So, as I said in my last post, I've been thinking over where the two three-part Peter Jackson Tolkien films fit in the grand scheme of things (whereas I usually consider them only from the point of view of their Tolkien content and as an expression of the larger set of All Things Tolkienian). The past few days I've been discussing fantasy films with a lot of friends at various holiday get-togethers, plus of course taking into account the comments made on my previous post by David B. and 'JL' (for which thanks). The more I think about it, the more I think Jackson's films do indeed have a claim to being among the greatest fantasy films ever made.
Of course, any such judgment partly depends upon what you define as a fantasy film. Based on the strictures he laid down in ON FAIRY-STORIES, Tolkien wd have excluded such classics as the 1939 WIZARD OF OZ because of its frame tale (it's all a dream), which wd apply equally to the much-filmed (never altogether successfully) ALICE IN WONDERLAND.
Personally I view fantasy as a large and diverse field with a natural divide into two main groups: the Coleridgeian or secondary world fantasy, which presents a full-fledged fantasy world with its own geography, history, peoples, et al (of which Tolkien is the prime example), and the Wordsworthian or primary-world fantasy, in which magical intrusions make their way into a more-or-less normal everyday world (a great example being the classic film HARVEY).
Of these, it's obviously far easier to film the latter kind, and most of the great fantasy films (HARVEY, BEING THERE, BELL BOOK AND CANDLE) fit this pattern. Films set in fantasy worlds, by contrast, have tended to deserve Tolkien's scorn (to slightly paraphrase his memorable phrase, belief is not so much suspended as hung, drawn, and quartered).
Animation offers one way out --I'd say Miyazaki's SPIRITED AWAY is hands down one of the finest fantasy films ever made* -- but most animated fantasy is just as bad as live-action fantasy, as exemplified by the dreadful WIZARDS (which shd have shown anyone who was watching that Bakshi was incompetent to make THE LORD OF THE RINGS, which unfortunately he then proceeded to make).
At the very least, Jackson's accomplishment has shown that full-bore secondary world 'high' fantasy is now well within the reach of modern filmmakers, and that fantasy film no longer has to be judged by LABYRINTH and WIZARDS and CONAN and the like. Thanks to him, we can expect from here on out to see more films with high production values and prestigious casts like THE GOLDEN COMPASS and fewer like WILLOW.
Here's looking forward to more adaptations of major works, and also presentations of original stories, in the years to come.
current reading: THE HOBBIT AND HISTORY (con't)
*just as the late Satoshi Kon's PAPRIKA would get my vote as the best science fiction film, and Kon's PERFECT BLUE has to rank pretty far up there when it comes to horror.
Lin Carter's Lost Fantasy Series
5 hours ago