An Open Letter to Producers of Epic Fantasy Movies

Published 2008-07-18

This past Saturday, Jenny and I saw Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian at the Kennedy School’s “Family Matinee.”1 It was a good-enough movie I suppose, although a lack of alternatives (most theaters a) aren’t explicitly appropriate places for toddlers and b) don’t serve beer) may have colored both my expectations and experience. Also, Prince Caspian is probably the weakest of the Narnia books, so getting a decent movie out of it would be a challenge I’m sure.

But this isn’t really about Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. It’s about Epic Fantasy Movies, the Genre. I have a simple request for people who produce movies in this genre (see also: Golden Compass). Not even a request, so much as an observation:

The gigantic set-piece battle at the climax of your movie probably sucks.

It sucks because it’s almost certainly unnecessary. For example, the entire tone of Lewis’ Narnia series is personal, not epic. These are stories about some children and their fantastical relationship with a magic lion (who is coincidentally Jesus). They are not stories about the grand sweep of history in a brilliantly-realized alternate world. When it came to realizing the warp and weave of Narnian culture and history, Lewis was clearly making it up as we went along, because that wasn’t the important part of his books. Sure, most of the Narnia books have a battle, but Lewis frankly couldn’t write a decent battle scene to save his life. That’s why they’re each about two pages long. They didn’t need to be lengthy and detailed because they weren’t the center of his stories — the centers of his stories were the talky bits with the magic Jesus lion. If you’re using a Narnia book for the source of your Epic Fantasy Movie, you better pay more attention to the talky Jesus lion parts than to the gigantic climatic battle. The lion is Jesus: he will make the battle turn out OK, and we all know that.

Yes, we know The Lord of the Rings had one awesome climactic battle after another and they just kept getting giganticker and awesomer and we, the audience, loved it. But, and here’s the really important part, we didn’t love the battle because Legolas surfed down the oliphant’s trunk, we loved it because by the time Legolas was surfing down oliphant trunks, we’d spent six hours getting to know and love Legolas, and we really cared about what would happen when he did that trunk-surfing thing.

Also: Tolkien wrote really awesome battle scenes. They went on for pages and pages. That’s because Tolkien was interested in all the stuff Lewis wasn’t, the warp-and-weave-of-imaginary-history stuff. He made up languages, that’s how much he cared. The battles in Lord of the Rings were not a foregone conclusion, because a) there was no magic Jesus animal who would go and deus ex machina the outcome for us, and b) the battles really really mattered to Tolkien, and to Middle Earth. Peter Jackson could have filmed those battle scenes in claymation and we’d have had the same amount of emotion invested in Legolas, Middle Earth, and the outcome of the battle. That’s why they worked, and yours don’t.

So, to reiterate:

When you’re making an Epic Fantasy Movie based on a book, and the book devotes 1% of its space to a battle, don’t make the battle in your movie twenty minutes long. It will suck and we won’t be impressed. Except with how sucky it is.


1 For those of you unfamiliar with McMenamin’s Kennedy School, it features a brew-and-view movie theater, a brilliant concept even without the Family Matinee.

“Brew-and-view” defined: second-run movie theater that serves beer and food (usually pizza). Tickets usually cost $2 or $3, and the beer & food are usual bar prices. We can see a movie, eat a meal, and drink beer at a brew-and-view for less than the admission price (usually $8 or $9 each) at a first-run theater.

McMenamin’s is a Pacific Northwest chain of brewpubs and related venues (such as movie theaters, hotels, and chip-and-putt golf courses — which all serve beer, natch). A favorite Oregon passtime is to bitch about McMenamins’ substandard [beer|food|service|ubiquity], which gives you a sense of how awesome Oregon can be at times. That’s like saying “a favorite Oregon passtime is bitching about the substandard quality of our gumdrop trees and chocolate bonbon bushes.”

The “Family Matinee” or “Mommy Matinee” is a local innovation where families with very young children are encouraged to bring their toddlers to the movie. The theory being, if all the kids are crying, you won’t stress because your kid is crying. It’s a pretty good theory.