Written by Irina Mugford
Many say that fantasy in all of its different genres has migrated to TV. After all, the other mammoth of the high fantasy genre - Game of Thrones’s A Song of Ice and Fire - is now potentially the most popular TV show in the world, and the urban fantasy American Gods may be set to follow in its footsteps. But among the sea of superhero movies and sci-fi adaptations, these rare exceptions hardly prove anything contrary to what we’re saying. Almost all recent fantasy films flopped in the box office and were harshly judged by the critics.
A lot of people cite high budgets and enormous financial risks as the main reasons why the output of fantasy movies has died out. This is fair, as the industry has become increasingly stingy seeing the flops that followed the LoTR high (again, looking at YOU, Eragon!). But truly, before LoTR it was the same situation - the risks and budget were high and there were no guarantees - and yet the fairy-tale like story of New Zealander Peter Jackson securing the funds and the contract for all three instalments in one go happened. So why can’t it happen again?
In a way, I would agree with this but not for the reasons cited. There’s something to be said about how long it takes for any genre of fantasy to explain the universe and get the reader/audience immersed into it enough to care, how much work needs to be done to achieve this. Tolkien had to spend literally his lifetime to develop a universe thought-out and well-crafted enough to ring true and allow readers to immerse themselves in it completely. Very few authors have the privilege, the smarts and the ability to develop languages, mythology, unique flora and fauna for their universes. Borrowing from Tolkien is something most fantasy authors do now without even realising it anymore (see my comment about elves) because his universe was and is one of the very few that actually worked on all levels.
That is not to say that there aren’t any other works like that. Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere universe comes to mind, as well as Pratchett’s Discworld. They are almost as sprawling and well-build as Middle Earth (perhaps with the exclusion of actual new languages created for them, but hey, comparisons to Tolkien are never a fair game), and afford the same level of immersion. But here comes the biggest challenge faced by fantasy writers that came after Tolkien - they are not as widely read. No other fantasy work has been used in 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.” Certainly none of them are considered pillars of modern literature. The general public either has never heard of them or, if they have, has no interest in investing hours and hours of reading and getting to know new universes.
Now imagine trying to explain the Middle Earth lore on film if Tolkien wasn’t already a respected and acclaimed author. Similarly, imagine the amount of exposition and clarification that would be necessary, the time that would need to be devoted to explain the complex system of magic in Cosmere and the intricate if absurdist universe of the Discworld. That almost sounds like a full feature film only to get the audience acquainted with the world; an audience that grows increasingly impatient and time-aware, and will not condone any films that aren’t action-packed to the brim anymore.
But as LoTR has taught us all, there’s hope in the darkest of times. Sanderson’s Mistbornand The Way of Kings have been optioned and are rumoured to be in the works already. The Game of Thrones success - whether attributable to the fantasy genre or not - has somewhat convinced the entertainment industry that there’s still money to be gained in there. The audience, turning to the A Song of Ice and Fire books in-between the seasons of the TV show may still discover other works in the genre and find the joy of it. Others may follow Mistborn, and the bright light of the stars will shine again on the realm of fantasy (hopefully).
Don’t get me wrong, we may never have another LoTR. Much like the elves and magic left Middle Earth, so have they almost left our world entirely. It is now the age of superheroes and looking into the future of the world as we know it, instead of trying to imagine new worlds for us, and the sprawling nature of fantasy and the commitment it craves may never have another golden-age (at least not based on new IP). The likes of Fantastic Beasts will have their audience because they already knows the universe well enough to warrant a complete lack of exposition, but newer works may never see the light of day. But I choose to stay positive and hope that the tides will turn again.