If epic fantasy is known for its visual splendour, it is also known (as the Dothraki may say) that this visual splendour comes at a high cost. For this reason, the grandiose vistas, monstrous creatures and awe-inspiring magic associated with fantasy have been limited to film and novels. Television, it was generally believed, did not have the financial resources needed to bring epic, secondary world fantasy to the screen. Which of course is not to say that it did not occasionally try anyway.
Strictly speaking, the Japanese TV series Saiyūki (1978-80) - or Monkey as it is immortally better known in English-speaking regions - isn't really epic fantasy. It's a fast-and-loose adaptation of the classic 16th Century Chinese novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng'en, depicting the journey by the Buddhist monk Tripitaka from China to India to search for sacred religious texts. Saiyūki throws in a whole ton of fantasy ideas as well, some original and some drawn from other aspects of Asian mythology. For reasons too convoluted for a brief summary, the TV series depicts Tripitaka being joined by an irrepressible monkey spirit and two fellow exiles from Heaven, who hope they can win redemption and be allowed to return home (in the case of the latter two; Monkey's motivations are more random and whimsical). The episodes depict the course of the heroes' lengthy journey, during which time they learn many moral lessons derived from Buddhist and Taoist philosophy and come to respect Tripitaka's position of peace and tranquillity (although oddly not to the point that the insane number of kung fu battles per episode lessens to any degree).
The show shows both the problems and benefits of adapting fantasy for the television. On the one hand, the lengthy run time allows for more adventures, more story and more character development. On the other, with the best will in the world, the budget falls way short of the ambition presented. The TV episodes fall back on massive punch-ups to resolve their action because anything else is unaffordable. Even Monkey's signature trip of flying around on a cloud is carefully rationed out for financial purposes. However, these drawbacks are not detrimental to the overall enjoyment of the TV series, and in fact add to its surreal whimsy. It remains popular and a cult classic to this day, especially amongst students of the more herbal inclinations.
Dungeons and Dragons
It took much longer than expected to break through to film, but Dungeons and Dragons got a TV series off the ground much earlier. Airing from 1983 to 1985, this was an animated series which depicted six kids drawn from our world into a fantasy one, where they are forced to adopt new roles (ranger, cavalier, thief, acrobat, magician, barbarian and, er, unicorn) and work for the capricious Dungeon Master. They are opposed by Venger, an evil sorcerer who inexplicably desires their magical weapons (despite them being a bit rubbish). In an entertaining twist, both Venger and the kids are opposed by the chaotic multi-headed dragon Tiamat, who occasionally shows up to destroy things for no real reason (hence chaos). The series was fairly standard cartoon fare, with a nice line in humour, but it did show early signs of developing an on-going story arc. The kids were attempting to return home to Earth but on several occasions when they came close, realised they had to remain in the fantasy world lest Venger follow them. The final episode would have actually resolved the storyline but was sadly never made.
Robin of Sherwood
Again, not an epic fantasy per se, the ITV series Robin of Sherwood (1984-86) nevertheless embraced some of the conventions of the genre. The series opened as a straight retelling of the Robin Hood myth, but the writers introduced elements of paganism and legend by bringing in Herne the Hunter as an important character. In the final episode of the second season Robin - unthinkably - dies (after actor Michael Praed hit it big in America) and the third season sees him replaced by a new character, Robert, who feels inadequate to the task thrust upon him. The show dwelt on myth, faith and the idea of magic as an unearthly, spiritual force beyond mortal understanding. It also had a great line in action adventure and humour, and is notable for helping further the careers of Ray Winstone and Clive Mantle. Certainly in the UK, this remains the definitive small screen version of the legend.
Beauty and the Beast
Beauty and the Beast (1987-90) certainly isn't an epic fantasy but it was arguably one of the first shows which found a way of getting fantasy and fantastical ideas on screen: by retrofitting them into a contemporary setting. Hence, the legend is transposed to contemporary New York City and sees lawyer Catherine (Linda Hamilton) falling in love with the bestial Vincent (Ron Perlman), who lives with a community of forgotten and lost people in the sewers under the city. The series was hugely successful, with ratings that demolished everything in sight, up until the decision was taken to kill off Catherine at the start of the third season when Hamilton wanted to leave the show. Although artistically bold, the idea went down like a lead balloon with both devoted fans and the general audience, ratings plummeted and the show was cancelled at the end of the season.
Working as a writer, script editor and then producer on the show was one George R.R. Martin, whose reputation for murdering characters has led to the decision to kill Catherine being laid at his door (erroneously, as showrunner Ron Koslow and the other producers had the final word), hence the slogan, "The Terminator couldn't kill Linda Hamilton but GRRM did."
Okay, so this is quite blatantly a space opera, set in the 23rd Century on a massive space station that serves as a sort of interstellar United Nations (and is about as useful at stopping the outbreak of military conflicts). But J. Michael Straczynski drew on a lot of SFF influences to fuel his epic TV series, including numerous fantasy ones. In fact, a brief meme which enjoyed popularity when the show was on-air was that Babylon 5 (1993-98) was simply Lord of the Rings with the serial numbers filed off. Even Straczynski might have to admit his tips of the hat to Tolkien got a little too brazen at times.
To whit: a major, late-developing character is called Lorien; one of the major characters apparently plummets to his death in a chasm at a place called Z'ha'dum (not Khazad-dum) only to return in a somewhat transformed state later on; a secretive organisation of soldiers is formed known as the Rangers; Gandalf's saying, "Do note meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger" is employed by a group of techno-sorcerers (led by a man named Elric); and the principle antagonists in the series are often referred to as "Shadows".
More substantially, the series also engages with the idea of "Chosen Ones" and, unusually, goes into some detail on the idea about who actually does the choosing of such people in the first place. The cost in lives of the military action the heroes brings about is dwelt upon at length and, due to the main storyline wrapping up a full season before the show itself does, the series also gets to dwell upon the aftermath and consequences of the "grand adventure" our heroes have been on, showing that life goes on and there are no happy endings forever more.
Hercules: The Legendary Journeys & Xena: Warrior Princess
Hollywood had had numerous flirtations with Greek myths and legends, but it was its decision to make a new, comedy-drama series based on the life of Hercules in the mid-1990s that would prove to be the most successful take on television. The original series of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys ran from 1995 to 1999 (preceded by a series of TV movies in 1994), begin the career of Kevin Sorbo and hit an enjoyable middle ground between cheesy action and knowing meta-humour. The normal budgetary restrictions which blighted fantasy TV were partially overcome by filming in New Zealand, where the easily-accessible-but-spectacular scenery and a favourable exchange rate gave the producers a lot of bang for not a huge amount of buck (an argument that would later help nab Peter Jackson's homeland the job of standing in for Middle-earth).
Even more successful was its spin-off series. Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001) followed the adventures of a villain seeking redemption, played with aplomb by Lucy Lawless. It eclipsed its parent show both in ratings and critical acclaim, and remains a highly watchable slice of hokum.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer & Angel
As far as supernatural fantasy on television goes, the gold standard remains Joss Whedon's epic series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and its spin-off Angel (1999-2004). Both shows are on the surface simple horror-comedies about various heroes fighting evil monsters, but both play with their sources and inspirations in offbeat and original ways. Both shows also draw much more on epic fantasy traditions than other shows in contemporary settings. Both have extensive backstories and mythologies which come to the fore. Both shows also delve into prophecies and how to subvert them, feature much more overt uses of magic than is normal in such shows and have long-running, complex story arcs featuring extensive and sometimes sublime character development. Both also delve into the mythology of the "Chosen One" trope, constantly re-examining the idea of what it means to be the one prophesied to save the world and if it can be done alone or if allies are needed.
The BBC had always done well with its lavish costume dramas, but in 1999 it brought its skills to bear on Mervyn Peak's unfilmable trilogy. The BBC adapted the first two books in the series into a mini-series, bringing together a colossal amount of talent (including Christopher Lee and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in his breakout role) and a relatively huge budget. The lavish drama can't hope to directly adapt Peake's dense literature, so instead comes at it from a surreal and humourous angle, which only serves to emphasise the horror of Steerpike's conspiracy. The result is weird, offbeat and bizarre, but also highly watchable and entertaining. This was also arguably the first TV series to show that the vistas and epic scale of fantasy was achievable - if only fleetingly - on television.
Avatar: The Last Airbender & The Legend of Korra
For original, created-for-the-screen epic fantasy stories, the strongest work on television remains the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-08) and its sequel series, The Legend of Korra (2010-12). Set in a world where magic is based around the four elements of fire, earth, air and water, the series depicts the battle faced by the Avatar, the only person who can master all four elements, against the villainous Fire Lord, who wants to conquer the world. In the process the Avatar, in this incarnation a twelve-year-old boy named Aang, gains a number of allies from all four nations, must help redeem the Fire Lord's brutal son and forge an alliance between disparate factions.
The series is not only hugely successful at all of this, it tells a relatively compact, complete story in 61 half-hour episodes. It also avoids the cliches of western epic fantasy, instead drawing on elements from Chinese, Indian, Japanese and Inuit cultures (among others). It has a meticulously-designed and well-developed magic system, and whilst primarily aimed at children it does not shy away from asking hard moral questions. The show is also noted for its quotable dialogue, characters who change and develop as the series continues and its excellent art style, which fuses American animation with Japanese anime traditions.
The sequel series set several decades later, The Legend of Korra, is less focused on one overall storyline. Instead it develops a number of self-contained story arcs spanning each season, although the development of the character of Korra as the new Avatar is an ongoing element. This series is impressive for moving both time and technology on, bringing steampunk elements into play and mixing up technology and magic in interesting ways. These two shows remain the high watermark for original fantasy on television, so far. Just please ignore the terrible live-action movie.
Adapting Terry Pratchett's comic fantasy novels to the screen was always going to be challenging, with a lack of a consistent recurring cast and some challenging budgetary issues. Simply depicting Death - an eight-foot-tall skeleton capable of winning the viewer's sympathy - is a big enough challenge by itself, let alone the Librarian (an orangutan with above-human intelligence) and the various demonic forces from the Dungeon Dimensions seeking to break through. Animation seemed a reasonable way forward, and Cosgrove Hall made TV movies based on Soul Music and Wyrd Sisters in 1997 which were modestly successful. However, the medium made viewers believe they were for children, who in turn didn't get all the adult-oriented humour.
Sky then made a reasonable series of attempts to bring the books to the screen by adapting Hogfather (2006), The Colour of Magic (2008), The Light Fantastic (2008) and Going Postal (2010). These were reasonable adaptations, despite missing some of the subtler elements of Pratchett's humour, but failed to lead - so far - to an ongoing TV series.
Legend of the Seeker
As the first modern epic fantasy book series to be adapted to the small screen, Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth sequence was a bit of a left-field choice for producer Sam Raimi. The books wear the trappings of fantasy but are actually a thinly-veiled piece of political grandstanding expounding - at quite staggering length - on the virtues of Objectivism. The idea that this could be brought faithfully to the screen seemed fanciful, and so it proved.
Legend of the Seeker (2008-10), as the TV version was somewhat inexplicably renamed, certainly isn't unwatchable, but it is a pale echo of the same production team's earlier shows, Hercules and Xena, lacking their lighthearted fun but also their ability to become dramatically intense when needed. However, the series also chooses to pretty much ignore all of the Objectivist themes from the books as well, which merely served to alienate fans of the novels. Overall, Legend of the Seeker fell between several stools and ended up being merely okay.
The BBC TV series Merlin (2008-12) may be notable as the most successful attempt yet at bringing the Arthurian legend to the small screen, despite a very rough and patchy first couple of seasons. The show's conceit is that Merlin and Arthur are contemporaries, with Merlin serving (reluctantly) as the boorish Arthur's squire and having to keep his magical skills secret. Later episodes darken things considerably as they start drawing on the actual mythology. The show also becomes much more ambitious and epic in scale, with some impressive depictions of large battles and magic. However, the key to the show's success is the core cast's chemistry and the compelling performance of Colin Morgan as the titular character.
Game of Thrones
The HBO adaptation of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire is, of course, the show which broke fantasy on the small screen as never before. Producers David Benioff and Dan Weiss, both burned by experiences working on Hollywood movies (the former seeing scripts constantly rewritten badly and the latter stuck in development hell on the Halo film), teamed up with HBO to bring Martin's clearly unfilmable books to the small screen. Helped by quality source material, a monstrous - for TV - budget and the best cast of any TV show for a decade, the first few seasons of Game of Thrones (2011-18, probably) were spectacular critical and commercial successes, giving HBO its biggest hit of all time. The more problematic fifth season suggests that the road is getting rockier as the TV show overtakes and moves away from Martin's novels, but there is no denying that Game of Thrones has changed the conversation about fantasy on the small screen even more dramatically than Lord of the Rings did for fantasy on the big one.
And the future
The massive success of Game of Thrones has of course inspired/monetarily influenced many other studios into getting their hands on hot fantasy properties, as well as developing their own. First out of the gate is The Shannara Chronicles, based on Terry Brooks's second novel, The Elfstones of Shannara. This will debut in January 2016 on MTV. Also in active development is American Gods for Starz (based on Neil Gaiman's novel), The City Watch (based on Pratchett's Discworld novels about the Ankh-Morpork police force) and The Kingkiller Chronicle (based on Patrick Rothfuss's work). Most tantalising of all is the recent news that Sony TV, the same studio behind Breaking Bad, has held meetings on the possibility of a Wheel of Time TV series. With a recent legal deadlock over the film rights showing early signs of thawing, that would be an interesting move.
However, what television lacks so far is an original, live-action epic fantasy TV show of its own, a story made for TV with its limitations and strengths in mind which is a big success. Until it really gets that right, the medium's contributions to the genre will remain limited to furthering the success of books by introducing new fans to them.
For visual depictions of fantasy, film and TV are all very well, but are ultimately experiences limited to passive enjoyment. For a more compelling experience, being able to take control of characters and tell your own fantasy story is a far more inspiring idea and one that, in the late 1970s, technology allowed to become possible.