When I was about nine I read first The Hobbit, then The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. While I found the trilogy a bit ponderous for my young mind, The Hobbit really captured my imagination and catapulted me into the serious fantasy genre.
From fantasy I moved boldly into science fiction, where I discovered Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (a “five-part trilogy of four”) and eventually Pratchett’s Discworld – a triumphant return to fantasy. While none of these are the pinnacle of literary greatness, I have read hundreds and hundreds of worthy books, all because in a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.
As you know, I just went and saw The Golden Compass, the feature-film adaptation of the first installment of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. As I said in my review, Pullman manages to blend the fantasy and science-fiction genres brilliantly. You can read my review here.
But something else caught my attention while sitting in the darkened auditorium: how desperately the entertainment machine is searching for the next Harry Potter.
This is something that I’ve been sensing for the last few years. Movies like Eragon or Bridge to Terebithia are swimming in the wake of Rowling’s monster success with the boy wizard. Publishers have been signing new fantasy authors hand over fist in hopes of discovering the next big thing, and the trailers before The Golden Compass were no exception.
First was a trailer for a movie called Inkheart, a story about a girl with a gift for storytelling. It seems that any story she (or her father, it’s obviously genetic) reads aloud comes to life. Apparently one of them reads the wrong book, and brings to life a baddy named Capricorn, played by Andy Serkis of Gollum/Smeagol fame. I had never heard of Inkheart, but I was not really surprised to find out it was the first book in a trilogy.
Next came Spiderwick, a movie based on a book of the same title. Apparently two children move to an ancient New England estate named Spiderwick. There they find faeries and goblins and at least one troll. While it is clear there are a series of Spiderwick books, it is unclear if the movie is adapted from one or many of them.
While these fantasy books are a welcome change from Da Vinci code wanna-bes and spy stories, one cannot help but feel the market is being saturated in hopes of something “sticking” in the same way Harry Potter did. A similar thing happened after the success of the original Star Wars movie, and again with Pixar’s unique Toy Story. The entertainment industry, hungry for its fix of cheap profits, inundated us with formulaic knock-offs to no avail.
The Harry Potter and Star Wars series were undeniable successes. Pixar manages to make each release better than the one before it. These were gambles that broke open markets that were considered to be completely tapped out. But the reason for their successes cannot be broken down into a formula. A confluence of story, time and audience mindset made these stories more than the sum of their plot outlines. The answer is not in better special effects, or even more slick computer animation. It lies in stories that capture our collective imagination.
One can’t help but feel that if the entertainment industry were to spend as much energy exploring and developing new authors, stories and genres as it does trying to duplicate past successes, that the world would be a far more interesting place in which to read and watch movies.