I’m pretty sure George Lucas is sweating right now.
No doubt everybody reading this has seen The Lord of the Rings; personally, as I write, it is the end of January, and I have seen it four times. Finally, a modern mainstream fantasy movie that has depth and actually does justice to its source material. No loin-clothed barbarians, no ridiculous swords, no Hollywood-style stupidity, just down-to-earth fantasy.
What I am wondering now is how it will affect fantasy as a whole. I figure it could go two ways: either it will bring new life to the genre across every media imaginable, or it will cast it down into the abyss.
As it is, the new movie is a shining example of what fantasy is capable of. That isn’t much of a surprise; Peter Jackson did his source material justice, and if any fantasy novel will be remembered five hundred years from now, it will be The Lord of the Rings. The problem lies in how it will be interpreted.
Ideally, it should be an inspiration, not only to authors and screenwriters, but also to game companies such as Blizzard. Imagine what fantasy games could be like now, now that a highly literary fantasy movie has grossed over $500 million worldwide in only four weeks. Imagine the storytelling potential, now that the bean-counters know that the general public will go in for intelligent, multi-layered fantasy movies. In two years, Diablo II and Baldur’s Gate could be considered primitive.
Unfortunately, especially when it comes to movie licenses, both Hollywood and the computer game industry have a habit of completely missing the point. I’ve read about two Lord of the Rings games in the works, one of which will have Frodo Baggins leaping around like one of the Super Mario Brothers, and the other only marginally better. In-depth role-playing? Who needs it! After all, it’s only based on the most beloved fantasy novel of the last hundred years.
(Think I’m kidding? From the Official Xbox Magazine: “Frodo must rely on stealth and cunning and actually a fair amount of Mario 64-style platform stuff. Aragorn, of course, is a capable swordsman, and Gandalf, hoary old mage that he is, must rely on powerful spells. He simply can’t hop around on teetering rock platforms like Frodo.”)
I can already see it: film executives declaring to their scriptwriters that they need Elves and Orcs in their next movie, a resurgence of mindless Dungeons & Dragons-style games, and umpteen new writers thinking that in order to write fantasy you need to copy Tolkien.
The Lord of the Rings is a special book for many reasons. Unfortunately, the imitative often only look at the trappings of the story, rather than seeing what Tolkien actually did. Fantasy had been around for almost four hundred years before Tolkien came onto the scene, but always as a curiosity. What Tolkien did was to create a piece of literature with depth and feeling, using a background drawn from a variety of European mythologies. Rather than use the sword-and-sorcery archetypes prevalent in authors such as Robert E. Howard, he did his own thing with the fantastic setting. In the process, he catapulted fantasy from a curiosity to a full-fledged genre.
All the best authors do their own thing. I have yet to see somebody try to outdo or copy Lord of the Rings and succeed. However, those telling stories of their own using a similar mythology (such as Dennis McKiernan’s Mithgar series, or Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn) often manage to bring something wonderful into the world. The key to successful fantasy is not to mindlessly copy what has already worked, but to take the mythologies that speak to you and do your own thing with them.
I hope that the genre is reinvigorated. I really do. Fantasy is capable of so much more than mainstream fiction, as it is not limited by the real world. It is a genre of the imagination, allowing the author to take the reader into incredible landscapes, and forge a new mythology for the twenty-first century. The last thing the genre needs is to be buried with crap from a billion imitators trying to tell the next great Elf story. With the darkness of the World Trade Center bombing, the war in Afghanistan, and the violence in Israel, I fear that brave new worlds are something we are in dire need of. The time is ripe for a fantasy renaissance. I only pray that we get it.
Next installment: Is Diablo Dead?, in which your author, who has finally run out of silly adjectives to describe himself, examines whether or not Diablo II has finally finished its run.
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