Is the High Fantasy Renaissance Missing its Heart?

The trend cycle of television keeps on turning and as the draw of an over-saturated superhero market dwindles, screens are welcoming back the return of a king. 2022 has seen audiences entering The Dreaming in Netflix’s ‘The Sandman’; Returning to King’s Landing in ‘House of the Dragon’; and exploring the shores of Numenor in Amazon’s ‘The Rings of Power’, all in the space of a few months. The casts, the character names and the budgets of these new fantasy productions are all bigger than ever before, but are they necessarily better?

Compared to the rigid, lore heavy high fantasy of ‘House of the Dragon’ and ‘Rings of Power’, ‘The Sandman’ moves fast, cramming in action and characters just like the 90s fan favourite DC comic. The show does everything in its power to show its devotion to the original: Each episode shares the title and plot of a comic issue and many scenes are taken shot for shot from Dringenberg’s illustrations. Sadly, in its quest to stay anchored to the source material with complete earnestness, ‘The Sandman’s’ tone can come across dislocated. The atmosphere in the darkly inked pages of the comic falters in the light of big-budget TV. Tom Sturridge is the perfect ethereal Dream, but in some scenes he looks more like the fifth member of MCR than an omnipotent immortal. Desire, Lucifer and the episodes ‘24/7’ and ‘The Sound of Her Wings’ are total highlights but they stand beside the unintentionally silly. It’s hard to explain to someone new to ‘The Sandman’ that no, Merv Pumpkinhead is not meant to be funny and no, you shouldn’t be giggling at him. The show is darker than some of Gaiman’s other fare and the horror aspects are strong, but the show is unsure of what genre it wants to land in. With a second series yet to be announced, it is unclear whether we’ll get to see ‘The Sandman’ really find its footing.

Sandman isn’t the only one contending with the long shadows of its predecessor either, though ‘House of the Dragon’ arguably has the easier job. The final series of its companion show, ‘Game of Thrones’, had a famously poor final innings that left even the most devout feeling sour. First impressions have been better for the current run but it is missing some of that Tyrion wit. The show is overwhelmingly serious, sometimes misguidedly so. ‘House of the Dragon’ has already had it’s share of misogyny and graphic births, in a franchise which already has poor form with the treatment of women and the topics of sexual assault and abuse. However when fears were raised again, the showrunners defended the scenes in the name of ‘historical accuracy’. It’s pretty hard to not be angered at the insistence on depicting the abuse of vulnerable people for the sake of realism, in a show which sees the 11th Doctor in a bad wig flying around on a CGI dragon’s back. 

But both shows are metaphorical hobbits to the Smaug that is ‘The Rings of Power’. With each episode boasting a $58.1 million price tag, Amazon is pulling out all the stops to have the series match up to Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning trilogy. Speaking as a truly dedicated Tolkien fan, there is a lot to feel conflicted about. Firstly, no story, no matter how good, can be fully separated from its production. Not only does a billion-dollar TV show seem wrong in the current global climate, but it is made worse after realising that the show has become notorious billionaire tax-avoider Jeff Bezos’ pet project. Each aspect of the show is as conspicuous a show of wealth as any media has the right to be and while it makes for beautiful telly, it doesn’t always sit right morally. The real sadness is that ‘Rings of Power’ is making some real strides in representation for people of colour in fantasy and finally bringing the great women of Tolkien to screen. The show is working hard to find the heart of Middle-earth, but is going against the pantheistic message of its creator in the process.

High fantasy may be all grandeur right now but watching these new million-dollar productions, I can’t help missing the shows of my younger years. I grew up on a diet of ‘Merlin’ and 2010s ‘Doctor Who’, where the costumes were questionable and the CGI even more so. They were never focused on aesthetics, or even being taken very seriously, but on giving viewers a fun, daft and lovable 45 minutes to escape into. Watching the fantasy renaissance, I can’t help but realise I would trade all this extravagance for one light-hearted romp. Hey, even ‘Lord of the Rings’ needed Tom Bombadil. 

[Tilly Holt – she/her]

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