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Fantasy. Even the title of the genre brings up thoughts of grand adventures into epic worlds with long histories and mythologies. The genre gives writers a chance to unleash their imaginations and allows audiences great avenues for escapism. Some fantasy works have transcended the genre and have been regarded as some of the best works in their given medium – whether it’s books, movies, TV shows or video games.
The Harry Potter franchise has released its first spin-off movie – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – which has generally been well received by critics and set to start a five-film series. To celebrate, let’s look at some of the best and most popular franchises that the genre has to offer.
To narrow the scope, sci-fi fantasy franchises like Star Wars and Final Fantasy have been excluded.
15. Dark Souls
The Dark Souls series has earned a reputation for being games for sadomasochists; known for their notorious difficulty. And that is why they are so well received – there is no handholding in an age of easier gaming. The series is set in a fantasy world which has fallen into ruin and is dominated by monsters: the undead and large creatures ranging from giant sword-wielding wolves to dragons.
The set-up of Dark Souls is a world used to being one of darkness and fog until the Age of Fire brought life to the world. However, the fire has been extinguished, civilization has collapsed and the few men that are left are slowly dying. It’s a terrific set-up and the games subtly told the history of the world. There is great potential for an expanded universe, whether it’s in novels, films or a TV show.
The games were developed by the Japanese developer FromSoftware and spans four games: the original trilogy and the PS3 game Demon Souls. The most recent game, Dark Souls III was the fastest selling game in Namco’s history, selling over three million copies after two months on release.
The Warhammer series was a British creation by the company Games Workshop, developing into a table-top role playing game and constructible figures which boys in the UK ended up having at some point in their childhood. Warhammer is a world similar to Tolkien’s Middle-Earth and Medieval Europe, featuring warring races like humans, dwarfs, orcs, vampires and various forms of elves, battling for control of the world.
Since its inception, Warhammer has evolved: there are numerous novels using the setting and a large number of video games, ranging from role-playing games, turn-based and real-time strategies and oddly enough American Football. The most recent game is Total War: Warhammer, was the first game in the Total War series to move beyond a historical setting and it was well received by critics.
There is also a sci-fi fantasy spin-off Warhammer 40,000, which traded swords and axes for giant laser guns.
13. Dungeons & Dragons
Dungeons & Dragons is the most famous tabletop role-playing game, created in the ’70s by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson and considered one of the nerdiest of endeavors. Their gaming model has been licensed to a number of franchises and the main game is now in its 5th edition, allowing fans to create their own fantasy adventures.
Despite the games having a devoted following, the movie adaptations are less successful. The 2000 movie is considered one of the worst films ever made – having a deliciously camp performance from Jeremy Irons, but suffers from terrible special effects and awful performances across the board. There were also two TV sequels for SyFy. A Saturday Morning Cartoon from the ’80s fared much better, following a group of kids and teenagers who end up in a fantasy world after riding a rollercoaster, assuming different D&D roles.
The popularity of Dungeons & Dragons led to a moral panic in the ’70s and ’80s, leading to the notorious TV movie Mazes and Monsters: a movie that was based on sensational headlines where a group of college students play a D&D like game and are unable to separate fantasy from reality. It was an embarrassing early credit for Tom Hanks.
Futurama parodied the game (along with a few other fantasy properties) in the straight-to-DVD movie Bender’s Game and Gygax cameoed as himself in the episode “Anthology of Interest I”. Vin Diesel is a famous player of the game and has put ideas from his games in his movies – namely The Chronicles of Riddick and The Last Witch Hunter.
12. The Witcher
The Witcher series is the creation of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, spanning five novels in its main series: a standalone novel and two collections of short stories. They were originally published in the 1990s but they were not published in English until 2008.
The Witcher is best known for the video game trilogy – the first two on the PC with the third also being developed for the PS4 and Xbox One. The games were critically acclaimed and known for their adult content, plenty of sex, swearing and violence. The games focus on Geralt of Rivia, a witcher, a genetically enhanced human with powers who hunts monsters for money. As the game progress, Geralt becomes more ingrained in the world’s politics.
The Witcher had been adapted into a film and TV series in Poland in the early years of the 21st Century, but both were poorly received. A Hollywood-backed film is currently in pre-production, with Polish director Tomek Baginski set to make his feature film debut. It was set to be released in 2017, but it is clearly going to be delayed. Seeing the success of adult-ordinated fantasy programs like Game of Thrones, The Witcher stands a good chance of being a success, whether on film or TV.
11. The Wheel of Time
Spanning 14 novels of varying quality that were published between 1990 to 2013, The Wheel of Time is one of the most popular fantasy series around – selling over 80 million copies worldwide. The series was originally written by Robert Jordan and completed by Brandon Sanderson (the author of the Mistborn series) after Jordan’s death.
The Wheel of Time is set in a medieval-like world where the forces of good and evil are locked in an eternal war. Three young men from a small village end up engaged in the conflict against the Dark One, as it turns out one of them is the prophesized hero – who can defeat evil once and for all. The series was originally intended to be a trilogy but ended up being a sprawling series.
The novels became known for their vivid descriptions showing a complex world of warring kingdoms, factions with differing ideologies such as people who don’t trust female magic users and religious zealots. It’s a world that fans get engrossed with. There was exclusive content for the series at Dragon Con in Atlanta, Georgia from 2001 to 2012 and since 2009 there has been a convention in Atlanta dedicated to the Wheel of Time series, JordanCon.
As well as novels, there has been a video game based on Jordan’s world – released in 1999 – a role-playing game and collectible card game. FXX did air a pilot based on the prolog in the first Wheel of Time novel, Eye of the World but it was a critical disaster and led to legal action from Jordan’s late wife Harriet McDougal. McDougal has confirmed another TV series is in development.
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is a series of novels that lasted from 1983 to 2015, only ending because of Pratchett’s death. Discworld is a comical take on the fantasy genre, it is set on a flat planet that is on top of four elephants who are standing on the back of a giant turtle. Pratchett wrote the series as a parody of other popular fantasy staples like Lord of the Rings, Conan the Barbarian and Shakespeare’s fantasy plays,:as well using the fantasy setting to lampoon real world issues.
The Discworld series is incredibly popular – 80 million copies of the books have been sold and it has been translated into 37 languages. The fan base is devoted to the series: when the last novel was released people queued in costume – like fans of other popular fantasy franchises. The novels have also been critically well received, many have won or been nominated for awards including the British Science Fiction Award, British Fantasy Award, Locus Award, Prometheus Award and the Carnegie Medal for children’s fiction. 14 of the novels also made the top 200 in the BBC’s Big Read in 2003, a public vote to find Britain’s favorite novel.
Despite the success on the page, Discworld has not received that many adaptations due to the complexity of the world. An animated adapted version was broadcast on Channel 4 in the late ’90s and Sky One made three live action adaptations for TV. There have also been two fan films.
9. The Dark Tower
The Dark Tower series is a novel series from the prolific Stephen King and is one of his longest series, spanning eight novels over the course of 20 years. Unlike other fantasy franchises – which are set in medieval like worlds – The Dark Tower series is set in an Old West style world; Roland Deschain, is a Man With No Name type character, who travels the world trying to hunt down Randall Flagg, a magic-using villain with the power to assume other people’s identities and able to travel to different worlds. The Dark Tower is described as a hard, dry world filled with mutated creatures and magic as well as six shooters and rifles. It is one of King’s most popular series – the seventh novel won a British Fantasy Award in 2005 and three of the novels were nominated for a Locus Award.
An onscreen adaptation had been in development hell for years: J. J. Abrams and Ron Howard were both attached to direct with Howard and his production team even proposing to make a TV series to run at the same time as the film series. Howard and his collaborators Brian Grazer and Akiva Goldsman stayed on as producers with Danish director Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair) directing and has Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey as Roland and Flagg.
8. Conan the Barbarian
Robert E. Howard was a prolific pulp writer during his short life – committing suicide at the age of 30. His most famous creation was Conan the Barbarian, an influential figure in fantasy fiction and started the Swords-and-Sandals genre. Howard wrote one novel featuring Conan, two novellas and fourteen short stories – nearly all of them were published in Weird Tales magazine. Three other short stories were published after Howard’s death.
The Conan stories were set in the fictional Hyborian Age – an age between the fall of Atlantis and before the founding of other ancient civilizations. Conan himself rises from being the son of a blacksmith to becoming a legendary warrior and later a noble king.
Most people know Conan from the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies in the ’80s: the first one being a classic fantasy film that helped to make Schwarzenegger a star and was a gleefully violent movie – filled with great action, sets, props and had an awesome score by Basil Poledouris. The sequel was not so fondly remembered – toning the violence to make the series more family friendly. Game of Thrones star and future Aquaman, Jason Momoa starred in a reboot for Lionsgate but it failed miserably with audiences and critics.
As well as the films, Conan has appeared in a long series of comics since the ’70s, published by Marvel and Dark Horse and has also appeared in a good Saturday Morning Cartoon in the ’90s, Conan the Adventurer. The sequel series Conan and the Young Warriors was so not good. There was also a live-action show starring German bodybuilder Ralf Möller.
Conan also appeared in a number of video games including the MMORPG Age of Conan in 2008, a game that Penny in The Big Bang Theory gets obsessed with. Like other fantasy franchises, the Conan franchise has been adapted table-top roleplaying games.
7. His Dark Materials
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy is the magnum opus, a wonderful collection of novels set across a number of parallel universes, filled with witches, talking polar bears, angels and the souls of people called dæmons. It is a long and complicated story, so to put it simply the novels focus on 12-year-olds: Lyra, a girl from a Steampunk Victorian world who seeks adventure and Will Parry, a boy from our world who’s on the run after accidently killing a man. Both are prophesized to save all reality as the forces of the Authority and the Republic of Heaven move towards an inter-dimensional conflict.
The original trilogy was published between 1995 to 2000 and was critically well received, winning the Carnegie Medial for children’s fiction in 1995 and in 2007 declared by judges of the Carnegie Medal as one of the ten most important children’s novels of the last 70 years. The series third book The Amber Spyglass won the 2001 Whitbread Book of the Year award and The Observer newspaper placed it on a list of the top 100 novels. The British public voted it the third best book in the 2003 BBC Big Read placing it behind The Lord of the Rings and Pride and Prejudice.
As well as the main trilogy Pullman has written two short novels, Lyra’s Oxford and Once Upon a Time in the North and Pullman has promised more short stories set in his world.
The trilogy has had been adapted in a number of different media. The BBC adapted it into a radio play that lasted seven hours and The Royal National Theatre in London also adapted the novels into a two-part play by Nicholas Wright: the original cast included Timothy Dalton and Patricia Hodge. There has also been an adaptation of the books into a graphic novel.
The first novel The Golden Compass (Northern Lights in the UK) was turned into a movie by New Line Cinema under the belief that it could become the next Lord of the Rings, but suffered from production troubles and upset two contrasting groups: religious groups were upset because of the trilogy’s criticism of religion while fans of the books were unhappy that the studio toned down the religious themes and darker moments. The planned sequels were never made.
In November 2015 it was announced that the BBC and New Line Cinema started work to make a mini-series. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child‘s Jack Thorne is currently working on the adaptation and we at Entertainment Fuse have offered our thoughts on our dream cast and who should direct the miniseries.
6. The Chronicles of Narnia
The Chronicles of Narnia is a classic example of high fantasy – enthralling children and adults alike. The series was written by C. S. Lewis, an Oxford academic, who was inspired to write the novels after children were evacuated to Oxford during the Second World War; he wanted to write something that could get them to read.
Lewis wrote seven novels, the most famous being The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and focused mostly on the Pevensie children who end up in the magical world of Narnia from war-torn England. As the series progresses other children end up in Narnia. Lewis was a religious man and used the novels to tell a religious message as well as being influenced by Classical and Medieval Mythology.
Lewis’ creation has been adapted a number of times. International audiences will probably know the Walden Media franchise that was distributed by Disney and FOX. It was made in the wake of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Narnia trilogy made a collective $1.5 Billion. They were a solid set of films, especially the first two. There has also been a number of TV adaptations, including a series by ITV in 1967, a BBC serial that adapted four of the novels and a CBS animated version. The BBC also made a radio play in the ’80s.
L. Frank Baum’s Oz is one of the most famous and enduring fantasy franchises and a beloved work of American children’s literature. Baum wrote 14 novels during his lifetime and the series was continued after his death, although The L. Frank Baum Family Trust only recognize three books as official canon.
The most famous novel in the series was The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and is the most adapted. The 1939 version is the most famous adaptation, a Technicolor fantasy that is one of the best movies from Hollywood’s Golden Age, even if the film version takes some liberties from the source material. Disney made a pseudo-sequel 46 years later and while Return to Oz performed poorly at the box-office it has become a cult classic.
While these are the most famous adaptations of Baum’s work they were silent adaptations, including the 1925 version which was a dark interpretation of the novel. They have also been anime adaptations and live musicals, including a version which Baum helped write in 1902.
The rights to the novels have fallen into the public domain, meaning anyone can write a continuation, re-interpretation or an onscreen adaptation – although MGM own the rights to the ruby slippers because they were silver in the novel. One of the most famous revisions was Gregory Maguire’s prequel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, reimagining the Wicked Witch of the West as a freedom fighter for the oppressed animals of Oz. This was turned into a hit musical which fans want to see made into a film.
Disney has also had a few cracks at adapting Oz: they made their movie, Oz: The Great and Powerful, a prequel about how a magician ends up becoming the Wizard of Oz and featuring characters in their fairy tale series Once Upon a Time.
The most extensive video game fantasy is Blizzard’s Warcraft series – the most famous being their MMORPG World of Warcraft. Published in 2004 World of Warcraft has been a worldwide phenomenon, having 12 million subscribers at its peak, and having a number of expansions. However, the success of the game has been criticized because of reports of it causing video game addiction – leading to sensational headlines that the games led to children dying of neglect.
The Warcraft franchise has been going since the mid-90s – starting as a series of real-time strategy games where players command armies of humans or orcs in the fight for the world of Azeroth. There were three main games and a number of expansions before World of Warcraft was released.
The Warcraft series has expanded into a number of other media including a long series of novels, several comic book adaptations and most recently a live-action film. The movie disappointed critics but fans of the games have defended the film adaptation. The movie required Chinese audiences to save it financially. Despite this critical failing, Warcraft is still one of the better video game film adaptations.
3. Harry Potter
J.K. Rowling’s life is a great rags-to-riches story. She went from being a struggling single mother living on welfare to becoming the author of one of the most successful novel series in history, Harry Potter. Many publishers rejected Rowling’s manuscript until Bloomsbury picked it up and it became a publishing sensation. Lasting seven novels, the Harry Potter series is one of the biggest selling series and won numerous awards including three Nestle Smarties Book Prize Awards, two Scottish Art Council Book Awards, the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year award in 1999, the WHSmith Book of the Year Award in 2006 and the Hugo Award for Best Novel for Harry Potter and Goblet of Fire.
When the film rights were sold, Rowling stipulated that the films had to be made in Britain and use mostly British and Irish actors – a move that had knock-on effects on the British film and tourism industries, creating more of a film infrastructure and increased visitors to the UK. Warner Brothers have opened the Harry Potter Studios which has become a must-see for Harry Potter fans.
Despite the book and film series ending the franchise has continued. The play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has become a big hit on the West End in London and the spinoff film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has stormed the box-office. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the start of a five-film series, which our own Sneh Rupra looked at the possible direction these movies may take. Rowling created a rich and detailed universe filled with characters and events and it is likely we will see more spin-offs from the Harry Potter series.
2. A Song of Ice and Fire
Since its original broadcast in 2011 Game of Thrones has become a cultural phenomenon, with audiences becoming enthralled by the dynastic struggles of Westeros. It is one of the most viewed shows internationally (and has the unfortunate distinction of being the most pirated shows) with Game of Thrones merchandise selling like hot cakes. Actor Ian McShane said the show ‘is just tits and dragons’: he says that like it is a bad thing? The success of the show has led a number of copycat shows, trying to match Game of Thrones‘ violence and political intrigue.
Game of Thrones originally started as a novel by American novelist George R. R. Martin – published in 1996, starting A Song of Ice and Fire series. Martin was influenced by the English dynastic conflict War of Roses, as well as events in Medieval Europe, the Roman Empire and nomadic people like the Mongols. Martin’s aim was to make the politics of Westeros more realistic than other fantasy series. Martin also downplayed magical elements.
There have been five novels in the series so far and there are two more on the way. The seventh season of Game of Thrones is out next year and the show should last eight seasons overall. Many of its major actors have become big stars and like Harry Potter having an effect on the British film industry: Northern Ireland’s entertainment industry has been given a huge boost because of the TV show.
There has been talk about a spin-off series and if you watch Civilization Ex’s excellent Youtube series you can see that that there is a lot of material to mine.
J. R. R. Tolkien is one of the most famous and influential fantasy authors around – having an impact on other fantasy authors from Robert Jordan to George R. R. Martin. Like his contemporary C. S. Lewis, Tolkien was an academic at Oxford, specializing in Medieval Literature. His most famous work is the children’s book The Hobbit and the extensive trilogy The Lord of Rings. After his death, Tolkien’s son Christopher edited and published his other work, including The Silmarillion and numerous short stories.
The events of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings is just the tip of the iceberg: Tolkien created a detailed world filled with different cultures and a long history. Tolkien even created the Elvish language for his books. The Lord of the Rings was declared Britain’s favorite book in the BBC’s Big Read in 2003.
Lord of the Rings has been adapted twice. The first time was an animated version by Ralph Bakshi – an adaptation that condensed Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers into a two hour, 12 minute long film. It had to cut a lot of ideas and characters from the books but it was influential – even in Peter Jackson’s trilogy. The Peter Jackson trilogy was a much more loyal adaptation, spanning over nine hours (the extended versions are even longer) and was a revolution in special effects. Collectively the movies made over $2.9 Billion and won 17 Oscars – Return of the King had a clean sweep – winning all the Academy Awards it was nominated for. The success of the film trilogy led to fantasy being treated more seriously as a film genre and spawned a number of copycats like The Chronicles of Narnia series and Eragon.
The Hobbit Trilogy wasn’t as well received, stretching the material too thinly. But it still made over $2.9 Billion and Desolation of Smaug was just as good as the films in the original trilogy.
Like with A Song of Ice and Fire, there is a wealth of material from Tolkien that could be adapted into a spin-off film – especially events from the First Age.