Often, trends develop gradually, only noticeable in retrospect after some time has gone by. But sometimes they burst onto the scene all at once and with the subtlety of an airhorn, as we saw 20 years ago with the fantasy epic. Over the span of one month, the release of two films in quick succession would define the medium for decades to come: First came Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on November 14th, 2001, followed by Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring on December 19th. The overwhelming success of these two burgeoning franchises would create a voracious appetite in Hollywood for cinematic adaptations of epic fantasy literature. Immediately after, we saw studios desperately trying to recreate their magic, releasing a string of fantasy films that would largely fail to capture what made their illustrious predecessors so special. Ultimately, it would take premium cable television and the advent of original programming on streaming services to deliver a suitably epic atmosphere for these stories.
When the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings franchises were released on the world, Hollywood had experienced a long-running dearth of fantasy filmmaking. There were a number of fantasy novel adaptations in the 1980s, but these were generally more intimate than epic: The Princess Bride was a romance, for example, and The Neverending Story takes place within the imagination of a child reading a novel. With the advent of CGI in the 1990s, the industry was moving away from the quaint practical effects of fantasy films like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, becoming more enamored with science fiction and action pictures. It wasn’t until Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings were released almost concurrently that Hollywood saw the appeal of big-budget special effects applied to fantasy settings, a genre that throughout much of the 1990s had been regarded as too niche to make money.
The studios behind these two behemoths may have rolled the dice by giving them such large budgets, but for the most part they were banking on the fact that both Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings were established properties with massively devoted fanbases. If they could put out a product that did justice to these beloved book series, they believed they would be rewarded. Their instincts were correct: Both films were an immediate success, with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone grossing $975 million and Fellowship of the Ring following not far behind with $898 million. After such massive box office takings, it was only natural that the studios would attempt to replicate the effect with other literary fantasy epics.
This would prove to be a difficult task. Throughout the 2000s, multiple fantasy adaptations were raced into production and given large budgets with the intention of transforming extended book series into multi-film franchises that would earn money over the span of multiple years. Almost all of them failed. In February 2002, only a few short months after Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings were released, an adaptation of The Golden Compass from Philip Pullman was announced. It would eventually come out in 2007, saddled with an inflated budget of $180 million that would make its underperformance at the box office almost inevitable. It did so poorly that it is largely credited with Warner Media’s decision in 2008 to restructure New Line Cinema, folding it into Warner Bros. Although there were initially plans to adapt the entire His Dark Materials series, they were quickly shelved.
The film version of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in 2005 was somewhat more successful, but Disney’s aspirations for turning the Chronicles of Narnia series into a profitable franchise were equally stymied. Each new entry was met with less interest from audiences: Prince Caspian underperformed to the point that Disney abandoned the project, to be replaced by 20th Century Fox, and although The Voyage of the Dawn Treader earned more at the box office, it failed to reenergize the series and the proposed fourth film, The Magician’s Nephew, never materialized.
The mid 2000s would see other such false starts, fantasy films with high aspirations but limited prospects: Eragon in 2006, Inkheart and The Spiderwick Chronicles in 2008. The pattern remains the same. In many ways, although Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings would provide a model that studios would attempt to replicate, their success would also be a barrier to other franchises establishing a foothold. With three Lord of the Rings films coming out in three consecutive years, and Harry Potter becoming essentially an annual event throughout the entire 2000s, there was no oxygen left for other adaptations of literary fantasy epics. If audiences wanted to see that sort of film, they would simply see one of the two main juggernauts.
It would not be until the 2010s that fantasy epics would have a rebirth on, ironically, the small screen. Beginning with Game of Thrones in 2011 and quickly expanding to include The Magicians, Shadow and Bone, His Dark Materials, and Shadowhunters (amongst many others), the genre became a dominant force on premium cable and streaming services. These famously lengthy stories benefitted from the extended scope of television. Whereas with film, studios were dependent on maintaining momentum over the course of several years to do justice to a full book series, a television show could provide many more narrative hours within an abbreviated schedule. Imagine if someone had tried to adapt even just the first Game of Thrones book into a single two-and-a-half hour movie? It’s easy to see why television is a natural home for the fantasy epic.
Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings sparked renewed interest in the fantasy genre, but their success alone would not be able to guarantee that others would follow in their footsteps. There were plenty of factors at play in the failure of these big-screen fantasy epics: Inferior source material, oversaturation of the market, the economic recession of the late 2000s, and even the Catholic church likely all contributed to their lack of staying power. But perhaps the tendency to see Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings as the beginning of a larger movement is a mistake: maybe they were always outliers, lightning in a bottle that miraculously happened twice in just one month, and efforts to replicate their success were inevitably doomed to failure before they even began.