We live in a golden age of genre fiction. We are also living in the Golden Age of TV. Yet for some reason, fantasy and the visual medium are very hard to put together in a way that isn’t cringe-inducing, eye rolling or just ridiculous.
Budgets matter, of course, everyone points to the Lord of the Rings trilogy as a way to to do it right. And if you had a few hundred million dollars to play around with, and a director who really knows what he is doing, then a lot of rough edges can be sanded off.
But then move into smaller productions with smaller budgets on smaller screens, where fantasy, straight up and without irony or snark, becomes a lot harder to pull off. In the 90’s, we had Sam Raimi’s Hercules and Xena, plus a whole bunch of other forgettable shows, a few of which starred Bruce Campbell. Watching them today is strictly an exercise in nostalgia dripping in cheese. If you really like your fromage thick to the point of suffocating, jump back a decade earlier to the glorious days of Willow, Hawk the Slayer, Gor…Beastmaster. Not to say those aren’t enjoyable, but only with a heavy dose of that most modern of sins, irony.
Why is fantasy so hard to get right on the screen? Lets move on to today. People will point to Game of Thrones as an example of the genre done right…but I would add some heavy caveats. A lot of the fantasical elements are toned down (although that changed a lot in the last season) and what we often end up with is a very grimdark pseudo-historical drama with a heavy side order of gratuitous sex and rape. Others might point to the Magicians, now in its second season, but that seems more like a standard Millennials-dealing-with-angsty-millennial problems show with a fantastic gloss…GIRLS in magical drag.
Consider the Shannara Chronicles on MTV. Now…I liked this show, but there were a number of cringe-worthy moments in it that made me look away. Elf-ears look good in the imagination and on the comic book page…not so much when glued onto the side of an actresses head. The wondrous landscapes and great quests that drive fantasy so hard looked better in the imagination than when visualized as special effects. And how do people spend weeks romping through the woods of the Four Lands without looking more than a bit smudged?
Which I think gets to the crux of the matter. Fantasy at its purest is an exercise in imagination. No CGI landscape will every compare to the one conjured up in your head. No actor will be as handsome, no leading lady as glorious, as the ones interpreted by your mind. Compared to that, the visual images just seems…well, less. Successful fantasy shows are ones that anchor the fantastical elements in real-word settings, because it means the mind doesn’t have to work as hard. True Blood, for example, placed vampires, witches, werewolves and fairies in a recognizable southern setting. The Magicians alternates between modern-day New York and Fillory, with characters who, aside from the ability to cast spells, could be your old college roommates.
There is no picture so beautiful as the ones that exist purely in your head…