Fantasy movies, and the success of the new Dungeons & Dragons film

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The list of great fantasy movies may be about as long as a halfling’s arm, but with the release of Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves, it just got one film longer. Why do so many fantastical stories struggle to make it to the screen – and why are even fewer of them any good?


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It’s hopefully not too controversial to say that The Lord of the Rings trilogy would be nowhere near as successful as it has been without Howard Shore’s score. The gentle lilting accompanying our introduction to The Shire; the chest-swelling bravado the first time the Fellowship of the Ring crosses into view; the pulse-racing sprint across the bridge of Khazad-dûm. All great moments lent a lot of extra emotional wallop by the 230-400-piece orchestra scurrying to keep up with our heroes’ many quests.

Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves, if I’m not getting too carried away, achieves something similar. Lorne Balfe (he of The LEGO Batman Movie and His Dark Materials fame) has done a stand-up job balancing out the film’s comedy and dramatic moments with a score that, crucially, takes the unfolding story seriously. Emotional moments are allowed to be emotional. Fight scenes are suitably swashbuckle-ly. The score invites us to laugh and cry at just the right moments.

In short, the fantasy element of the new Dungeons and Dragons movie doesn’t really matter all that much. That’s because, as well as the score, directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein paid close attention to the film’s pacing, character motivations, jokes, and even threw in a bunch of imaginative and really ingenious set pieces. They made, to put it bluntly, a really fun, really good, movie.

Why is that so notable, though? After all, it’s not as if fantasy stories themselves aren’t popular. Sci-fi/Fantasy novels rank consistently high in any bookshop’s bestsellers list, and streaming services certainly aren’t short of wizards, ghosts and goblins to parade at us for our amusement.

But at the cinema? Naming the truly great fantasy (not sci-fi) films of the 21st century gets a little tricky. There’s the Lord of the Rings trilogy, of course, and the Harry Potters. Stardust certainly has its fans, and I absolutely loved The Green Knight. But beyond that, our options really start to dry up.

There’s certainly an issue with the suspension of disbelief. While in written form, it’s slightly easier for us to accept that dragons and wizards can roam across a rough approximation of Medieval Europe, portraying those same elements on screen in a way our brains won’t immediately reject is, undoubtedly, trickier. But, even in film and TV adaptations which don’t work so well, the world they’ve managed to create is pretty breath-taking. Modern effects technology really can cover a lot of sins.

But still, with a few (admittedly massive) exceptions, most screen fantasy adaptations are hardly critical hits. Looking closer though, those few sword-and-sorcery fables which do break through have one thing all too many other examples lack: they spin a ruddy good yarn.

Let’s take a sideways step into the land of TV for a second, at probably the biggest live-action fantasy hit of this century – Game Of Thrones. There’s a lot of world-building in Thrones, from a hundred different houses to new continents and guilds of face-swapping assassins, but that’s hardly what most people stayed for (and no, I’m not talking about the naughty bits).

No, what really kept George R.R. Martin’s low-fantasy epic raking in new viewers were the characters, and, frankly, that people cared about them. Throw in rock-solid motivations, a consistent tone and an entertaining dose of politicking – which had less to do with the intricacies of the War of the Roses-inspired setting than the realisation that it’s a lot of fun seeing nasty people stab each other in the back – and HBO had themselves a cultural juggernaut.

Yes, Thrones took its setting seriously. But it took its story just as seriously, too. Abandon the dragons and army of ice zombies and most of the narrative, stripped back to its bare bones, worked.

Why does this matter? Because all too often fantasy films and TV shows seem to view worldbuilding as the most important building block of a good story, when in a lot of cases the opposite is true.

Let’s go back to Dungeons & Dragons for an example. Does it really matter if every audience member knows where Mordenkainen is, or can tell the difference between a red dragon and a gold dragon (besides the colour, of course)? No! What does matter is that they know Red Wizards are bad (bald heads, spooky eyes, keep turning people into zombies), Chris Pine wants a magical tablet to bring his wife back from the dead, and that Hugh Grant is having the time of his life reliving his Paddington 2 days. The same things that matter, then, in any other movie.

It sounds a little obvious to say, but in a world where fantasy books and properties mean an awful lot to a great many people, the pressure to recreate the intricacies of every corner of a magical landscape is enormous. But the schedules aren’t short of fantasy films and TV that give us weird and wonderful worlds. They are, sometimes, a little short on good stories. Let’s try and get those right first, eh?

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