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Can Fantasy Take Flight?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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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.”

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“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.”

“Harry Potter” director Columbus said he had always loved writing fantasy, but when it came to directing such a movie, he shied away for years. “I thought that fantasy was mostly about the effects. And I was more interested in working with actors, more interested in performance. It wasn’t until I read ‘Harry’ that I realized it was all about character. And I fell in love with it. When we started, I kept thinking, why haven’t I been doing this sort of thing all along?”

Many people are hoping “Harry Potter” and “Fellowship of the Ring” prove to be heralds of a fantasy renaissance. Certainly, few movies have been so anticipated. For almost two years, rumors about casting, special effects, locations and, inevitably, departures from the text in both films have filled the media and the Internet. Both projects established Web sites long before the films were finished shooting; when the latest trailer for “Rings” was released in September, the more than 3 million subsequent hits on New Line’s Web site brought down the server for more than a day.

“It is a feast after a long drought,” said Dan Persons, editor of Cinefantastique, a magazine devoted to the film genre. “You have the alpha and the omega of fantasy fiction.”

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Persons and other fans of fantasy believe that the two films will expand Hollywood’s diminished definition of the genre. The recently opened computer-animated “Monsters, Inc.” from Pixar/Disney is, according to Persons, a good example of what most industry executives currently want. “It’s an ironic, broad-based comedy, a sort of ‘wink, wink’ interpretation of fantasy, like ‘Shrek’ or even ‘The Princess Bride.’ These movies were incredibly well done, but they are not strictly fantasy.”

Real fantasy, he said, requires a legitimate alternative world that is not diminished by irony. And because it’s hard for most people to talk about unicorns and elves with a straight face, fantasy films have often succeeded only when tarted up with science-fiction, as in the “Star Wars” series. George Lucas has always insisted that his work was fantasy, not science-fiction; spaceships notwithstanding, the trials of the intergalactic alliance, more than movies like “Willow” or “Dragonheart,” have set the stage for “Harry Potter” and “The Lord of the Rings.”

“Back in 1977, when ‘Star Wars’ came out, there was a huge and immediate following,” says Ted Sherman, an English professor at Middle Tennessee University and editor of Mythlore, a journal put out by the Mythopoeic Society. “Everyone wondered what the draw was, and many people missed the point--it wasn’t the technology, it was fantasy. That is what moves people. The classic confrontation of good and evil. It is the ultimate theme of literature and captured best in fantasy.”

Fantasy is where story itself began, with its mythic immortals who ruled the heavens and the underworld, quests by heroes beset by the Minotaur and medusa, ancient tales of enchanted swords and rings and cups that bestow power on their bearers. Civilization’s early tales address the big themes--love, death, fealty, identity, the merits of good versus evil--in big ways, with epic battles, impossible missions, angel voices and the wrath of gods.

“What great fantasy does is provide a kind of noise and thunder to announce, ‘Here are ways in which human souls test themselves, lose themselves and recover themselves,” says John Clute, co-author of “The Encyclopedia of Fantasy.” “It provides escape but is also quite capable of being tragic. ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is as much an elegy as a great adventure. But fantasy fulfills the need humans have for stories, quests, that go from one point to another. We are parched, starved for these sorts of tales.”

Yet Hollywood has long been wary of fantasy. Studio executives, it seems, would rather see a few cars flying through the air than a genie, a shootout or three rather than a sword fight; a hacker hero remains preferable to a magical one.

Pogue and others find it baffling that in a world where fantasy occupies one of the two largest subsections of most bookstores (mysteries being the other), fantasy films have such a tough time getting made.

"[Studios] don’t understand its audience, which is more literate and intelligent than other audiences. They somehow wind up gearing fantasy films to action fans,” Pogue said. “First thing they do to a fantasy script is give it a lobotomy, throw in a few explosions or make it L.A. hip flip instead of really entrenching it in the primitive need from the myths and rituals.”

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“Dragonheart,” he said, failed in part because it was not the story he had originally told. “They took all the dark notes out, went for a kiddie movie with dragon hand puppets. I didn’t set out to write a story that would translate into dragon hand puppets. It was supposed to be about bigger issues.”

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 digital advances are obvious in the trailers for both movies. From the whirring-winged golden Snitch (the ball that must be captured to win a Quidditch match) to the three-headed guard dog, “Harry Potter” is full of creatures brought to the silver screen via the blue one. And although Columbus long hesitated to direct fantasy films because of what he saw as the inflated role of special effects, it was the digital advances of the “Jurassic Park” series that changed his mind.

“I realized it was possible to make realistic, breathing, living creatures,” he said. “A lot of people hear the word ‘fantasy’ and assume it’s not real. We wanted to make this film as a realistic fantasy.”

That sense of reality is considered one of Rowling’s main strengths. Harry Potter seems an ordinary boy who just happens to have been orphaned and forced to live with his rather detestable relations, the Dursleys. But upon his 11th birthday it is revealed that his mother and father were really a witch and wizard, killed by a powerful wizard gone bad who himself was destroyed when he tried to kill the infant Harry. And now Harry is to take up the family business by attending Hogwarts School for Witches and Wizards. There, Harry makes friends, gets in trouble with teachers, makes enemies, cuts class and saves the world--all the prepubescent basics, with magic wands, flying broomsticks, magic candy and talking hats thrown in.

The story and characters had to come first, Columbus said, and any digital work had to have an underpinning of strong low-tech effects. “The tapestries in [a school] common room, the texture of the Snitch all had to be considered,” he said. “And the costumes. I know I was thinking of a kid in jeans and a rugby shirt under the witch’s robes. But when we tested it, it looked like a bad Halloween costume. Hogwarts is based on a British boarding school, so we had to rethink that. Design uniforms, then tweak them to make them appropriate for witches and wizards.”

But most important, Columbus and his team had to keep the special effects right-sized. “Technologically, there are very few limitations at this point. The only question is how far do we take it,” he said. “Certain films spend too much on the effects and not enough on the story. If the human element isn’t there, the fantasy doesn’t exist. At least not for me.”

Or as “Harry Potter” screenwriter Steve Kloves points out, “It’s really a movie about three kids in a haunted castle. If you don’t like the kids, you won’t like the movie.”

This “all things in moderation” approach is shared by the “Rings” team.

“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. Harry Potter battles Lord Voldemort; Frodo Baggins, the evil Lord Sauron. Both are small, uncertain heroes; both require, and receive, the aid of an odd assortment of allies.

“Fantasy is very conservative,” Von Gunden said. “It is invariably a reluctant hero battling complete evil. It speaks to the people in a time when we need heroes. The Potter books are successful because it taps into our archetypes. We know this story, in our bones we know this story.”

Like the myth and folklore on which it is based, fantasy, he said, fills a spiritual need that that other escapist genre, science fiction, cannot. “During this century, we glorified science up until the 1960s. After the H-bomb, after Vietnam, disillusionment set in. Science-fiction was about a failed God, but now people are becoming more spiritual and fantasy has taken over. Now, given what has happened, people are going to identify [with these movies] more than ever.”

Much of the great fantasy, said “The Encyclopedia of Fantasy’s” Clute, came from writers, including Tolkien, reacting to their first-hand encounters with war. “As a narrative, fantasy is a way to recover the world’s memory. It is able to characterize and explain such a thing [as the Sept. 11 attacks], which shames the imagination, in a way that a realistic story cannot. Fantasy can afford to treat things in a romantic sense, in black and white, and we carry a very human need to have such models with us.”

In his seminal book “The Uses of Enchantment,” psychologist Bruno Bettelheim argued that fairy tales, which were considered by many frivolous reading and even dangerous to young imaginations, were a crucial part of a child’s nascent understanding of the world. “With rare exceptions,” he wrote, “nothing can be as enriching and satisfying to child and adult alike as the folk fairy tale....[M]ore can be learned from them, about the inner problems of human beings, and of the right solutions to their predicaments in any society, than from any other type of story within a child’s comprehension.”

The frenzied anticipation of these two movies seems to suggest that Bettelheim was, and remains, quite right.


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