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New Directions: A Look at Fantasy's Post-Rings Future
© Lou Anders

It's really irritating me, these frequent comparisons in the press between Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Without the necessity of evaluating their relative cinematic worth, it should be patently obvious that they are emphatically not the same type of movie. One is a children's tale evolving out of a direct line of descent from works like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Alice in Wonderland, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The other is the singular seminal work of artificial world-building, a mark-setting multi-tome supported by decades of obsessively detailed histories, genealogies, cultures, linguistic systems. Yes, both films have "fantasy" elements — but the heavy handed association of the two that's taking place in the critical commentary is like saying The Fast and the Furious and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang are the same film because they both have racing cars.

There is, however, one bridge that can be built between both films, and one of which I dearly hope the Hollywood collective consciousness will take note. Both films took hitherto unprecedented pains to preserve the integrity of the original source books. Both avoided "Hollywoodizing" and "Americanizing" the material, in terms of scripting, setting and casting. And both made a hell of lot of money by doing so. The Lord of the Rings, in particular, with its thirteen Oscar nominations, and enormous boxoffice, has smashed up the cinemascape like an 800 pound gorilla cannon-balling into a shallow swimming pool.

The trilogy has already exploded onto the cultural landscape twice, in the 60s when it found a home in the hearts of hairy hippies, and in the late 70s, when the Ralph Bakshi animated film kicked off a renewed craze in the books. Now, books and first film are smashing their way into the mainstream, and — love it or loath it — we'll be feeling aftershocks for the rest of the decade. Though whether this is a new effect, or will simply be the latest iteration of a centuries old influence, is a matter for debate.

David B. Coe is the author of the Crawford Award-winning LonTobyn Chronicles, and the recent novel, Rules of Ascencion (Book I of Winds of the Forelands). "I think it's impossible to understate the influence that Tolkien's work has already had on the genre," he says, "and so on one level I only expect that the popularity of the LOTR movie will serve to reinforce trends that have been moving the genre for a generation or more. Grand, multibook, alternate-world, epics will continue to dominate the field, and, as one who writes such things, I must admit to being pleased by this.

"On another level, however, I think the changes brought on by the success of Peter Jackson's vision could be profound. For years, basically since the release of Star Wars in 1977, Hollywood has been in love with the big budget science fiction adventure. And the reason is simple: they do well in the box office, even if the critics don't like many of them. For a number of reasons, the success of SF movies has not carried over to fantasy. Fantasy films have enjoyed even less critical praise than SF films, and have garnered only a fraction of the box office return. We can argue over the primary cause of this, but the fact is, the discussion is now moot. With the tremendous success of the The Fellowship of the Ring — the huge profits, the fine reviews, the thirteen Oscar nominations — I expect that fantasy will be given another look by Hollywood's powers-that-be, especially since it followed so closely the similar commercial success of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. It now seems that fantasy CAN make money, and I expect we'll see more fantasies turned into movies in the next few years than ever before."

Alex Irvine, author of the upcoming novel, A Scattering of Jades, has a slightly more dire view of things. "I have a bad feeling that we're about to experience in film what we did in literature during the heyday of the Tolkien ripoff (which is not quite behind us). I'm sure Terry Brooks' and David Eddings' phones have been ringing off the hook, and I wouldn't be surprised if the next three or four years see a flood of crap fantasy 'epics' that have none of Tolkien's commitment or emotional weight. Having said that, I hope I'm wrong, and that we get films of the Earthsea books and Patricia McKillip and all of the other writers who actually learned the lessons that Tolkien had to teach, and then went on and extended the boundaries of the territory that he so magnificently explored."

Most likely, both Coe and Irvine will be proved correct. In fact, the SciFi Channel has already commissioned an adaptation of the Earthsea Trilogy (as well as Le Guin's SF masterwork, The Left Hand of Darkness).

Terry McGarry, author of Illuminations and the upcoming The Binder's Road, is perhaps our most optimistic voice, though her opinion, interestingly enough, has as much to do with fantasy's history as its evolution.

"We've already seen a wonderful effect of the Fellowship movie on literary fantasy: Tolkien books are being marketed like wild! It is a genuine delight to see so many people discovering his works, and so many people rediscovering them (the film has prompted lots of rereading). One of the beautiful things about LotR is its historical ambience. You have a sense throughout that the present is steeped in a rich, heroic past. Fantasy literature has a rich past as well. This film could prompt people to delve not only into Tolkien's work but into the works of Lord Dunsany, William Morris, George MacDonald, and Tolkien's other predecessors. There are worlds upon worlds to discover! I hope that filmgoers are inspired to take that literary journey.

"It's important for fantasy writers to remember our roots. The LotR phenomenon has given me an opportunity to re-experience the foundations of my own genre, and discuss it with people who approach it from a completely new perspective. That's been invaluable to me.

"The film has provided an entry point for people who felt that heroic fantasy was for either children or escapists. It shows that the genre confronts grownup issues and resonates deeply with adult concerns. All fantasy is about characters — real people confronting the wondrous and extraordinary — and about politics, and love, and monsters, and temptation, and adversity, and triumph. Fantasy reimagines the fundamental elements of human existence with an intensity that touches our calloused modern souls. It's a literature of great power. I'm so pleased that the film is helping people tap into that.

"Just as heroic fantasy on film has become increasingly sophisticated in terms of special effects, I think fantasy literature will become increasingly sophisticated in terms of language and content. But it's hard to postulate a 'forward' progress for fantasy, because fantasy's most powerful leaps are taken inward — into the psyche — and because it's a timeless literature. Heroic fantasy touched hearthside Anglo-Saxons and Renaissance theatergoers and nineteenth-century readers as strongly as it will touch the twenty-first-century people just being born. Fantasy will always be a central part of our lives, even if it's only peripheral to most folks' awareness. If it can play a more prominent role because a film has captured the public imagination, how wonderful! The most obvious effect of LotR's popularity is that Hollywood may take more of an interest in heroic-fantasy material. Naturally, I hope they start making scads of heroic-fantasy films!"

Gary Goldman is the executive producer and screenwriter of the upcoming Steven Spielberg / Tom Cruise film Minority Report, as well as the screenwriter behind another classic Philip K. Dick adaptation, Total Recall. He brings an opinion informed by years on the other side of the table when he says:

"What's most remarkable about Lord of the Rings is merely its avoidance of the ubiquitous Hollywood formulas that have made all big budget movies the same. By staying away from the wisecracks, the cliché messages delivered in sentimental dialogue, the sense that it's just a rolicking good time that doesn't really matter, Lord of the Rings manages to be original. This can be traced to two factors: 1) Faithfulness to the source material. By daring to conform to the books of Tolkien rather than to the formulas of Hollywood, the movie manages to be unique rather than generic. 2) Peter Jackson's vision, which is personal and weighty and relatively un-American. By daring to be himself (being allowed to be himself), Jackson gives the world something new and authentic.

"Under Lucas, Spielberg, and Cameron, Hollywood perfected a winning formula to maximize everything: action, intensity, cuteness, box office. Like a stock-picking strategy that works until everybody starts using it, these formulas have outlived their effectiveness. The exhaustion of these formulas was first noted and countered by Quentin Tarantino and his School, which proved that audiences were desperate for anything that broke the rules. But this was only in the realm of lower budget movies. Lord of the Rings is one of the first movies to demonstrate that this lesson can and must be applied to big budget filmmaking, too.

"The formulas have been mastered. Now it is time to experiment with them — not just repeat them endlessly. Hollywood's most common response, however, will be to take the most superficial differences of Lord of the Rings — the fantasy genre, the pointy ears — and apply to them the same tired formulas. In other words, they will Americanize that which worked because it was not so American. The fresh tone and approach of Lord of the Rings is something that Hollywood will be slow to recognize and imitate. Why? Because it's harder to fake real meaning and real emotion than it is to copy technique. As in the Sixties and early Seventies, it's time for Hollywood to swing toward personal expression again."

Ultimately, the success of Lord of the Rings means that the bar has now been raised extremely high. Just as Tolkien's primary contribution to the literature of the fantastic may be the overwhelming level of detail that he crafted in support of his material, so Peter Jackson's most lasting contribution to genre cinema may be the degree of respectability and credibility his painstaking work on its behalf commands. Hopefully, his primary impact will be an understanding that fanciful projects can be treated with integrity, not lampooned, brought to life with an attention to detail and a quality, utilizing great actors giving academy worthy performances, and staying faithful to source material. More probably, however, the effect of the film will be the same as the book — a hundred horrid clones and one or two works of note. But I do know that if I were a filmmaker working on Beastmaster IV right now, I'd be ashamed and just a little bit frightened.


LOU ANDERS is an editor, author, and journalist. In 2000, he served as the Executive Editor of Bookface.com, an Internet company which provided books and short stories for free online reading, and before that he worked as the Los Angeles Liaison for Titan Publishing Group. He has published over 500 articles in such magazines as Dreamwatch, Star Trek Monthly, Star Wars Monthly, Babylon 5 Magazine, Sci Fi Universe, Doctor Who Magazine, and Manga Max. He is the author of The Making of Star Trek: First Contact, released from Titan Books Ltd in December 1996, and the editor of the anthology Outside the Box, released from Wildside Press in March 2001. Currently, he is at work on two more anthologies and a novel.

 
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