring budget, since I’m thinking a lot of studios want to put their money into what they consider guaranteed best sellers like your Harry Potter, Twilight and Comic book hero movies. And Pirates.So you can get great CGI effects, and when they aren’t good, they are very bad (Dinoshark anybody?)

I’m also thinking that epic fantasy involves good and evil, heroism and dramatic action that may not translate that well onto screen if not handled very very well. The acting may appear over the top or the actions might seem too extreme.  That plus the scale of events (armies, dragons, distances) and the worldbuilding necessary, might totally mean that the movie can’t manage to achieve the necessary elements on the screen, and also, there are a lot of people out there who may not be willing to watch.

I’ve always said that fantasy is HARD. Readers of fantasy are some of the smartest people. Think about it. As a reader, you have to collect clues, understand (and remember) a new world and culture (or more than one), get acquainted with an unusual economy, legal system, manners, language, and all of that, and you have to figure out who is who and what’s going on and what the history of the situation is and  . . . it goes on. There is so much you have to keep track of that it can be truly daunting to not just make into a movie, but to watch it. How do you make it broadly accessible in a 2 hour time frame?

All the same, I’d like to see more attempts. There are so many books and stories that I’d love to see put into film and see what the directors could do with them. I think of Avatar and the amazing worldbuilding on the scrreen and I want to see more of that.

What do you think?

And a small FYI–when this posts, I’ll be on the road with the travel trailer heading for camping on the Oregon coast. It may be awhile before I can get wifi, but I will be back to check in asap.

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10 comments to Fantasy and SF Movies

  • I think the probkem is just the simple fact that fantasy plots are too complex to be told properly and without cutting too much from the story just so it can fit into a two-hour slot. One of the strengths of Game of Thrones is that it’s a TV series, so it has a bit more breathing room. I’d love to see more stories adapted into TV series like that. Maybe Syfy or Space (the Canadian equivalent) could start thinking about that. There really needs to be a Fantasy channel!

  • Honestly, I think one of the problems is that you can’t show magic. I mean you can do sparkly lights, and sweeping curls of CGI colors, you can see people morphing from on thing to another (were creatures, whatever), you can show peoples bodies exploding, aging, shrinking, etc. But tell me, what does magic look like?

    Movies are a fundamentally visual medium. We have to be able to see the thing itself, not just the effect of the thing. Think about the Matrix (happened to be on last night, so it’s on my mind). The matrix is visible–the world turns to green binary like an old computer screen. Just that little touch of visibility is enough for us to get an idea of what it is. Magic is, in many ways, NOT visible. People feel it, feel and see the effects of it, but not really the magic itself. People say words, think words, wave their hands, and something happens. This is, of course, why things are called “magic” (or possibly ‘miracles’): because you can’t seen the actual cause of the effects. (Think all of the dumb medieval movies where someone from now goes back in time and the peasants are all impressed by technology–like the “boomstick” in Army of Darkness).

    So, you end up with a bunch of actors staring really hard at something, and something happening around them. Even the Darth Vader cuts off the guy’s airway scene in Star Wars borders on cheesy even as it is intimidating. If you’ve seen “Dinner for Schmucks” (a pretty bad movie, I felt), there is a great scene where Zach Gelafanakis (no idea if that’s spelled right) and Steve Carrell have this great fight in which Zach claims to be able to control Steve’s mind (I’ve forgotten the character names) and it’s all melodrama and Zach staring and saying things like “I’m controlling your mind” and Steve quivering and saying “no!” It’s silly, and of course not real within the movie, but it highlights what “magic” looks like done poorly.

    A dynoshark–bad as it may be–is at least visible. 🙂

  • It’s significant that you narrowed your question about Fantasy movies down to Epic Fantasy, in particular. I’d be hard-pressed, for instance, to classify the Pirates of the Caribbean movies as anything other than Fantasy – though not Epic Fantasy. (Come on: there’s magically-cursed Pirates, sword-fights, Cthulhu-esque Davy Jones, a magical compass that points to what you most want, a voodoo priestess, and on and on.)

    I did an analysis last year, and actually found that the largest category of movies, in terms of Box Office reciepts, in the past decade-ish has been Fantasy movies, followed by Sci Fi and Superhero movies. (Check Box Office Mojo yourself for confirmation. The largest individual movie was a Sci Fi, but categorically, Fantasy is larger.)

    Right now, of course, it looks like a bleak future for Fantasy because Harry Potter is ending, the Hobbit is a long way off (and only two movies) and nothing else is in the hopper – that and there hasn’t been any major epic fantasy motion pictures in the past dozen years that wasn’t based on a book either by Tolkien, Lewis or Rowling. (That is discounting Alice in Wonderland as epic fantasy, even though the latest adaptation borrows heavily from elements and tropes of epic fantasy.)

    Of course, that all comes down to how you categorize movies. It’s easy to discount some movies as Fantasy because, for instance, they happen to be animated, or marketed to children, or whatever. I don’t make that distinction. If it were written as a book and would be shelved in the Fantasy section, then I count it as Fantasy. (Of course, most of the big fantasy movies already are books…)

  • Just to be difficult, I’m going to take a slightly different tack: I actually think that there is a lot of fantasy turned into movies, proportionally speaking. I’m not sure it’s fair to remove HP from the discussion, or for that matter, dark fantasy that spills over into the horror realm. Fantasy books make up a small section of any bookstore, and epic makes up a smaller subset (and a shrinking one) of those fantasy works. Given that, the number of movies made that have some fantasy element is actually pretty large. I would love to see more fantasy made into movies, purely for selfish reasons — I enjoy fantasy movies and I would like to sup at Hollywood’s trough by having my own work adapted to the screen. But I believe that you’re right when you say that either fantasy movies are going to be huge blockbusters, like LOTR or the Narnia books, or they’re going to be made on tight budgets and will wind up looking cheesy. For all the progress made in movie making, special effects remain a pricey enterprise if done well. Fantasy movies are being made, but they tend to be big movies — holiday and summer releases — and right now HP is dominating the market. The Hobbit will be out before long, and I guarantee you, other fantasy movies will follow. But there won’t ever be that many in absolute numbers, because we’re just a small corner of the entertainment market.

  • Tagging on to David’s comment: In addition to special FX being costly, there often is a view that the FX are the story. That was often the problem with the numerous science fiction movies that popped up after Star Wars hit the screen. As much of an FX extravaganza as LOTR was, what made it work was solid story-telling. Heck, one of my favorite moments was from the first film when Gandalf and Saromon (sp?) fought. Magic spells flying back and forth and not a single CGI/sparkly lighting effect. Very cool.

  • There isn’t the glut of movies like in the 80s with Legend, Willow, Ladyhawke, Beastmaster, Dragonslayer, and others.

    Part of the problem might be that Peter Jackson set the bar pretty high for producing good quality fantasy, and my guess is that a lot of others are scared to try. It doesn’t help that Clash of the Titans and Prince of Persia both did well at the box office last year, but were both expensive productions.

    Solomon Kane came out last year in Europe and hasn’t hit the US with any splash. Sucker Punch was released in March and Priest in May, and I didn’t see either, though they’re supposedly magical and supernatural respectively. This month showcases the Fifth Voyage of Sinbad and Conan the Barbarian hits theaters in August.

    While I agree we need more fantasy, we need good fantasy. I’m willing to wait for the ones that are done right instead of having more of them that are done badly.

    In the meantime, I think I’ll go watch Legend.
    Cheers,
    NewGuyDave

  • Sucker Punch> I saw it. I admit it. I wouldn’t call it fantasy, though I’d be hard pressed to figure out what to call it. Possibly a psychological thriller. It was beautiful. I mean the special effects and stuff were amazing. The plot: totally incoherent. It was a story within a story within a story. The way outer frame narrative made a certain kind of sense. The internal narrative made some sense. The third internal narrative (think nesting dolls) made no sense. A girl accidentally shoots her sister while trying to shoot her abusive step father. She’s shipped off to an insane asylum. There, evil step dad pays orderly to make sure she gets a lobotomy when the dr. is in town in a week. She creates a narrative in her mind to get the stuff she needs to get out of the hospital–okay, fine. Internal narrative? She’s a “dancer” (read: prostitute) and the “big client” is coming in a week, and the girls need to escape. When she dances, she entrances all the men and the girls are able to get the tools they need. In the “dances” the MC (named Baby) does, it takes them into a totally different world (four different ones, I think, as there are four tools they need). One’s a steam-punk fight against nazis, one is a futuristic bomb on a train, one is two huge japanese robots, and one is a WWII-esque castle fight with dragons. In the end, she gets lobotomized, but one of the girls escapes the asylum and gets to go home.

    Did that make sense? Neither did the film. And I won’t even go into the misogyny in it.

    But it was amazingly beautiful and the WWII/steampunk/nazi scene was awesome! 🙂

    So, yeah, this supports Stuart’s point that often FX takes the place of story, rather than enhancing it. (I’ve heard that about the Transformers movie this summer, too).

  • Thrashalla

    I think that fantasy has two major obstacles that get in the way of big-screen adaptation: run-time and budget. With the majority of popular fantasy books being large, multi-volume affairs with large casts of central characters. 90 – 150 minutes simply isn’t enough to adequately get the atmosphere right or the necessary exposition out and still have time for gripping character development. Even with Game of Thrones, which had ten hours to get all of that in, was still fired upon as rushing the exposition and squeezing too much of the world building into the front end. LOTR worked because Jackson was allowed to shatter the standard Hollywood run times and it still felt compressed in places…and let’s not even get into the never ending ending problem that Return of the King had.

    Given the run-time restrictions and how much fantasy relies on action and set-piece battles as the catalyst for major change – character and world – Hollywood ends up dumping most of the budgets on effects for those battles. Given the amount of time, energy, and money that goes into shooting those scenes it’s no wonder that character development takes a backseat from the producer perspective. Because of those large budgets, these films are also focus grouped to within an inch of the source material by initial viewers that are a cross section of the average movie goer, as opposed to fans of genre fiction – the two groups tend to have large differences in what they look for from the Fantasy label.

    Game of Thrones has actually given me hope for the genre in the visual medium as I think that Fantasy could find a much happier home in long format television drama. Ok…after the false start we had with Legend of the Seeker. 😛

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you for sparking an interesting discussion. To add my two cents, I’d like to go back to some of the great 80s/90s fantasies someone mentioned earlier – Willow and Legend and things like that. I notice that most of those great movies have a very small principal cast, and I feel like this could be a key to producing more lower-budget but great fantasy. A small principal cast forces the focus on character development, and also allows world-building exploration on a smaller (less-expensive?) scale. A movie like Willow still had high-fantasy large-scale conflict, but told using local details (which always makes for rich story-telling anyway). Budget has got to be a huge issue when it comes to fantasy movies, but – it seems to me – a lot of that still hinges on the story-telling approach taken. Consider the recent Battlestar Galactica series. The commentary Ed pointed us to recently points out that they saved a lot of money doing character stuff instead of rendering space battles and the effect is to make the sci-fi elements seem MORE real.

  • Sorry in advance, everybody, cuz yer not gonna like this:

    Why are there fewer fantasy movies than SF movies? Two words: PRODUCT PLACEMENT.

    I was watching my Cloverfield DVD yesterday when my daughter pointed out the obvious Mountain Dew machine in the background in one scene. You can’t have one of these in the background in Johnathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Neither can Strange or Norrell open up their Apple PowerBooks, make a call on their HTC/T-Mobile My Touch 4G smart phones, or pull away in a brand new Ford Focus.

    What that means is that any proposed fantasy movie project (or historical epic–you don’t see many of those anymore either, right?) is financially hamstrung from the get-go. Product placement isn’t just a couple extra dollars thrown in at the end, but significant funding sources. Look at all the TV commercials that link products, even high-ticket items like cars, to a movie currently in theaters. This sort of co-op advertising/partner marketing is a multi-million dollar business.

    All these superhero movies, for instance, are chock full of product placements: Spider-Man practicing his web shooting on a Dr. Pepper can, Tony Stark’s really cool Audi (which retails for $135,000), and a whole scene in the second Fantastic Four movie devoted to a blatant logo orgy.

    So then a studio has to choose between Green Lantern, brought to you by Hot Wheels, or The Dragonriders of Pern brought to you by … no one. Guess which one they go for.

    I’ve seen this from the inside … I’m not making it up.