Big (and small) Screen Fantasy. Why it Works...or Not.
Fantasy – good fantasy – is very difficult to achieve on film or TV.
Of course there have been two recent big successes, one on the big screen and the other on the small: Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, but I don't need to tell you that because more than likely you've seen them, enjoyed them, and wanted more.
But for every successful fantasy movie or TV show there has been at least two dozen that have failed, if not more. Why?
Here's the thing, for fantasy to work on the screen, big or small, it has to actually downplay the fantasy. Both Middle Earth and Westeros are clearly based on Europe. It's implicit. You could completely forget that Middle Earth or Westeros existed for the sake of the story and that the places our heroes are walking through is actually England before England existed, or France before France; maybe even from a time when England and France were still one. You have to make it look as normal as possible, because as soon as you start adding purple daisies two metres high or clouds shaped like smiley faces, you remind people who normally wouldn't watch fantasy that they're watching fantasy. They only want fantasy if it's dressed up to look like reality. When the X-Files came out in, oh, 1802, everybody was hooked. The father of one of my friends enjoyed watching the show believing that the show was based on real true-life cases. As soon as it was pointed out to him that they were not, he stopped watching. He preferred "real" fantasy to fantasy-fantasy.
There's very little magic in the successful fantasy film or TV show, and what there is is usually downplayed. No firestorms that burn everyone to skeletons, no picking up castles and moving them through the air, no making peoples' heads explode. Actually this sort of magic can work in a film (look at Harry Potter) but it has to be handled right. You can't just do something magical and impressive because it looks cool, it has to have a reason, it has to have weight and logic (of a sort), and more than anything else it has to have a cost. Setting down rules is very important with magic, because we know that everything in nature has underlining rules, and the more fantastic a thing is, the more bound by rules it should be, or at least that's how people have been lead to believe.
But of course then there are the monsters. The dragons and orcs and trolls that inhabit these fantasy lands and give our heroes a bit of a headache as they try to complete their quest. Monsters are different from fantasy flora and high magic because most of us have lived with monsters since we were children. Of course we knew they weren't real, hiding under our beds and lurking in our closets, but at the time they could have been. We also know that fantasy monsters are metaphors for all the real monsters in the world: the murderers and bullies, lions, tigers, deadly spiders and scorpions. When we see Sauron we see Hitler and all the other crazed despots that came before and after him, and Game of Thrones doesn't even try to hide it. In GoT the worst enemy is man, even those that think they're doing good. And we can all relate to that.
The producers, directors, writers and actors have to care passionately about the material, and in the entertainment industry that is a rare thing. Most films are made in response to other films being successful, not because someone believes in them.
I always remember a film networking night I attended many years ago. There was a man sitting alone at a table, glumly nursing a pint of beer. "What are you up to?" I asked (meaning work-wise) and he responded, "I've been hired to write a monster movie."
"Great!" I said, raising my glass. "You can't beat a good monster movie!"
"Oh yes you can," he replied and went back to unhappily sipping his pint.
Now I bet that monster movie never got made, and if it did it probably sank without a trace. Now I can imagine some writer saying they've been approached to write a script for "Blug the Barbarian", and responding with a similar lack of enthusiasm. Or the director, who always wanted to do Ibsen, given "Attack of the Dwarves". Their half-hearted approach to the material is going to tell, and people instinctively know when the creative's hearts aren't in it, which is why around 80% (not based on any scientific research) of all Hollywood films flop. Sure, Blug the Barbarian is never going to be a classic, but if the people making it care about making the best film they can for the budget they've been given, it might turn out quite good.
But then, they'll say, it's only fantasy. You can do whatever the hell you want when its fantasy. Horror, science fiction and thrillers and have rules, but fantasy...pah! They just make it up as they go along.
Another group of people, who are very important in maintaining the reality of the fantasy, is the Art Department. They can make or break a film. Both LotR and GoT base their art designs closely on what was to be found around medieval Europe times, and Peter Jackson wisely chose to embrace the wealth of existing art based on Tolkien's books rather than rejecting it outright and trying something new and weird.
Yes, what we love about film and TV fantasy is that it's normal (sort-of medieval) life, but with a bit of adding zing. But what is more important than everything else is that the characters are relatable and human, despite all the magic and monsters and flying castles around them. Once you have the audience invested in the fates and fortunes of your characters you can do almost anything, just as long as the characters remain human and engaging to the end. If we care for them, the fantasy works, if not, it doesn't (although I don't know where that leaves Thomas Covenant and Elric).