When cinemas around the world first began to reopen after those dark, locked-down days of spring 2020, one of the first things that screened in the UK was a Harry Potter marathon. Meanwhile, in July, an almost-20-year-old movie appeared in the British box-office top five: the extended cut of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Sure, new movies were thin on the ground but there was another conclusion to be drawn: people craved fantasy.
More than a year on and that hunger is being catered for in epic style. The two behemoths we’ll be digging into on streaming and TV in 2022 are both fantasy prequels: Amazon has its epic new The Lord of the Rings, while HBO returns to Westeros with its Game of Thrones follow-up House of the Dragon.
And the money behind them would stretch even the Iron Bank of Braavos. By the end of the original Game of Thrones, HBO was spending $15 million per episode, and it’s unlikely it will be downsizing. Amazon, meanwhile, bought the rights to JRR Tolkien’s books for a staggering $250 million in 2017, and has committed an estimated $150 million to the first season of its ‘Lord of the Rings’ show. It launches on September 2 and will be the most expensive TV series ever made.
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Streaming giant Netflix has joined the feast, too. Since ‘sci-fi and fantasy’ took over as its subscribers’ most popular category in 2018, almost a third of its original new content has been devoted to fantastical material. ‘Netflix uses sophisticated customer analytics to rapidly respond to changes in subscriber taste,’ reports analytics firm Ampere Analysis, ‘so as demand for sci-fi and fantasy grows, so does the amount of content.’
What is driving this demand? Fantasy spirits you away from modern stresses, not least the complications of technology, into worlds that feel a little like our past but are unburdened by real history. Where sci-fi tends towards gloomy dystopias that must be resisted, fantasy often involves idealised, usually bucolic realms facing existential threats.
‘Fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly,’ noted writer and philosopher GK Chesterton at the turn of the twentieth century. ‘That is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of the bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of the bogey.’
In short, fantasy offers the reassurance of uncomplicated heroism and, more often than not, the bright sparkle of magic.
Since both Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter launched cinematic franchises at the turn of the century (only a few months after 9/11), fantasy has shifted from geeky embarrassment and ’80s B-movie fodder and into the mainstream. Just look at the success of Game of Thrones and all the other big-budget fantasy adaptations that have been greenlit in its wake, such as The Witcher, His Dark Materials and The Wheel of Time.
While things might not seem quite so bleak now as they did in mid-2020 (or, indeed, late 2001), pseudo-medieval worlds and magical kingdoms still attract us.
Which brings us back to The Lord of the Rings. Rather than re-enacting the War of the Ring covered by Peter Jackson’s cinematic trilogy, Amazon’s fresh epic will delve into Middle Earth’s Second Age, a few millennia earlier. There won’t be many familiar faces (though Saint Maud star Morfydd Clark will appear as Galadriel), and narrative details remain scant, beyond it possibly dealing with the rise of Sauron.
But we can expect some reassuring aesthetic continuity, thanks to the involvement of Weta Workshop (which created the armour, weapons and prosthetics for the original films) and the fact that it was shot mainly in New Zealand.
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Over in Westeros, they’re not delving quite so far into the past – just a couple of hundred years. It’s the era of the Targaryen civil war, as detailed in author George RR Martin’s fictional history ‘Fire & Blood’. House of the Dragon benefits from a quality cast that includes Paddy Considine, Olivia Cooke and Matt Smith. We’re promised a much higher dragon count than the previous series, too, with the fire-spewing beasts enjoying their final years before extinction.
Clearly, the likes of Amazon and HBO have money to burn on breathing new life into these beloved properties, but TV is a natural home for the fantasy adaptation, regardless. The multi-season narrative offers the most coherent, bingeworthy way to tackle these dense, lore-drenched texts.
This is the case with Netflix’s horror-fantasy The Sandman, which has succeeded where several cinematic attempts have failed. Based on Neil Gaiman’s 75-issue comic series, its protagonist is Morpheus (Tom Sturridge), one of the Endless, who rules the realm of dreams and has run-ins with a ruthless occultist (Charles Dance), various deities and historical personages, and even the Lord of Hell, Lucifer (Gwendolyn Christie). A sprawling metaphysical saga, it is set to be huge.
And there’s still plenty of room for other streaming fantasies. On Netflix especially, where we’ll find The Witcher prequel series Blood Origin (exploring the foundation of the Witcher order); the West African mythology-inspired Children of Blood and Bone; a new, live-action adaptation of beloved cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender; an animated take on the ‘Magic: The Gathering’ trading card game; and even a return to the world beyond the wardrobe with the launch of ‘new series and film projects based on CS Lewis’s beloved “The Chronicles of Narnia”’, according to a Netflix announcement.
Meanwhile, Disney+ is effectively blending fantasy with ’80s nostalgia with a series based on Ron Howard’s cheesy swords-and-sorcery misfire Willow. Here’s hoping that it will be Cobra Kai with wizards.
Speaking of wizards, the main big-screen fantasy offering of 2022 will be the third in the Harry Potter spin-off-stroke-prequel series, Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore. Swapping Johnny Depp for Mads Mikkelsen as bad egg Grindelwald, it will follow Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and young Dumbledore (Jude Law) as they try to foil the dark magician’s plans on the eve of World War II. The Potter movie juggernaut, rolling since 2001, shows no sign of slowing.
Cinema schedules aren’t quite as packed with fantastical offerings as the small screen, but there’s more wizardry in Marvel Studios’ Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, where the eponymous sorcerer’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) reality-tampering goes seriously awry; and further demi-godly superhero antics with Thor: Love and Thunder, which will see Natalie Portman returning as Jane Foster. Intriguingly, she’ll be gaining the thunder god’s powers.
Landing in December is James Cameron’s long-awaited Avatar sequel. Though actually science fiction, its weird and colourful alien menagerie gives off a strong fantasy vibe, and it will likely scratch that same escapist itch. But, if you’re after something grittier and more down to earth, look out for Robert ‘The Lighthouse’ Eggers’s next offering: The Northman, a Viking revenge thriller steeped in Norse superstition.
Whatever flavour of fantasy you’re seeking, there’s sure to be something for you in 2022. Everyone needs a little bit of magic in their lives. Especially these days.