There is a thin line between awesome and silly – why live action fantasy rarely works.

Jun 21, 2021 | caffeine, thoughts

It goes without saying that we are in the midst of a fantasy purge when it comes to movies and television. Netflix has the Witcher, Shadow and Bone and a Message for the King (among others) House of the Dragon is coming on HBO, and Amazon is putting out both a Wheel of Time and a Tolkien series. Very well, very good. Yet there is also cause to be nervous.The hard nub of the matter is, live-action fantasy films and tv are VERY hard to pull off. There is a very thin and faint line between something that is awesome and good, and a piece of pure, rancid cheese, something that goes beyond kitsch or so bad it’s good to just plain bloody awful.

Now, when I talk about fantasy film and tv, I mean fantasy film and tv…something that is set in a world-setting that is completely separate from the world that we know, a fantastical world with its own rules, its own characters and ecology that are completely unconnected from our own. Middle Earth, not Middle England or America. A lot of what ets called fantasy on the screen is more accurately described as Urban Fantasy, which takes the fantastickal elements and fits it into our own world. Netflix’s Bright for example (a grossly underrated movie) or True Blood. By grounding the elements in the world we know, which is familiar, it sets the suspension of disbelief lower than it otherwise would be, since the fantasy is mingled with that which we find familiar. 

Traditional fantasy (be it epic, high or low, or sword and sorcery) is different in that the setting has to stand on its own. Gondor isn’t a place in Wisconsin, Geralt of Rivia isn’t slaying monsters in modern-day Germany or Poland. The setting has to look real, or has to feel real. And most importantly, the characters ithin it have look like they are living in that world, and not merely pretending to live in it If elves or orcs exist in the world, then there has to be a place from whence they come, and the person playing such a character has to give the impression he or she is as much a part of it as the trees and rocks around him.

I supposes the best way to describe it is the difference between the Shannara Chronicles on MTV from a few years back, and the Lord of the RIngs movies. And yes, the difference in budget is immense, but for the purposes of this post, immaterial. In one of these we have actual elves, whose presence feels right and natural. In the other…we have actors wearing elf ears glues to the sides of their heads. If there is a line between awesome an dumb, it starts there. 

It all boils down to one thing – suspension of disbelief:

Suspension of disbelief, sometimes called willing suspension of disbelief, is the intentional avoidance of critical thinking or logic in examining something unreal or impossible in reality, such as a work of speculative fiction, in order to believe it for the sake of enjoyment.

When it comes to live action fantasy, the level one has to hit for this to work is much higher than it is for horror or sci fi. Real elves vs someone wearing elf ears, as opposed to someone one playing a Vulcan on Star Trek. Scifi is grounded (if often tenuously) in actual science, , and thus in the real world (more or less…) It’s easier to explain visually with actual live actors. 

And let’s be clear, the fantasy genre hasn’t done itself a lot of favors when it comes to live action movies and shows. There is a library of cheesetastic crap going all the way back to the 70’s…usually an excuse to show hot women in bodices and muscled fellows swinging swords. Conan the Barbarian was an awesome movie…the Barbarian Queen is not. Go on your Amazon Prime account today, and you find hiding in odd corners some truly horrendous stuff (and some stuff that actually isn’t that bad.) Low budget fromage…best enjoyed really drunk (for starters.)

Add to that the tendency of something that is inherently fantastical to be ‘relevant’ to insert real-world issues in a world that by definition does not exist. Now this can be done, and done very well, but it works better in books, where the author has the tie and space to fully explore it. Ina  two hour film or thirteen episode season, it usually comes across as jarring.

So yes, I am looking forward to House of the Dragon, and would like very much to see how the Wheel of Time translates on screen. But it’s all with crossed fingers and bated breath. 

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