NewsWire: Can Fantasy Take Flight? - Los Angeles Times

It's never an easy genre to translate to the screen, but Hollywood hopes to get it right with Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Here is are excerpts from Mary McNamara's article for The Los Angeles Times.


Every moviemaker will tell you it's all about the story. Director, producer, screenwriter, animator will look you straight in the eye and say, "It's all about the story." Even when it comes to fantasy. Especially when it comes to fantasy.

If this is true, then the one-two-punch openings of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Friday) and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Dec. 19), the first installment of Peter Jackson's film version of The Lord of the Rings, should make box-office history. There's nothing wrong with either of those stories, as book sales and slavish reader devotion have proved.

The first four volumes of what author J.K. Rowling promises will be a seven-book Harry Potter series have sold more than 100 million copies in just four years, making it the publishing phenomenon of the past decade. Since its publication in 1954, 50 million copies of The Lord of the Rings,, J.R.R. Tolkien's 1,110-page trilogy, have been sold; it was named Book of the Century by Waterstone's bookstore chain.

The trailers for both Harry Potter and Fellowship have generated more heat than most feature films. For Harry Potter, children fly on broomsticks, levitating candles light a cavernous dining room, staircases unhitch themselves and move like serpents. For Fellowship, waist-high hobbits, elves and dwarfs, men and one wise wizard battle goblin-like orcs, faceless black riders, a chain-wielding troll and a fire-breathing creature as they attempt to destroy a magic ring that would enslave them.

The built-in audience of fans alone should ensure otherworldly opening-weekend numbers, and the studios know it. Warner Bros. handed Harry Potter director Chris Columbus $100 million, and New Line has bet the farm: At $300 million, Jackson's trilogy represents the future of the studio. Of the two, Harry Potter easily has the better odds--the characters were celebrities long before the movie was cast, and each new book in the series is awaited like manna from heaven--but either project is easy money if it's all about the story.

But, of course, it isn't. If it were all about the story, there'd be more fantasy films than buddy films, more mystical tales than teen comedies, more wizards and ogres than desperately seeking singles and their hapless friends. Certainly the fantasy sections of bookstores everywhere take up more floor space than, say, Mafia fiction or even modern romance. The back-to-back film debuts of Harry Potter and Tolkien's hero, Frodo Baggins, are remarkable not just because they bring two well-loved novels to the screen, but because they represent a genre that is chronically underrepresented on film.

"Film can take a fantasy story to another dimension," said Fran Walsh, Jackson's longtime partner and co-screenwriter of Lord of the Rings. "Given that this is the only medium that can do that, it isn't done very often, which surprises me a bit." She added, laughing, "Of course, it's not easy to do, as we have found."

"Fantasy is a delicate thing," said screenwriter Charles Edgar Pogue ("The Fly, Dragonheart). "It requires a great deal of whimsy and poetry if done right, and those are two terms that frighten most executives."

Kenneth Von Gunden, a film professor at Pennsylvania State University and author of "Flights of Fantasy: The Great Fantasy Films," notes that "there has been a lot of sword and sorcery, and poor Tolkien must bear some of the responsibility. But 90% of any [genre] is crap. The problem with fantasy is that when things look ludicrous, it's hard to get into it at all."

A fantasy, more than any other genre of film, needs more than a good script. It needs to hold the audience suspended in a creation as vivid and tenuous as a soap bubble. Good fantasy films are among the most glorious--Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, The Thief of Baghdad, The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Excalibur --while bad fantasy films are just embarrassing. Think Jeremy Irons in Dungeons & Dragons> or the '50s-style monster films that boomers grew up on.

"I've always loved fantasy as a genre," said Rings director Jackson, "but there aren't many good fantasy films. King Kong, the early version, takes you out of this world into a new world, and it profoundly affected me. I wanted to make larger-than-life films."

But, he added, "traditionally, [fantasy] has not performed well at the box office. The genre has become mired in a sword-and-sorcery mind-set and heavy-metal pop culture, which has possibly limited its appeal. You could say it has suffered a lack of ideas, which is not true of fantasy fiction."

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In this digital age, much is expected from fantasy film's special effects. Rowling has repeatedly told the press that one of the main reasons she agreed to a movie was to see what the special-effects wizards could do with the broomstick-riding game of Quidditch. And the genesis of Jackson's project was his purchase of 30 computers for his 1996 movie The Frighteners -- he needed another high-tech project to justify their cost. (This is more than a little ironic, considering that one of the trilogy's strongest themes is the corrupting influence of industrialism and technology.)

"You could not have made this movie 10 years ago," said Richard Taylor, supervisor of Weta Ltd., the New Zealand physical effects house Jackson helped found 14 years ago. (The three films were shot in New Zealand, an 18-month production.) "Technology has finally caught up with the imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien. Now you can have 10,000 orcs streaming all over the place, and battles with thousands, tens of thousands of warriors, or a city in the treetops."

Or a hobbit. One of the most difficult things to do cinematically was create the small but not dwarfish humanoids that became Tolkien's trademark. The tale follows hobbit Frodo Baggins and three of his friends as they travel through the many lands of Middle Earth, facing numerous perils in an attempt to destroy the magic ring Frodo has inherited. In The Fellowship of the Ring, they are aided by a disparate group: Two men, a dwarf, an elf and a wizard round out the party the title describes.

Taylor and partner Tania Rodger oversaw the movie's physical effects, everything from sets to costumes to the miniatures from which the digital creations were shot. In Rings, every frame was stored in a digital library, allowing Jackson and his team to manipulate anything they wished--the landscape, the lighting, the characters, even smoke rings. A clip of the film shown at this year's Cannes Film Festival includes a race down a disintegrating staircase in the mines of Moria. Originally, it was to be just the fellowship running down a jagged bit of stairs. Then, in storyboard meetings, one idea followed another, and the moments on the staircase became as dramatic as any in the film, and as pricey.

"The joke at New Line is that those are the most expensive three lines of any script," Jackson said. "Because up until the moment they saw it, they thought it was just a run down a staircase."

***

"The point of special effects is that they don't jar the audience out of its seats," Taylor said. "And just like a magician doesn't confine himself to one set of tricks, Peter didn't want to give the audience a chance to catch on, to leave the story to figure out how one thing or another was done."

Although he calls Rings the most technologically advanced film ever, Taylor stressed that much of the work was extremely low-tech. To create a world where dwarfs and elves battle Uruk-hai and orcs requires a lot of latex, among other things. More than 1,600 pairs of prosthetic feet and ears alone were made, and 200 orc heads.

Much armor was required, and many swords, and so Taylor set up a blacksmith shop; the armor, he said with pride, was made with the same techniques used 500 years ago. To make the sylvan Hobbiton, the community where Frodo Baggins lives and where the movie opens, Taylor planted acres of vegetable and flower gardens a year before filming. You can't get more basic than a smithy and a garden.

In the end, however, events may wind up more significant than effects. Penn State's Von Gunden predicts these two movies are going to be enormous hits because they offer precisely what the country needs right now: escape, and a righteous battle between good and evil.


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