Thursday, February 02, 2017

Why Can't They Make Good Fantasy Films?

I watched "The Last Witchhunter" on Tuesday. It's not a terrible film... it's just a tediously mediocre one - there's absolutely nothing to recommend this film over just about any other.

And that pretty much sums up fantasy films in general. With just a few shining exceptions ("The Lord of the Rings", about three of the "Harry Potter" films, "Stardust", "The Princess Bride", "Willow", and the original "Conan"), fantasy films have been a whole load of mediocre tosh.

But why? Surely making a fantasy film isn't any harder than making any other type of film, and there's no shortage of good films in other genres, so why does the 'fantasy' label really mean "don't bother"?

I'm going to suggest two things:

Firstly, so many fantasy films, unless they set out to be a parody, are basically utterly devoid of humour - often deliberately so. "The Last Witchhunter" doesn't even try, which is probably a good call.

Secondly, fantasy films invariably reach for the hackneyed "end of the world" plot. Our heroes must rise up against impossible odds, or their whole world is going to come crashing down around them!

The net effect of these is that the whole thing becomes a po-faced worthy tale of plucky heroes doing their thing, just like every other fantasy film ever, with plot-by-numbers and heavy special effects. Lovely.

It's a crazy thought, I know, but maybe they should try... not doing that?

In his introduction to the short story collection "Rogues", George R.R. Martin actually hit on something quite important - most of the more satisfying stories out there feature a protagonist who is, at least in some sense, an outsider: the private investigator instead of the cop, or the kind of cop who gets the job done never mind "by the book" ("Dirty Harry"), or the woman in a man's world ("Agent Carter"), or the crook with a heart of gold ("Ocean's Eleven"), or the Federation starship out on their own where help can't reach them ("Star Trek" - and note that while Picard is the better captain, Kirk makes for better stories), or... (Oh, and it also explains why Batman films will always be better than Superman ones, which I find... disappointing, as I prefer the latter.)

(This introduction has also had a fairly significant impact on my philosophy of DMing, but most of that is still to actually play out, since I've run virtually no games since reading that anthology. But that's a topic for another place...)

The upshot of this that I'd suggest fantasy films should aim to take much more influence from the "Lankhmar" stories than from "Lord of the Rings" - a couple of ne'er-do-wells on their individual adventures, rather than the paragons of the realm trying to save their world. Or "The Three Musketeers" (the novel, or the York/Reed films, not the other film versions), or "Ocean's Eleven", or even the more recent "Fast & Furious" movies.

On the other hand, "The Last Witchhunter" did well enough for them to be making a sequel, so what do I know?

#6: "Ravenspur", by Conn Iggulden

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