Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Ongoing Fantasy Movie Cycle

Like any other medium, the movies go through cycles. That is, at any given time movies of a particular genre or certain types of movies are going to be more popular than others and as a result more of that sort of movie will be made. To put it simply, a cycle is a trend or direction towards certain types of films. Examples of cycles are the one towards the action movies of the late Eighties and early Nineties (which gave birth to Lethal Weapon and Die Hard) and the cycle towards torture chic horror movies (which included Hostel and Saw) which has, fortunately, ended just recently.

Another example of a cycle in movies was a fantasy cycle that began in the late Fifties with movies like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Hercules. I rather suspect that particular cycle grew out of the success of such popular sword and sandal epics as The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur. From Biblical and historical epics to fantasies set in a pseudo-historical milieu was only a short step. Another fantasy cycle began in the Eighties with Excalibur and Dragonslayer in 1981. Precisely what started this particular cycle is difficult to say. It could have been the continued popularity of The Lord of the Rings and the fad towards Dungeons and Dragons, although I don't think anyone can say for certain. Regardless, a lot of fantasy movies were made in the Eighties.

It seems that we are once more in the middle of a fantasy cycle. In this case the causes of this one aren't hard to find. In fact, it would seem the catalysts for this cycle both lie in the world of literature. One of these catalysts is Tolkien's classic fantasy novel Lord of the Rings. Published in the Fifties, by 1965 the novel (published in three volumes) had become an outright phenomenon. By the Seventies it had arguably become an institution. As early as the Sixties there were plans to bring Lord of the Rings to the big screen. Big names such as The Beatles, Stanley Kubrick and John Boorman all considered adapting it into a motion picture. Animator Ralph Bakshi succeeded in bringing part of the novel to the screen in 1978. Unfortunately, Bakshi's animated adaptation left a lot to be desired, combining material from the first two books, Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. It was left to maverick film director Peter Jackson to bring Lord of the Rings to the big screen. Just as the novel was published in three volumes, so too did Jackson adapt the novel as three movies. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) not only did big box office (all three films rank in the top ten highest grossing movies worldwide), but they were critically acclaimed as well. With the Lord of the Rings movies an over all success monetarily and critically, it would seem to only be a matter of time before Hollywood would create more fantasy movies.

The other catalyst for the current fantasy movie cycle was a series of young adult novels centred on a young wizard named Harry Potter. Joanne Rowling (now known to the world as J. K. Rowling) sent her book to several British publishers, rejected every time until Bloombury at last bought it. In 1997 Bloombury published Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone with little expectation for a huge success. American publisher Scholastic apparently saw something in the book that Bloombury did not. They made the unprecedented move of paying Rowling, an unknown at the time, $105,000 for the book's American rights. It was published in the United States in 1998 under the title Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Despite Bloombury's doubts, that first book became a roaring success, having sold 70,000 copies as of July 1998 (before its publication here in the United States). The second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, was number one on both British and American bestsellers lists the first week it came out. As phenomenal as the success of Harry Potter was, it was natural that a film adaptation would be made. In 2001, the same year that the movie Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring came out, the movie adaptation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was released. It grossed $317,575,550 and started one of the most successful franchises of the Naughts.

With the success of both the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies it should then be no surprise that a new fantasy cycle would begin in the Naughts. In fact, the only thing that surprises me is that it didn't start sooner. It would be two years before another major fantasy movie would be released, and I don't think that the release of that film can really be attributed to the success of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Released in 2003, Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl was based on the famous theme park ride at Disneyland. Regardless, it was a smash hit and no doubt fueled the new fantasy cycle.

For the next fantasy films of any importance it would be another two years, and even then not all of them would be huge hits. The Brother's Grimm was the creation of director Terry Gilliam. It was a fictional account of an adventure the famous scholars had in battling a supernatural menace in French occupied Germany in the Napoleonic Era. The film only grossed $37,916,267 at the box office and was poorly received by the critics. The next fantasy film to be released that year did not emerge from Hollywood, but from Canada. As a low budget film made outside the United States, Beowulf and Grendel did not receive a wide release here. It also received mixed reviews from critics. Regardless, it has a cult following of individuals who realise just how good the film really is. If The Brothers Grimm and Beowulf and Grendel had been the last fantasy films released that year, the cycle might have never begun. Fortunately, December of 2005 saw the release of Disney's adaptation of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The film grossed $291,710,957 at the box office and received generally good reviews.

Two thousand six would only see two fantasy films in the cycle, and one was definitely not meant for children. El Laberinto del fauno (known as Pan's Labyrinth in the States) dealt with the horrors of Franco's Spain, complete with the violence that accompanies a fascist government. Indeed, in some respects was as much a horror film as a fantasy film (it is perhaps best described as "dark fantasy"). Indeed, it is even unclear whether the fairy tale in which the main character finds herself swept up into is real or imaginary. El Laberinto del fauno did very well at the box, received some of the best reviews of any film released in 2006, and even won several Oscars. The other fantasy film of 2006 was Eragon, an adaptation of the hit novel by Christopher Paolini. Like the Harry Potter series, Eragon is a young adult book with a large following of grown ups. Despite the novel's immense success, the movie fizzled at the box office in the United States. It also received negative reviews from critics, who as a whole thought the film was both derivative and dull. Fans of the book perhaps reacted more negatively than movie critics--little wonder as it departed a great deal from the novel.

This year saw the adaptation of another young adult book considered a classic by some. Bridge to Terabithia was written by Katherine Patterson and first published in 1977. It won the Newberry Award. With the success of both the Harry Potter movies and The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it was perhaps a natural for film adaptation. Despite being based on a novel considered by many to be a classic, the movie changed many points in the novel. One point it didn't change is that, like the novel, Bridge to Terabithia isn't a total fantasy. It is more about a fantasy world created by two children than a fantasy world per se. This could explain why the movie didn't do so well at the box office--from February to April it only made $120 million. For the most part the movie received good reviews from the critics, despite a lack of enthusiasm on the part of audiences.

Like Bridge to Terabithia, 300 is not strictly a fantasy movie. It is very loosely based on historical events (the Battle of Thermopylae), although in such a stylised way that it would certainly appeal to fans of fantasy. Indeed, of the movies released in this fantasy cycle, beyond the Lord of the Rings movies and Eragon, it could be the one that has the most in common with the fantasy films of the Eighties. It certainly isn't a children's movie, containing more violence than ten other movies and a sex scene.

While Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the first full fledged fantasy movie released this year, it is hardly the last. In fact, the number of fantasy movies released the latter half of this year proves we are in the middle of a fantasy movie cycle. Next up on the big screen is Stardust, an adaptation of Neil Gaiman's illustrated novel, centring on a young man who ventures through Fairie to retrieve a fallen star. I am a huge fan of Gaiman, so I am naturally looking forward to the movie adaptation of Stardust. Only a week or two following Stardust, The Last Legion will be released in America. Although based in part on history, the film looks as if it has some fantasy elements as well (the sword Excalibur plays a role, if that gives you a clue). This October will see the release of an adaptation of the second book in Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising Sequence. The film looks like it differs from the novel a bit, updating the story and changing a few things here and there. But from the trailer it looks like it will be a good movie.

This November will see the release of another adaptation of Beowulf. This version is computer animated and has some big names attached. Not only is it directed by Robert Zemeckis, but its script is written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery (co-writer on Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction). While I have little doubt as to the talent involved in the film, I do have my concerns as to how loyal it will be to the classic poem. Finally, in December there is what I think will be the big fantasy movie of the year (aside from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, of course): The Golden Compass. The Golden Compass is based on the first book in the His Dark Materials series, originally titled Northern Lights in Britain, but retitled The Golden Compass here. The books are huge in the United Kingdom, nearly as big as Harry Potter. And it is easy to see why. Of the recent young adult fantasy novels, it is arguably the most original. Regardless, the trailer to the film looks spectacular, even if it departs from the book in one major respect (there is no mention of God or religion, pivotal points in the books).

Two thousand seven does seem to be the year in which this new fantasy cycle kicks into high gear. Aside from further installments in established franchises (Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, and so on), there are several fantasy films being released in the coming years. Next year will see an adaptation of The Lions of Al-Rassan, the historical fantasy by Guy Gavriel Kay. A new version of Masters of the Universe based on the Mattel toys and cartoon of the Eighties, is set for release in 2009. Two thousand nine and 2010 will see the release of The Elfstones of Shannara and The Sword of Shannara respectively, based on the successful Shannara series by Terry Brooks. Of the various fantasy movies coming out, these are the ones I am least looking forward to. If the movies are as dull as the books, I pity anyone who has to sit through them.

At any rate, this decade's fantasy cycle does seem to differ from previous fantasy cycles a good deal. Both the fantasy cyle of the Fifties and the one of the Eighties more or less concentrated on heroic fantasy, whether in the form of sword and sandal movies (Hercules, Jason and the Argonauts) or more or less medieval fantasy (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Excalibur). While heroic fantasy movies have formed part of this cycle (the Lord of the Rings films and Eragon are examples), there are also other films which are definitely not heroic fantasy. The Harry Potter movies are based in the present day and concentrate more on wizardry than swordplay. The Golden Compass is set in a Victorian world that combines magic with steampunk technology. Today's fantasy films seem much more varied than ones in the past.

Another way in which this fantasy cycle differs is that many of the films of the cycle that took place in the Eighties were decidedly adult in nature. Excalibur, Conan the Barbarian, The Warrior and the Sorceress, and some other films featured graphic violence, nudity, and even sex scenes. Graphic violence, nudity, and sex are lacking from many of today's fantasy films for the simple fact that they are based on novels written for young adults. One will not see a beheading in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, nor will one will see a sex scene performed in plate armour in The Golden Compass. Quite simply, the original works were written for people under 18, even if plenty of people over that age read them. In a way, this makes this cycle similar to the one of the Fifties, where there was very little objectionable for a child to see in the films aside from the occasional scantily clad woman.

It is hard to tell how long the current fantasy boom will last. As a fan of the genre, I hope it lasts awhile. Indeed, hard as it is to believe, there are still some classic fantasy works that should be adapted into live action, feature films, but have not been yet. My choice for what should be adapted would be the series The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander. Disney adapted the first two books as The Black Cauldron in 1985, but I could see a more loyal, live action adaptation of the first book as a springboard for a new franchise. At any rate, there are many fantasy works out there, and almost all of them are better than the Shannara books. With any luck, this fantasy cycle will last long enough to see them adapted.

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