Next week Peter Jackson concludes his time in Middle-Earth with The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies, and thus will conclude audiences’ cinematic journey into the world of high fantasy for some time. To get nerdily precise for a moment, high fantasy (a term coined by author Lloyd Alexander) bears a distinction from contemporary fantasy or magical realism by taking place in a world with entirely different geographies from our own, populated by mythic creatures such as elves, dragons, dwarves, wizards and the like. These worlds are often characterized by clothing and weapons that are medieval in design, and lack the technology we associate with the modern world. The term high fantasy is ultimately what separates Harry Potter, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, from The Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones.
What’s interesting about the high fantasy genre is despite its enormous literary popularity, the genre hasn’t translated very well to movie screens, especially compared to science-fiction. One reason being that science-fiction can create easier parallels to our modern society (we’re definitely seeing that with the current young adult adaptation boom) and the genre relies far less on tropes of design and character. The 80s saw some significant high fantasy releases, some geared more towards younger audiences (The Neverending Story, The Dark Crystal) but most drew older crowds. Many of these films, which critics often scathingly referred to as sword & sorcery films, exist now as cult curiosities more than pop-culture phenomena. Nevertheless, they can be credited with helping pave the way towards Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations.
When in 2004 The Return of the King won all 11 Oscars for which it was nominated, including Best Picture, there were many who expected a mass revival of high fantasy films, particularly given the film’s box office clout. After all, the Oscar wins and popularity of films including Star Wars, The Silence of the Lambs, and Spider-Man affected Hollywood’s production interests in ways that can still be seen to this day, resulting in dozens of imitations in varying degrees of quality. It seemed it was only a matter of time before all the genre fans with their walls adorned with Frank Frazetta art, and tomes of Ursala Le Guin, and Robert Jordan in hand, would see their favorites come to life on the big screen. Only that isn’t what happened. Outside of Jackson’s films, the high fantasy landscape has been pretty barren. Sure, we’ve seen a wide release of fairy tale films, but this is something different as their scope is smaller and more moralistic than high fantasy. The highly-popular Game of Thrones has LOTR to thank in part for its success, but television is a less risky venture than film and Martin’s saga hasn’t renewed much cinematic interest in the genre. In the next couple years the only announced high fantasy releases are the long-delayed and modestly budgeted The Seventh Son, and Duncan Jones’ big-budgeted Warcraft. Perhaps they’ll be successful and studios will feel safe putting like-minded titles into production. Or perhaps they’ll be like the following films, enjoyable titles that fit easily within the pre-established mold, but for one reason or another never elevated high fantasy to the status enjoyed by the other genres.
1. Excalibur (1981) – John Boorman
What It Had Going For It: The story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Roundtable is one of the greatest fantasy epics of all time, predating and influencing Tolkien’s tales. Boorman’s take on Arthurian legend elevates the film above the other fantasy films of time. It’s a moody, and at times visually experimental film that is just as concerned with character as it is with stunning imagery. It’s a film that has the clear vision of a director and not the hand of the studio. Outside of Jackson’s films, Excalibur is the best high fantasy film there is. Featuring a young Sir Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, Helen Mirren and a mesmerizing performance by Nicol Williamson, the film isn’t short on acting talent. The fantasy aspect is mostly understated, relying more so on magical illusion than strange creatures. The film sometimes slips into melodrama, but its theatricality only adds to the film’s grand vision. The film’s trailer, which offers a taste of that vision, remains one of the best trailers of all time, one that only the 80s could have produced.
What Happened: Excalibur was a critical and modest financial success, but never brokeout to reach any pop cultural recognition. Boorman, in his ambition, told the totality of Arthur’s story which prevented sequels. But the popularization of the story led to numerous adaptations of the story of King Arthur over the years in film, television, and animation. Some of these stories have added more of the traditional high fantasy tropes while others have aimed for a more historical approach. Guy Ritchie will be directing Charlie Hunnam in an eight film adaptation of the life and death of Arthur and his knights, though it is unknown at this time how fantastical that take will be.