Thursday 17 October 2013

This shit just got real!

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.


  1. Amen to all that. I'm not the biggest GoT fan but it sure has everything down right - acting, script, etc. I wonder though, is GoT is the Star Trek/Star Wars of fantasy? How much will its fans be willing to move beyond it to other works in the genre? Is there really potential for other well done epic/heroic fantasy films?

  2. I think all the factors you stated are important, but one of the main factors in the rise of popularity of fantasy in my opinion is the great leap that special effects underwent on the brink of this millennium (CGI). "Shit just got real" - it began to look real.

    I might be projecting because cheesy special effects usually mean for me complete death of interest in a fantasy film, but I believe I am not alone. Also timeline-wise CGI appeared exactly at the end of 90s - beginning of 00s.

    1. Yeah, bad effects are killers, agreed - but often you can avoid needing them rather than use bad ones.

  3. No Hawk the Slayer! I'm outraged, outraged I tells ya! Errr . . . anyway, I wonder if the success of Superhero movies, tv, etc. is connected. It seems like both have had growing mainstream appeal in recent years, almost in parallel.

    1. It's mentioned under the diagram - I couldn't find figures for it.

  4. Jeremy Irons is a good actor - but put him on the set of a fantasy film and it all goes wrong.

    Multiple times, even, which is the "hilarious" part.

  5. Yeah but that Dungeons and Dragons movie (2000) was god awful. I mean really, really bad. It was just pure cheese. I did not like it.

    When I lived in Seattle I'd go to all the Terry Brooks events. Every book release or appearance I was there. Great guy, always wonderful to go to one of his events. Anyway, inevitably someone would always ask about the status of turning his books into a Movie or show. Every event someone asked this. It's an obvious question too; with the success of LotR, Shannara seemed like a good bet. But I always dreaded it. I hope(d) they never make any of Terry's stuff into a movie, or a show. Have you seen Legend of the Seeker? That's why. Because I don't trust Hollywood... I'm scared it'll just be another massive cheese fest.

    Anyway, that's just my two cents. Maybe I'm wrong.

  6. Incubus Jax: You're not wrong.

    The D&D movie was one of the worst of all time. And Legend of the Seeker was a travesty.

  7. One of my favorites that isn't on your chart is Dragonslayer. It came out in 1981 and is still my favorite movie dragon. Although I hope that's about to change with the second Hobbit movie.

    As someone that grew up playing D&D almost non-stop from the late 70's to mid 80's, I've been disappointed time and again by Hollywood's many attempts at fantasy filmmaking. They did occasionally get it right in the 80's and 90's, Excalibur, Conan, and Willow being prime examples, but for the most part they failed miserably. I do agree they probably reached their low point in the D&D movie. Absolute crap. But the LOTR movies and GOT gives me hope that Hollywood might have learned from their mistakes. I'd love to see more fantasy brought to the big screen, as long as they'll spend the money and time to do them properly.