Why Some Fantasy Franchises Fail

There’s a pattern I’ve noticed in failed movies trying to make the next Harry Potter out of a book series that had reasonable sales. They’re usually big budget, with tons of gorgeous CGI and special effects, and hit the box office like a cold lump of lead. There are a lot factors, I’m sure, in what makes a movie box-office poison, but the biggest one in fantasy movies, particularly those aimed at kids, is this: a missing sense of fun.

Now, I say fun because “sense of wonder” is what all those films are going for. The problem is a “sense of wonder” isn’t enough if the movie’s a dreary slog. Perhaps it was back in the 80s, when The Neverending Story captured a whole generation’s imagination despite being incredibly depressing. What I’m saying is vicariously getting to ride Falcor the Luck Dragon made up for watching a horse drown in the mud.

The Neverending Story eventually got a sequel, but much like part 2 of the book, it was a hundred times more unpleasant and deservedly tanked. All I’ll say about the second half of the book is it lives up to its title because no one’s ever finished it. Most films following the The Neverending Story format never get a sequel these days. After all, who wants to waste their time watching a humorless hero go through a thankless quest just to see a unicorn when there’s more enjoyable fantasy fare out there?

These movies tend to start with a Dickensian waif who has a dead-serious quest dropped on them like a ton of bricks. If it’s not right at the start, then it’s after establishing how horrible or boring the chosen one’s life is. The film, from then on, is laser focused on the quest with no time for levity. Every side character is there to hinder or aid the hero. Sidekicks are stalwart and rarely silly. If they’re kids, in human or CGI animal form, they’re never given any time onscreen to be kids.

How is a nine-year-old supposed to imagine themselves in the hero’s place if the kids in the film always act like the adults are watching them, rulers in hand, just waiting to smack them if they ever crack a smile? The only person allowed to smile is the villain planning evil deeds. If the hero is allowed a break, it turns out to be a horrible trap. Every piece of candy is poison and the meat pies steal your soul.

When it comes to translating a fantasy book into a movie, even a kids book, the goofing off scenes are often the first to get cut. Yet those scenes are the ones people remember when telling their friends how awesome a book or movie is. Take Harry Potter, which started with the sad orphan in a closet trope, but quickly moved on to a new world filled with flying trains and magical jellybeans. The dreary version of this story tends to keep the magical train, but drops the magical jellybeans, and that’s a huge mistake. Magical jellybeans, and other bits of silliness, remind the audience that these kids are still kids. Even as an adult I want to read about the magical jellybeans. Without them, the story loses its flavor (insert sad trombone noise).

This even applies to fantasy movies not specifically targeted at kids. Peter Jackson did one thing right when he adapted the Lord of the Rings – he added levity in places where it was desperately needed, even if it wasn’t in the book, with hobbits talking about second breakfast and so on. It’s something he failed to do as he stretched The Hobbit into three movies, which partly accounts for why they were so dreadful to sit through. You’d think, by stretching the runtime beyond the breaking point, he could have spent more time getting to know each dwarf and let them joke around, but past the first movie they dropped all that for one tedious action sequence after another. The only time characters talked to each other was to bitterly argue and lose all the rapport they’d established with the audience before.

All this is easier to take in the books, somehow, perhaps because there’s no soundtrack in the background constantly reminding us bad things are about to happen by going DUN DUN DUNNN… Any breathing space in the book has fresher air. The reader can linger, rather than being railroaded from one mini-climax to the next. It’s hard to capture even a sense of wonder if the film cuts panning over glorious mountains in favor of more shaky-cam sword fights. Its like the movie industry forgot what makes fantasy appealing because they’re comparing themselves to video games (like Skyrim, that managed to turn killing dragons into a tedious chore) instead of the books they’re based on.

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Sarah Dimento

The only thing interesting about me is my interest in interesting things – and sometimes I make cool shit.

5 thoughts to “Why Some Fantasy Franchises Fail”

  1. Well, you made me look – at the Wikipedia entry.

    I am glad I never read it. Sounds depressing – with no useful stuff for a woman to learn from it.

    I’m sure it has its lovers – but you need some redeeming stuff in there for me; life itself is morbid enough already. I shall have to consult the offspring, see if any of them read it/watched it(them).

    I don’t do stories in which there’s no one to identify with – life is too short!

    Fortunately for me, I write stories with strong identification – and I like that just fine.

    1. The Neverending Story Part 1 is the only part most people remember. A standard heroes journey with a touch of weird, so it has its appeal. I liked it as a kid enough to attempt the book. Part 2 was so unenjoyable I stopped reading. The kid who saved the world (in the book he was reading by “clapping for Tinkerbell”) got sucked into the fantasy world, and then proceeded to be a dick, constantly, to absolutely everyone—including the people he’d lived vicariously through while reading the book. He basically stomped around yelling, “Now I’m here for real, you’re all my toys!” I got what it was going for, that old power-corrupts-be-careful-what-you-wish-for trope, but it didn’t make it an enjoyable or even interesting read.

      It was as though the author was thinking, “Now that I’ve set the reader’s expectations, I’m going to dash them. Dash them all! Ha ha ha, stupid kids (I hate them so much).”

      1. Now I REALLY don’t want to read it.

        Thanks – you probably saved me many hours I could never get back.

        The German and northern European fantasies and fairy tales and folk tales (Baron Munchausen, anyone?) seem to have a dark and unbelievable component – not me at all. I read Grimm when I was younger, but didn’t seek out more.

        They are of the ‘this is the crappy way the world is and there is nothing you can do about it’ cast. Maybe it’s the long winters.

  2. I really love grimdark stuff–but one of the MOST important components of dark stories is the humour and humanity. You have to have that warm core at the centre of all the darkness, or it’s all for naught and readers will basically just spiral into depression. Even the last book in the HP series made me laugh as well as cry, and that was really important. Heck, the Hunger Games book series made me laugh a few times, too, something that the movies did NOT convey well.

    1. A lot of 80s kids movies were super dark and humorless, which is why only a handful are remembered fondly. The Dark Crystal, for example, is pretty dark, but it’s still full of Muppets doing ridiculous things, which is why people still enjoy it. The Secret of NIMH, on the other hand, was a wall-to-wall depressathon with not a gleam of hope in sight. Even the comic relief characters were more nasty than amusing. All that movie did was give me nightmares as a kid, and I don’t know anyone who’s seen it who has the urge to watch it ever again.

      There’s a difference between dark and sad as well. The Iron Giant is best known as the movie that makes little boys cry (hell it makes grown men cry—it makes everyone cry), but it’s crammed with humor and lighthearted bits. It’s also written by Brad Bird, so it’s incredible.

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