Can Fantasy Films Escape Lord of the Rings’ Shadow?

The world of J.R.R. Tolkien, brought to the screen by Peter Jackson, continues to cast a shadow over fantasy cinema...

This article first appeared on Den of Geek UK.

One realm to rule them all. One realm to find them, one realm to bring them all and in the darkness bind them, in the land of Middle-earth where the shadows lie.

Now, far be it from me to ever describe Middle-earth as a dark shadow over anything, but for everyone else trying to make a mega-hit fantasy film, the very thought of competing with Peter Jackson’s adaptations of The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit must seem the equivalent of toppling literal evil on Earth.

It seems that any time a big-budget fantasy flick is released, they get sneered at as generic, lacking the richness of detail or story compared to Lord Of The Rings.

But if this sounds like I’m suggesting there’s a critical bias against anything not clearly Tolkienesque, then I’m not. I think audiences and critics would absolutely embrace a fantasy with a different aesthetic or tone from Lord Of The Rings, but so many of them have failed to sell us their world and tell a worthy story with them. John Carter, Jack The Giant Slayer, Seventh Son, all may have some immediate pleasures but don’t hold up nearly as well.

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And now Duncan Jones’ Warcraft has proved the latest victim amongst film critics. It’s easy to look at the Rotten Tomatoes score and assume most critics are panning it, yet reading the actual quotes reveals some respect for Jones’ commitment to the Warcraft universe, coupled with laments that he couldn’t make all of the dense otherworldly information more accessible and functional for a general audience, beyond sating diehard fans’ own desires to see their beloved world, peoples and creatures on screen.

Duncan Jones himself has admitted in press for the film that Jackson’s films loom large over their own efforts: “When Peter Jackson did the Lord Of The Rings trilogy he brought everyone in to fantasy and set a level which everyone has been striving to achieve since. And in those movies the good guys tend to be the humans and the hobbits and the cute characters and anything that was ugly was a bad guy. And that came from the time when those stories were written.”

So why can’t other screen fantasies hold up against Middle-earth’s pedestal? Well, maybe we need to first look at why Middle-earth is there in the first place.

You obviously must point to J.R.R. Tolkien’s original source material, which even in the literary world already lords over its counterparts. Robert Jordan’s Wheel Of Time, Terry Brooks’ Shannara, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, all are long-running series and huge sellers, but to a degree are held back from Tolkien-level cultural impact because of their number of instalments. Casual readers could be overwhelmed by the sheer number of entries (this is from someone finally starting to read the Discworld series), whereas with Tolkien the storytelling meat is all contained within The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings. Of course there’s plentiful supplementary material like the appendices, The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, but that’s optional for the hardcore fans to explore at their will.

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So Tolkien is the most successful partly because he is the most accessible, and that huge readership and cultural awareness of his work means a more potentially lucrative film adaptation where other series remain somewhat niche. This also handily explains Harry Potter’s film success. Potter was the bigger contemporary phenomenon perhaps (having an ongoing book series will help that), but Lord Of The Rings inspired more critical love during their time of release compared to Chris Columbus’ weighty franchise openers. It also explains why The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe can do huge box office but audiences simply weren’t that interested in films of Narnia’s more obscure instalments.

But merely saying Tolkien kept things relatively brief doesn’t cut it when explaining his books’ timeless appeal. After all, quotes like “The English-speaking world is divided into those who have read The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit and those who are going to read them,” don’t emerge from nowhere. They would be almost unbearably hyperbolic if they weren’t basically true.

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Tolkien didn’t just create worlds and characters. As a great English scholar he was interested in the importance of languages to representing and preserving cultures, most importantly Old English in Anglo-Saxon texts like Beowulf, the subject of Tolkien’s seminal lecture The Monsters And The Critics. He constructed fantastical but functional languages, such as Quenya and Sindarin for the Elves and Khuzdul for the Dwarves, the ultimate expression of a people and their place. From these foundations he then created thousands of years of history to provide a context for these languages, in his fictional world of Arda.

The Silmarillion is a difficult read, but it’s arguably the best testament to the scale of Tolkien’s life’s work, creating a world not just for a story but for its own consistency. From the moment of its creation to the aftermath of Lord Of The Rings, one can pick any point in Middle-earth’s history and it holds up. When Hollywood producers talk about expanding a series’ mythology in their latest film, it always slightly insincere compared to the actual mythmaking of someone like a Tolkien or a C.S. Lewis.

Tolkien’s expertise and effort, spanning decades from his military service during World War I up until his death in 1973 shows in just how multifaceted, how utterly impeccable Middle-earth proves itself, and yet how affectingly human it remains.

Another part of the problem, because of Tolkien’s towering status over fantasy, is the undoubted influence he has over all those fantasy works that come afterwards. Although there are obviously literal differences between Lord Of The Rings and those books, what Tolkien did with elves and dwarves has remained a signpost for fantasy ever since. Elves are the wisest and most magically inclined (a result of Tolkien essentially elevating fairies out of more juvenile stories and into a higher nobility), while Dwarves are the more materially minded race, proud of weapons and treasure, with corruptible human races coming somewhere in between.

Other adaptations, because of the debt they owe to Tolkien, always risk feeling too similar or derivative. Without having the exact same designs obviously, Warcraft is just one of many fantasies to have used Tolkienesque conceptions of dwarves, elves and orcs (the sympathetic treatment of and performance capture for the orcs is Warcraft’s best point). Elves and dwarves make only extended cameos in the Warcraft film, but one scene alone will have you thinking the filmmakers borrowed Erebor’s forges from Thorin Oakenshield.

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But even if Tolkien ruled fantasy in the literary world, that would all be irrelevant in the film world without the justice Peter Jackson, his writing stable, and the cast and crew gave that world when adapting it to screen.

Given the saturation of fantasy, sci-fi, and superhero films we experience today, not to mention how frequently we quote from Lord Of The Rings, it bears reminding now and again (not too obsessively, mind) just what a game changer Lord Of The Rings was.

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Forget the films themselves for a moment, all that happened to make them possible was itself a miracle. Peter Jackson was a known filmmaker before Lord Of The Rings, but the idea of a New Zealander going to Hollywood off the back of moderately successful horror flicks and receiving the okay to make a massive trilogy of fantasies, all at once, on a near $300 million budget (one that reportedly only grew during production), is staggering. Jackson’s best hope when pitching Lord Of The Rings to studios was to make two films, and somehow New Line Cinema had the nerve to approve three films. A logical choice given the three volumes which make up the book, but again: fantasy was no proven success back then.

Lord Of The Rings marked a huge break from conventional big screen fantasy, which in Hollywood’s hands produced only disappointments. Before Middle-earth came along, your best hope for fantasy was that your film became an eventual cult favorite a la Dark Crystal or Willow. Otherwise, the best position was to be Disney and make an animated fairy tale. And even Disney’s attempt at harder fantasy, The Black Cauldron, was roundly rejected and then considered a new low point for Walt Disney’s famous animation studio.

Legend, Krull, The Neverending Story, Dune, all have their fans but none captured the zeitgeist anywhere close to how Lord Of The Rings did from late 2001, along with Harry Potter.

We finally had fantasy films faithful to the genre’s most rock-solid source material, made by a relatively independent director in a country mostly neglected for big-budget filmmaking, and brave enough to commit to a fantasy world with both digitally-aided grandeur and a practical, lived-in feel (owing to the history they could draw from). As for a cute-good/ugly-evil binary, Gollum is a truly iconic tragic “ugly” character in ways even the admittedly half-decent orcs aren’t.

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And part of what makes Middle-earth, Lord Of The Rings in particular, so delectable is how ably Jackson recreates Tolkien’s precision of time and setting. This world of wonder is fading even as we the readers and viewers discover it. The elves have already begun to depart Middle-earth, great dwarf halls are sundered and shadowed, and the troubled realms of men are charged to step up and protect the world from the still-powerful forces of Mordor.

For all the criticisms of Return Of The King’s multiple endings, the truth is that all the mythological and storytelling weight afforded to this enormous multi-stranded tale needs similar return on the hours of investment. The final 20 minutes aren’t just the hobbits returning to the Shire and Frodo leaving Middle-earth. It’s the passing of a world, and with that ship leaving the Grey Havens it is finally ended, but with the promise of continuing, peaceful life beyond that. It’s hugely evocative, and no other fantasy film has come close to telling such an essential story as in Lord Of The Rings, let alone as well.

To briefly address The Hobbit, critics and fans are right that a 350-page book doesn’t often become a 7+ hour trilogy. But I’d argue that by the time Jackson came to adapting The Hobbit, what with Lord Of The Rings’ monumental status, fidelity to the epic universe he’d created in film for general audiences became as important as fidelity to the books. And even if The Hobbit undoubtedly represented much less of a risk than Lord Of The Rings, Jackson’s firm grip on scale hadn’t faded; it still stands taller than the vast majority of screen fantasies.

And each film was also good for at least $950 million at the box office. For comparison, the highest-grossing live-action fantasy film not from Middle-earth, that isn’t Harry Potter, Narnia or isn’t at least derived from Disney’s animated canon, is the Clash Of The Titans remake. A closer sword and sorcery relative to Lord Of The Rings lies right behind Clash – Snow White And The Huntsman. Neither film, despite the weight of stars like Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Charlize Theron, or Kristen Stewart, could get past $500 million worldwide.

Just think of The Golden Compass, New Line’s attempt to create a new fantasy franchise out of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, much more lukewarmly received and whose box office led to New Line’s end as an independent company. Now there’s food for thought – would Warner Brothers, who own New Line as all but a label today, have really greenlit Lord Of The Rings in its ultimate form?

Warcraft is helmed by a talented filmmaker who truly loves the Warcraft universe. Inevitably, though, the film does fall into the recent trend of setting up a sequel, not so much origin story for the human-orc wars as the origin setup.

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Granted, neither Fellowship Of The Ring or An Unexpected Journey told a full story, but it came with the knowledge that not only were sequels confirmed, we knew exactly how many there would be. In fact, they’d already mostly been shot, and we could expect the second instalment in a year’s time. Such moves only aided the films’ overall cohesiveness. In the last couple of weeks, the makers of Warcraft were hoping we’d find its sequel bait very juicy indeed, or that the film exploded in China. And it did. Sequel talk is still on the agenda.

Authors and screenwriters don’t have to go away and devote the rest of their lives creating a universe as large and self-sustaining as Tolkien’s, but against such a brilliant creation done such justice, all other attempts feel a little short-termist.

And at least Warcraft has its messy ambition. Just look at the laziness of something like Dungeons & Dragons (which New Line also produced), which reduced years of gaming material to a clichéd, insipid film whose only saving grace was Jeremy Irons’ especially succulent cut of ham. Hopefully, the planned reboot will sort things out there.

Whether it’s chasing the latest blockbuster trends or trying to cash in on a successful book property while it’s still hot in the public’s minds, the vision just isn’t there. And what better symbol of this than Eragon, based on a book often derided for its liberal “borrowing” of Lord Of The Rings cultures and Star Wars’ basic plot? Also starring Jeremy Irons?

So how does a different fantasy film emerge from the shade that Middle-earth put over all the competition? Frankly, it’d have to be another masterpiece to do it. The problem is the cohesion of vision or sincerity of intent from these other would-be franchises.

How about Warner Brothers making a six-film saga out of the King Arthur legends? There’s certainly the material to do it, but what makes me think the results will be little different from the optimistic universe-planning Warcraft’s just given us? If Middle-earth has a “successor,” it’s Game Of Thrones. Based on George R.R. Martin’s books, the TV series has come far closer to Lord Of The Rings’ immersive world-building and cultural impact than any other fantasy, and perhaps suggests how Lord Of The Rings might be adapted today.

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Conclusion? Big screen fantasy, especially live-action, is very hard to do well. It’s a story of the ordinary against the extraordinary, both with regards to a literary source backed by decades of expertly built mythology and a truly passionate adaptation which avoids Hollywood’s lesser tendencies. We might have good fantasy films in the near future. But to move on from Middle-earth? That might be just a fool’s hope for now.