Getting Dragons on Screen: The Cycle of Readers and Viewers

At its birth, the literary elite refused to accept fantasy as a legitimate genre. Fire-barfing dragons, scantily clad elves, and steel-swinging hunks could not possibly make for capital “L” Literature. Even after the explosive popularity of J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, and yes, even J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, fantasy remained at the fringe of critically acclaimed Literature. While Papa Tolkien, arguably the creator of the modern fantasy genre, and his peers became literary stars, fantasy did not quite manage to crack into mainstream culture.

Recently, something has changed and fantasy’s Berlin Wall has crumbled. What launched fantasy into the global consciousness? For better or worse, the answer is the screen.

Game of Thrones, the adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire, is the most watched television series on air. Martin popularized contemporary fantasy by breaking Tolkien’s rules against gore and sex. The Harry Potter movies, adapted from Rowling’s books, are some of highest grossing box office hits in history. The symbiotic cycle of page to screen transforms readers into viewers and viewers into readers. Screen adaptations spike book sales. You watch an episode of GoT then you buy the book. The opposite is true as well. You read a Harry Potter book then you watch the movies.

The mutually beneficial relationship between the book and the screen has marked adaptations, especially of fantasy works, as the safest way to make movies.

Hollywood and cable networks are hungry for surefire hits. Standalone movies are dangerous because their success is questionable. Studios may pour $100 million into a flick that may bomb in the box office. To circumvent this unpredictability, producers with dollar signs for pupils turn to books. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has sold over 150 million copies. Besides religious texts like the Bible, it is one of the bestselling book ever. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone hit 107 million. No surprise, these colossally popular books were made into movies. Pre-awareness and preexisting audiences make screen adaptations of bestselling books a no brainer. The final Harry Potter movie and the last Lord of the Rings stand as 4th and 8th highest grossing movies of all time, sans inflation. Peruse the “now playing in a theatre near you” list and you’ll see that every other movie is “based on the novel by [insert bestselling author here].”

This trend of adapting books into movies is especially important to fantasy. Fantasy lends itself to the visual. Fantasy authors create entire worlds that ignite the mind’s eye and the filmmaker’s passion. Battle scenes, mystical landscapes, and explosive magic all sear their way into the reader’s brain and clamour for visual adaptation. On top of their already visual nature, our beloved fantasy books boast a plethora of devoted readers.

Tolkien and Rowling’s box office numbers prove that fantasy books are viable targets for adaptation. That said, we persnickety readers of fantasy have also proven that crappy adaptations of our favorite books will flop. Movies like Eragon, The Golden Compass, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The Brothers Grimm, Inkheart, Beautiful Creatures, and Mortal Instruments all wheezed their way through pathetic box office showings and endured countless critical lashings. Look any of these adaptations up on Rotten Tomatoes and you’ll cringe.

All in all, however popular it is, cultivating a successful screen adaptation of fantasy works is treacherous. Hollywood gurus option boatloads of New York Times bestselling fantasy works. While oftentimes, nothing comes of these options, we can expect a tsunami of our pet books to either drown us in their fetid waters or buoy us up into imaginative ecstasy. Either way, wear a lifejacket.

-contributed by Danny Vedova


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