Fantasy as a whole has enjoyed a long and storied career on the screen. Early film pioneer Georges Méliès released two films with fantastical undertones, The Boiling Cauldron (1903) and The Impossible Voyage (1904), to follow up his epic A Trip to the Moon (1902). Fritz Lang directed Die Nibelungen (1924), a two-film adaptation of the epic 12th Century poem Nibelungenlied. In the 1930s the genre came more of age, with films such as King Kong, She and Lost Horizon all riffing off the "Lost World" trope of fantasy. In 1939 MGM realased The Wizard of Oz, adapted from Frank Baum's novel series. Arguably the first fantasy film to invoke a vividly-described secondary world, it still fell into the "crossover" genre where the action is detailed from the POV of a person from the real world entering the fantasy one.
The majority of fantasy films still fell into one of several categories: myths adapted for the modern age (most notably, the Greek epics led by effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen from the 1950s to the 1970s), children's films, modern films with a fantastic slant (such as A Matter of Life or Death and It's a Wonderful Life), art pictures (such as Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal) and children's films, including animations from studios such as Disney. Epic fantasy, in its familiar form, was notable for its near total absence from the screen. The closest cinema got was various takes on the Arthurian legend and Greek myths.
It's fitting, therefore, that the first major work secondary world fantasy to make it to the screen was also the first to popularise the idea in print. J.R.R. Tolkien had begun fielding queries about the film rights to The Lord of the Rings almost as soon as it was published. The BBC produced a radio play version in 1956 (which Tolkien hated) and in 1957 three Hollywood producers visited Tolkien at home with a proposed story treatment for a version mixing live action, stop motion and animation. Tolkien was impressed by the amount of work they'd put in and the concept artwork, but was less happy with the script, which had the Fellowship travelling everywhere by giant eagle. Tolkien and his publishers agreed to take a "Cash or kudos" approach, only accepting an offer if it was of serious artistic merit or if a substantial amount of money was offered.
The 1966 Ace Books scandal and the resulting boom in popularity of the novel resulted in additional film interest. In 1968 the Beatles announced a plan to adapt the book with themselves playing key roles and Stanley Kubrick, then hot off 2001: A Space Odyssey, directing (Kubrick later declared the book unfilmable). Tolkien was, oddly, not much encouraged by this plan. In 1969 he instead accepted a titanic amount of money from United Artists for the rights to both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which he then stored in trust for the education of his grandchildren. In 1970 John Boorman began developing a live action film for UA, but this stalled on the issues of budget and length. Eventually he withdrew, but reapplied some of the effects, sets and costume techniques he'd developed to his 1981 Arthurian epic, Excalibur. In 1977 Rankin/Bass sublet the rights to The Hobbit to release an animated musical TV movie, which was reasonably successful. However, just a year later the first serious attempt to make a Lord of the Rings movie was mounted.
The Lord of the Rings (Mk. 1)
Ralph Bakshi was a pioneer of film animation. Seeking ways of making animation more vivid and more visually impressive, he'd decided to apply the technique of rotoscoping to film. Rotoscoping involves filming live action scenes and then tracing over the top, to create far more realistic movement and facial expressions. Bakshi had also developed a reputation of something of an provocative artist, believing that animated films could deal with adult subject matter and contemporary issues. His first three films - Fritz the Cat (1972), Heavy Traffic (1973) and Coonskin (1975) - had used animation tropes to deal with life in America through satire. In 1977 he released Wizards, a post-apocalyptic fantasy which won a great deal of critical acclaim.
Bakshi was sought out by producer Saul Zaentz, who wanted to make The Lord of the Rings for UA. Bakshi was a fan of the novel and was pleased at the opportunity to make a big-budget, mainstream animated film for a larger audience. The script was written by Peter S. Beagle, the acclaimed novelist who'd written The Last Unicorn. UA put some serious resources into the project, including a budget of $4 million (huge for an animated film) and allowing Bakshi to film extensive live-action sequences - complete with costumes - for rotoscoping.
Released in 1978, The Lord of the Rings was a significant success. It made over $30 million at the box office and had a reasonably good critical reception. However, it was only half the film: despite an accelerated and breathless pace, the film ended just after the Battle of Helm's Deep with the story left incomplete. Bakshi and Zaentz had intended a "Part 2" to follow, but UA had refused to put "Part 1" on the marketing materials, fearing it would put people off to see an incomplete film. The resulting battle of wills dissuaded both sides from making the sequel. Eventually Rankin/Bass released The Return of the King as a separate film in 1980, a sort-of pseudo sequel to both but with added disco-dancing orcs.
Sitting in the audience in New Zealand, the 17-year-old Peter Jackson was taking notes.
Hawk the Slayer
In 1980 British director Terry Marcel filmed and released Hawk the Slayer, a low-budget fantasy film featuring the clash between two brothers. It was inexplicably weird and, by most standards, terrible. It was also just terrible enough to actually be hilarious, naturally ensuring its long-term survival as a cult classic.
SEE HOW IT GLOWS.
Released in 1981, Dragonslayer was arguably the first really well-received epic fantasy movie. Set in a fictional realm, it details the attempts by a company of heroes (kind of) to slay the splendidly-named dragon, Vermithrax Perjorative. The movie's cliched premise is actually subverted as the movie continues, with musings on gender roles and the tragedy of the dragon's own existence assuming a central role rather than lots of blood or special effects (although the effects used to realise the dragon would remain the industry standard for many years). Despite strong reviews, the film was a financial failure and was not critically reassessed until years later, when it re-emerged as a classic of the genre.
Conan the Barbarian
Directed by John Milius from a script by Oliver Stone, the first Conan movie (1982) is a triumph of tone, intent and bloody-mindedness over development hell. Conan movies had been planned in vague forms since the 1950s, but a more serious attempt to get the film made had begun back in 1970. Originally the producers had planned a lore-faithful depiction of Robert E. Howard's most famous creation, but by the time Milius and Stone came on board this had changed slightly into a looser take on the original stories that plays fast and loose with the origins of the character. Still, the film is successful in both nailing the decadent desperation of the Hyborian Age and finding the first role that would bring Arnold Schwarzenegger to international stardom (as well as inadvertently launching the writing career of Wheel of Time writer Robert Jordan, as related elsewhere).
The film was followed by a much lighter-hearted sequel, Conan the Destroyer (1985), that was arguably a better straight-up sword and sorcery movie, but lacked the philosophy, introspection, better acting and more thoughtful script of the original film. A 2012 reboot featured Jason Momoa as a far more lore-appropriate Conan (and, frankly, a better actor), but unfortunately saddled him with an inconsistent and incoherent script; after a very strong first half it wanders off into a confusing morass of pointless swordfights. The word is that there will now be a new film returning Schwarzenegger to the role and exploring Conan in his old age as the King of Aquilonia, a storyline itself established by Howard in the original stories.
Released in 1983, Krull was a massively-budged blockbuster costing almost $50 million. For comparison's sake, its near-contemporary Return of the Jedi cost $35 million. This money paid for a huge number of sets and location shooting, as well as elaborate special effects. The film bombed, taking less than half that at the box office. However, the film has some merit. Particularly intriguing is its blending of epic fantasy and science fiction ideas in favour of fantasy (unlike Star Wars and its sequels, which weighted its blending towards SF), and it was the film that first brought Liam Neeson to the attention of casting directors.
The Princess Bride
Released in 1987, The Princess Bride may still be the finest live-action secondary world (despite references to the real one) fantasy movie ever released. It straddles the genre boundaries between epic fantasy, comedy and fairy tale, with the story of Buttercup and Wesley's true love frequently interrupted by encounters with giants, six-fingered villains and miracle workers-for-hire. The script is hilarious and endlessly quotable, it has just enough of a knowing awareness to it to be funny without putting down the genre it's part of, and the tone is kept just right throughout. It's also a strong enough movie to have major impacts on the genre by itself (with Inigo Montoya likely serving as part inspiration for both Syrio Forel and Oberyn Martell in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire).
Unlike a lot of films in this list, a sequel has never seriously been discussed or proposed. The very idea is inconceivable.
Released in 1988, Willow was written and produced by George Lucas and directed by Ron Howard. The film was supposed to repeat Lucas's trick with Star Wars, this time in the actual fantasy genre itself. The movie borrows rather liberally from other sources, most notably with the Hobbit-like Nelwyns, but makes for engaging (if lightweight) entertainment and launched the career of Val Kilmer. Lucas planned sequels (of course), but the film was only moderately successful (returning $58 million on a $35 million budget), so these were shelved. A decade later Lucas teamed up with X-Men writer Chris Claremont to tell the rest of the story through the Chronicles of the Shadow War novel trilogy. Rumours of a follow-up abound.
The late 1980s and early 1990s saw SF's star in the ascendancy in Hollywood, with films like Terminator 2 and the Back to the Future trilogy doing enormous business. Fantasy took a back seat for a while until it began to return to popularity in the middle of the decade.
Released in 1996, Dragonheart was the first movie since its near namesake Dragonslayer to deliver a convincing on-screen dragon. The movie's central premise of a dragonslaying knight and a friendly dragon faking epic battles to the death for monetary profit soon segues into a more traditional epic fantasy narrative, but some good performances and humour make for an entertaining film.
Dungeons and Dragons
There'd been attempts to bring the Dungeons and Dragons franchise to the screen many times before, but these had fallen afoul of budgetary restrictions and clashes for creative control between the big movie studios and TSR, Inc., the owners of the franchise. In 1994 TSR, then in financial difficulties, sold the movie rights to producer Courtney Solomon for a surprisingly small amount of money (to the later dismay of Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro, who had inherited ownership of D&D by the end of the decade).
The resulting movie, released in 2000, was a total mess. Jeremy Irons phoned in his performance as the evil wizard, no-one else you'd ever heard was in it apart from American Beauty's Thora Birch and the CGI was particularly rubbish. The film also doesn't really do much with the D&D licence (a showdown with beholders was cut due to budgetary reasons), and could have been a generic fantasy movie without too much trouble.
Two straight-to-DVD sequels followed, Wrath of a Dragon God (2005) and Book of Vile Darkness (2012), both terrible. Hasbro themselves did produce an animated film based on the first Dragonlance novel, Dragons of Autumn Twilight, in 2008. It was surprisingly not terrible and remains the finest cinematic interpretation of the franchise, but this is really not saying very much.
Recently, Hasbro and Courtney Solomon concluded a long-running legal battle and a massively-budgeted new D&D movie, taking place in the game's signature Forgotten Realms setting, is now in pre-production.
The Lord of the Rings (Mk. 2)
It took a low budget New Zealand film maker to finally bring the epic fantasy genre on to the screen in full force. Peter Jackson had made a string of low-budget, highly entertaining films such as Braindead, Meet the Feebles and Bad Taste, building up a reputation for producing quirky, amusing horror. A more mainstream Hollywood production, The Frighteners, had been a modest success in 1995, so the big studios began courting him for work. Jackson's initial plan had been to adapt The Hobbit as a film, but found that the rights to the film were a legal mess. Instead, he began developing The Lord of the Rings as a two-movie project for Miramax in 1997.
The script had been written and significant pre-production work had been mounted when Miramax ordered that the project be scaled back into a single movie. Jackson refused, as this was impossible. Given the chance to take the work to another studio, he arranged a meeting with New Line Cinema in early 1999. The bosses at New Line were likewise sceptical of the wisdom of a two-film project, but this time from another direction: they argued it should be a trilogy.
With an almost staggering degree of freedom placed on Jackson for a relatively new film-maker, he ran with it and made the project a success. An entire movie industry had to be created from scratch to support the production, and on a pretty modest budget: $90 million per film for the scale of the production was pretty tight even by 1999's standards. The trilogy's success was even more startling given a cast largely made up of unknowns and relying on special effects technology that was then-unproven. Despite a host of doubts and problems, the films made it to the screen in 2001, 2002 and 2003. Each made more money than the one before and attracting startling critical acclaim. In 2004 The Return of the King took home twelve Oscars, equalling the records set before it.
The 2000s Fantasy Boom
There is inadequate space here to fully explore all of the fantasy films that came out in the wake of The Lord of the Rings. Other books were adapted for the screen, such as Eragon and The Golden Compass, but for the most part these were failures or at least not successful enough to warrant sequels. The Chronicles of Narnia made it to three movies before running out of steam, and an adaptation of the Nickelodeon epic fantasy animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender was a colossal failure both artistically and financially.
A few non-epic fantasy films were successful in this time, such as Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, but for the most part the post-Lord of the Rings fantasy landscape was littered with failures and bombs. The biggest successes had been in animation, particularly the How to Train Your Dragon franchise. The return to success of science fiction through films such as James Cameron's Avatar, coupled with the growing success of superhero movies, soon saw attention move away from fantasy. It would appear that the only thing that could replicate the success of Tolkien on screen would be, well, more Tolkien on screen.
The status of The Hobbit's film rights was a complicated mess that took Hollywood lawyers the better part of two decades to finally unravel. But unravel they did, clearing the way for a film adaptation. Peter Jackson wisely declined, instead offering to produce and inviting Guillermo Del Toro to direct a two-film version of the book. A potentially fascinating collaboration was scuppered by politics: the involved studios wanted another blockbuster trilogy. With the legal questions not fully answered and time slipping away, Del Toro moved on to other projects and Jackson felt compelled to step in and save the project.
Released annually between 2012 and 2014, it would be fair to say that the Hobbit trilogy did not achieve quite the same result as the Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit movies see a very short novel (only one-fifth the length of The Lord of the Rings in book form) stretched over three films and almost nine hours. The story isn't strong enough to support this and the films resort to significant amounts of filler to pad out the length. The Hobbit films also make the mistake the earlier trilogy couldn't due to budgetary restrictions, by drowning almost every scene in CGI and prioritising effects over character. Fortunately, Jackson isn't completely blind to this and pulls things back from being a total disaster (as problematic as the trilogy is, it's nowhere near the Star Wars prequel trilogy level of disappointment) to deliver some very fine scenes and, in Smaug, the best dragon yet realised for the screen. But it's certainly an underwhelming work.
If epic fantasy in film had achieved anything, it would be to expose a limitation of the genre: epic fantasy works at its best with time to breathe, to introduce the world and grow the character over a much longer timeframe than a single two hour movie allows. The Lord of the Rings realised this and told its story over, in the extended editions, more than eleven hours, or about the length of a cable drama TV season. This hinted at the way forwards for epic fantasy, not on the big screen but the small.