Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Fighting the World: Too few shining examples in a fantasy film wasteland

A couple of the regular blogs I visit have recently posited that all fantasy films more or less suck. Granted, Noisms and James were both discussing fantasy films in the context of the absolutely awful Dungeons and Dragons film, and the generally bad idea of trying to bolt narrative structure onto a role-playing game. I agree wholeheartedly with both of these observations. But both bloggers also state that, in general, there are no good fantasy films. That I cannot agree with. I can only say that these guys must have never have seen Excalibur.

Now, I'll admit that the genre is awash in drek: Beastmaster, Conan the Destroyer, Red Sonja, Willow, Kull, The Scorpion King, the Dungeons and Dragons movie (one of the worst films I've ever seen--someone, somewhere, owes me an hour and a half of my life back), are shite. These and other awful films certainly make fantasy a tough genre to defend.

But for all that I would argue that there have been three great fantasy films made. In order: The Lord of the Rings, Excalibur, and Conan the Barbarian. You can make case that the Star Wars films are fantasy with SF trappings, and if you agree, that brings the total of great fantasy films to five (Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back). After these handful, I also think there's a handful of watchable and/or pretty good fantasy films to consider: Dragonslayer is one, and Ladyhawke is another. I haven't seen the latter in many years but remember enjoying it quite a bit as a youth.

The problem with most fantasy films is that they stack up very poorly with the source material: I love Conan the Barbarian, but it's not Robert E. Howard, and we have nothing approaching Beyond the Black River or Red Nails on celluloid. I adore The Lord of the Rings but understand that it deviates from Tolkien's novel in many places, and respect the opinions of those who found Peter Jackson's adaptation not to their liking.

Fantasy filmmakers have also largely shied away from making bloody, bleak, grim, and, most importantly, adult fantasy films in favor of safe, theatre-filling, PG-13 drek. There's nothing even close to The Broken Sword on film, or the bawdy, bloody, good humor of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. 300 should have been the marvelous Gates of Fire, but, a few good scenes notwithstanding, was completely over-the-top and apparently written for teenage boys in the throes of raging hormones. We desperately a need a film based on Bernard Cornwell's The Warlord trilogy or the Saxon Stories, with shield walls and hall-burnings and historic accuracy, but instead we have the disappointing King Arthur and The 13th Warrior, two shaky pegs on which to hang our horned helmets.

What fantasy films don't need are more special effects. The Lord of the Rings works because of Sam's bravery and Boromir's "My captain, my king" speech; Conan is great because it's a classic revenge story--as we watch Arnold grow strong on the wheel, or seek out the symbol of Set, we're behind him all the way. Fantasy film directors would do well to avoid the trap of seeking to please fantasy fans, but instead focus their efforts on telling good stories that resonate. Captivating stories, and the empathy we feel for the characters that populate them, are the pumping heart beneath the breastplate of good fantasy films.

Which brings me back to Excalibur. John Boorman's film bucks fantasy heartbreak by hewing remarkably close to the source material, which is no mean feat given the plethora of Arthurian sources from which Boorman had to draw. It's a dark film, downright savage in places, poetic and uplifting in others, a heady mix. The dark is rising throughout the film, but not despair, so long as a few brave knights stand fast.

Nigel Terry plays a sympathetic King Arthur whom you want to see ascend to the throne of England, carve out his kingdom, and win the war against the usurper Mordred. Launcelot's return on the battlefield at Camlann is heroism at its highest and is deeply affecting, as is Merlin's speech to Arthur atop Camelot, silhouetted against a blood-red setting sun, symbolic of the end of a golden age of man. The cast really makes this film stand out: Nicol Williamson (Merlin), Helen Mirren (Morgana) and Terry are brilliant, and Liam Neeson and Patrick Stewart also shine in small roles.

Unfortunately, films like Excalibur and The Lord of the Rings are so rare, and the bulk of their sword and wizardry company so shabby in comparison, that the result is aspersions and a dim view of the genre as a whole.


noisms said...

I loved the LOTR films in the cinema, possibly because I was wowed by the set pieces and sheer scope of the things, but in hindsight and having watched them on DVD a few times, I can't help but feel there's something deeply flawed about them. It's difficult to put my finger on what, but I think it stems from the fact that even 10 hours just isn't enough to do the story justice. Even with the huge amount of time available, everything feels squashed, and there isn't time for any strand of the story to breathe.

I also hate the silly hollywood bits like Legolas's Jet Li antics and how a load of elves turn up from nowhere at Helm's Deep to help the Rohirrim.

Chris said...

We desperately a need a film based on Bernard Cornwell's The Warlord trilogy...

Totally. Except Hollywood would turn it into another Fuqua "King Arthur".

My personal 'it should be made' historical fantasy series are:

1. 'Count Belisarius', based on the Robert Graves novel. The "Alms for Belisarius!" scene would be fantastic if done right.

2. 'The Hammer and the Cross' by Harry Harrison and Tom Shippey. Imagine a Viking "Iliad", with added manipulative Norse gods and accelerated weapons development.

Falze said...

Talk about timely...I've been going through a serious anime fix after finding a site that has fantastic bargains and a Christmas sale going on - so I've been reading a lot of reviews of a lot of anime trying to find some good ones. So let me start by saying that a lot of good fantasy can be found - you just have to go to Japan and watch cartoons instead of live actors to get it.

With a starting point of 'Record of Lodoss War' I've been trying to find some great fantasy anime in the same vein. So far I've come across a few titles and have purchased one and am watching for deals on a few others. Other widely-developed storylines include vampires and sci-fi. I've come across one that I really want to get that's supposed to be a cross between Logan's Run and Blade Runner. I actually already got the soundtrack and it could easily fit on the Blade Runner soundtrack.

A few other points -
Dungeons and Dragons movie (one of the worst films I've ever seen--someone, somewhere, owes me an hour and a half of my life back) You think you got it bad? Something got messed up when I recorded this off of Starz years ago, so there was no sound, but for some strange reason I could turn on the closed-captioning and watch it subtitled! So I watched this disgrace without even sound. As an aside, the Japanese are also obsessed with turning every popular fantasy book into a movie, every movie into a game, every game into a movie, every...well, you get the picture. So there are a lot of fantasy animes based on role playing games. Like their human-infested counterparts, it seems like these usually fail also from what I've read.

How about The Dark Crystal? I find that still bears up over the years and is a great fantasy movie. Albeit with puppets. Not in the class of the ones you list, but still great. Mixing puppets and people gets you another clever fantasy movie - Labryinth. And you get David Bowie!

Re: your adult fantasy gripe, the answer is, again, anime. In Japan they are making unabashed fantasy for adults. I'm still torn about whether I want to see Elfen Lied (has a real Fifth Element vibe to it, it seems) because apparently it's a real splatterfest, but I watched a bit of the first part last night online and might give it a shot. It's definitely not for kids, though, as I watched guards literally ripped in half and tossed aside one after the other by, well, nothing. Talk about 'grim'.

I've got Excalibur hanging around and desperately need to watch it again.

As for TLOTR, I'm planning on taking my birthday off and watching them all in one lazy sitting. We'll see how that goes. And, to noisms above, if you're troubled by the elves showing up at Helm's Deep, most of Tolkien must rub you the wrong way, because the guy was absolutely devoted to deus ex machina. Just off the top of my head we've got extra armies showing up at the end of The Hobbit. Same book Gandalf shows up to rescue Frodo and the dwarves from the orcs. The huorns at Helm's Deep. Aragorn and the dead on the ships. Eagles over and over again saving people including Frodo and Sam at the end. Even Tom Bombadil saving the hobbits. The guy's an absolute nutter for that sort of thing.

noisms said...

Falze: My complaint has nothing to do with Deus ex Machina, it's to do with going completely against one of the most important themes of the books, namely that the elves are supposed to be abandoning Middle Earth, the dwarves are retreating into the earth, and men are going to have to do everything for themselves. It's what makes Helm's Deep, and indeed the whole series, so interesting; the elves used to care but now they don't - so what are we humans going to do about it?

And the elves didn't even show up to save the day; they showed up purely so that idiot fanbois could say, "Ooh! Elves!" Which is doubly bad.

I think you do Tolkien a disservice by the way. A true Deus ex Machina is something that isn't flagged to the reader already, which rules out the Huorns, Aragorn and the Corsairs' ships, and Tom Bombadil at the Barrow Downs. The only ones that I think are fair cop are the Eagles rescuing everybody (twice!) and Gandalf popping up from nowhere to save Frodo and the dwarves. Maybe Tom Bombadil's first appearance, too.

Falze said...

Ah, I get your point. Thanks for clarifying.

Yeah, I took a bit of a liberty, but many of the other incidents bear many of the same characteristics - most notably the arrival in the nick of time to ward off what seems to be certain doom.

Good point re: the elves, though it had the feel, in the dark and rain, of their 'last hurrah' in Middle Earth as they passed the torch to men with their own lives, as seen in the shots of the elven corpses laying in the mud.

As for me, it still galls me to watch Helm's Deep and practically scream at the TV, "Why aren't the elves already raining arrows down on the orcs?!" Seriously, what are they going to do? Miss?

andy said...

"Fantasy filmmakers have also largely shied away from making bloody, bleak, grim, and, most importantly, adult fantasy films in favor of safe, theatre-filling, PG-13 drek."

This is really the key stumbling block. Hollywood, even after the success of LOTR, perceives fantasy as a strictly childish genre, which is why they've been raiding children's literature so much, trying to replicate Harry Potter's success, while ignoring most of the literary's genre's "blood and thunder" classics. It did look for about five minutes after Gladiator's success they they might go in a grittier direction but then the great Master & Commander bombed huge and Hollywood followed up with crap like Alexander and Troy and that was the end of that.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for stopping by and commenting, everyone. Some great comments here.

I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but I'll say it before and I'll say it again: I enjoy both Tolkien's novel and Jackson's film. I certainly prefer the former but, in general, I still maintain that Jackson did a remarkable job--James Raggi's "feces" comment to the contrary :).

I have my complaints about some of Jackson's choices, which I recount at some length here: Some are minor irritations, others more troubling.

But in general, I think Jackson captured the look of Middle Earth perfectly, and I think he mostly gets the spirit of the book correct. Yes, he left out the Scouring of the Shire, which is very important, but he preserves its message--the "long defeat"--in the Grey Havens scene. War has followed Frodo home and we do feel a profound sense of loss when the elves, Gandalf, Bilbo and Frodo depart from the shores to sail into the west.

I didn't have a huge problem with the elves at Helm's Deep. I don't think it was necessary, but I also don't think it was catastrophic. Like Falze, I think it had the feeling of a "last hurrah" or "last gasp." The shield surfing scene was, on the other hand, terrible.

Again, my opinion only.

Brian Murphy said...

Chris: I've read The Hammer and the Cross and think that would be good source material for adaptation. I haven't read the Graves novel so I can't comment on that.

Andy: Agreed. I think a great opportunity to make other "adult" fantasy films was lost after the LOTR films, and I blame movies like Troy and Alexander for destroying that momentum.

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Badelaire said...

Hey Brian,

Honestly, some people just eat too much red meat, or something, I dunno - why people care so much about this stuff is beyond me.

So what if most fantasy movies are hokey B- affairs that are really only watchable at 2 am while semi-loaded on rum and cokes? Most sci-fi, most martial arts movies, most techno-thrillers...really just a plain lot of movies, period, just aren't that great.

And you know what? A lot of genre fiction isn't that hot either. But people buy the books and rent/buy the DVDs and watch the bad stuff that the Sci-Fi Channel buys up because the vast, vast majority of people out there simply don't give a damn. So a movie is bad, so what? Go to see it with some friends a wee bit drunk and have a laugh or three. Play it in the background while you do some household chores. I dunno...something other than complain on your gaming blog about how angry you are about a movie.

Not directing this at you, dude. I'm with you on the Conan the Barbarian thing, although I do find Beastmaster a lightweight but not totally awful movie - the commentary track is actually pretty good if you're into low-budget filmmaking.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Badelaire, thanks for stopping by. I agree and disagree with you. I think a lot of this stuff is heavily overthought (guilty as charged). The vast majority of fantasy films were made not as art, but as a way to earn a few bucks and offer a couple hours' of mindless, escapist entertainment. There's certainly room for these types of films: I'm actually a fan of bad horror and find watching it a cathartic experience. When you want to cut loose at the end of a crappy day at work it's fun to pop in a film like Return of the Living Dead III or The Howling II--and howl right along with the awfulness on screen.

On the other hand, I do get pissed off when people rail against what I consider the handful of fantasy's very good/great films (LOTR, Excalibur, and yes, even Conan the Barbarian) because they are not 1:1 reproductions of the books. I swear that there is a large contigent of Tolkien fans out there that would not have been satisfied with anything less from Jackson than the experience of watching a black screen with Ian McKellen reading the books word for word (and even then, you'd have people complaining about McKellen's pronounciation of "Dunedain").

Okay, folks, I get it--Jackson made some changes, and not all great ones. But these are films, not books, and its impossible to seamlessly translate the printed word into a visual medium. I note again for posterity's sake that I've read LOTR probably 8-10 times and find it a wonderful book, better than the movies. But I can't see how people can dismiss the LOTR films as outright garbage. After all, a film that wins an Academy Award for Best Motion Picture must have something to offer. Others much smarter and more steeped in Tolkien lore than I (Tom Shippey, for one), have found many admirable qualities in these films.

Long story short: I do care about issues like this. Is it "nerd rage?" I don't know, perhaps. I do find it difficult to let criticism of some things--a few books, and a few films--roll off my back when I probably just should.

I will admit to being overly harsh with my treatment of Beastmaster--I had a lot of fun watching this as a kid, though I've grown to hate all films with animal sidekicks. So naturally the Beastmaster already has three strikes against it :).

Badelaire said...

Actually four strikes, dude. There was the tiger, the eagle, and the two ferrets. Unless you consider the ferrets a bundled pair, which would be sorta appropriate.

Anyhow, I hear what you're sayin'. Keep up the good work and I'll catch you later!

Brian said...

Ah, Excalibur.. So very, very good...

I agree with your top five (3, sir!) three, and with your assertion about the piles of foul waste that most fantasy films are. You forgot Dragonheart, by the way -- a film so bad, a star-studded cast couldn't save it. And let's not say too much about that latest Beowulf incarnation... A decent script adaptation of the legendary tale, marred hopelessly by over-the-top violence, Hollywood theatrics, and lackluster computer animation. Such a shame.

On the plus side, I'd put The Princess Bride up there with the good stuff. OK, maybe not the in the top five (3, sir!) three, but still quite good even after all these years!

I am hanging on to (very) high hopes that The Hobbit will be true to its source, and not be filled with the blockbuster movie staples of the LOTR films. Let's cross our fingers, shall we?

Brian Murphy said...

I don't know how I whiffed on The Princess Bride. Perhaps because I unconsciously lumped it in with comedies. But if you consider it fantasy (I'm on the fence about it, but you can certainly make the case), then yes, it's certainly a great fantasy film.

I watched about 10-15 minutes of Dragonheart and had enough. Yup, add that to the list of awful films.

Beowulf could have/should have been much better if they hewed to the original poem. The new script was clever, but lost all of the epic-ness of the ancient poem and, in the end, came across as another forgettable Hollywood origin story of a hero.

Brian Murphy said...
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