Sword and Sorcery movies in the 80's & 90's (up to 2001)
(click for more detail)
(I can find no data for Hawk the Slayer '80)
note - even adjusting for inflation the earlier films had small budgets - thus The Sword and The Sorcerer looks like it was huge, but it had a $4 million budget and took in $40 million. The Harry Potter films on the other hand made a smaller fractional profit (costing ~$1 billion and earning ~$7 billion) but clearly reached a much larger audience.
Shit got real!
For a long time fantasy on both the big and the small screens just didn’t seem to work. Every now and then someone would notice the obvious and overwhelming love for the books (primarily Tolkien) and the sub-culture (primarily D&D centered) and convince themselves that a fantasy film would be a good idea. The film would be made, not do as well as hoped, and there would be a pause for six months, or a year or two, or all of the 90s.
The thing is that whilst those steeped in fantasy books have been reasonably receptive to attempts to make the movie, the general public (who you really need at your film if it’s to make money) are a bit more suspicious.
This has been changing all millennium – very large dents have been put in the anti-fantasy prejudice by Harry Potter at the kids’ end of the market and Lord of the Rings at the grownup end. The work for these major successes was (unusually) done at the book-level though. Generally fantasy films do not rely on the readers of the book that inspired the movie for their audience. Generally books don’t have enough readers to fill movie theaters across a nation. Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, with their sales in the hundreds of millions, break this truism.
More often though it’s the idea/story/film-making/actors that sell the film and the book may ride the wave of any success generated rather than making the wave for the film to ride.
I've watched the recent triumph of A Game of Thrones on HBO with great interest. I've looked at the audience reaction on youtube and seen people who may never have read a fantasy book (or even a book, period) leap up from their couches yelling 'oh no they didn't' and 'this shit just got real' before stomping off into the kitchen to cool down after 'their man Ned' met his fate.
How did this happen? I can tell you for sure it wouldn't happen with the kind of fantasy films we often saw in the 80's where the actors were chosen for their biceps or flat stomachs and strolled on set with more hair product in place than left on the salon shelves. It wouldn't happen for films where the dialogue drops leaden from pretty lips and leaves even the actors slightly embarrassed. It wouldn't happen for films where fight scenes involve everyone waving their swords about and grunting, and the occasional baddie falling over when slapped with a blade.
What makes fantasy work on the screen is when everyone involved believes in what they're doing. There's no hamming it up, no winks to the audience, the people are as dirty as the situation dictates and as variously ugly or attractive as the rest of us. People swear, wounds bleed, surviving matters. And taking everything seriously doesn't mean there can't be humor in there. It doesn't even have to be dark humor - I'm watching Breaking Bad and there are genuine touching funny moments in it - it just means that the humor has to arise naturally, not as one-liners to camera.
Game of Thrones works because the characters are brilliantly written and brilliantly acted. In the end it's all about character - first, middle, last - the characters make you give a damn what's happening. And of course you need to feed your actors - they eat good dialogue - they'll take the smallest opportunity to sound like real people and work it - give them a chance.
All those films that slapped a sword and a leather harness on a muscle-man, put a castle in the background and let him slay foes... they missed the point and their audience. Well... except for Conan of course... but Arnie is VERY muscly and he did have some good lines:
Mongol General: Conan! What is best in life?
Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their significant others.
... or something like that anyway.
Anyway, to return to my point, whatever it was... the way to make this shit get real is to put real people on the screen - the best actors available and ones who are committed to the story.
Jeremy Irons is a good actor - but put him on the set of a fantasy film and it all goes wrong. I saw another good actor interviewed on TV the other day talking about a martial arts film he was in to pay the bills when not in theater.
"Do you like martial arts films?" the interviewer asked.
"God no," said the actor.
Well that's fine - I don't love them myself (except I really did like Kiss of the Dragon), but the point is that acting is hard. If you have to use part of that effort pretending to be into the thing in the first place there may not be enough left to do what's needed.
So to conclude - it's the actors, stupid. They don't have to look like pieces of Frank Frazetta art - they do have to be great at acting. Feed them the right lines and all will be well.