Who remembers Breck Eisner’s The Last Witch Hunter or Jon Turteltaub’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice? I would guess not many people do. Urban fantasy is the most popular form of contemporary fiction, yet it seems to have little representation in today’s films. In the world of books, urban fantasy is an incredibly popular genre, but in film, it cannot seem to thrive. Even a TV show based off of Jim Butcher’s popular Dresden novels ended after only twelve episodes. Why can’t urban fantasy get a break in the film industry?
First, we have to define urban fantasy. Sorry, folks. Superheroes are classified under sci-fi so we’ll have to skip those. It’s easier to look at Harry Potter, the only non-vampire contemporary fantasy thriving in movies, as a good example. It takes place in modern times, the fantasy aspect has roots deep into history, and it reflects our modern lives enough that we believe it. The most popular urban fantasy subgenres that have survived the tests of film are the vampire/werewolf and angel/demon genres. From What We Do in the Shadows to Twilight, this classic category has taken on many faces and becomes a genre everyone knows. Same with shows like Constantine or Lucifer, everyone has at least enough Biblical knowledge to know that angels are good and demons are bad. However, when it comes to films that don’t have a well-known foundation, they falter. Here are my thoughts as to why:
Costly Special Effects
While TV shows can handle exposition better and therefore world building (American Gods and Grimm), if they’re too costly and not a lot of people watch because it’s too niche it’ll get cut (Dresden). It also helps if the fantasy aspects are kept to a minimum with using special effects, which is why the vampire genres thrive (The Vampire Diaries). Keeping the special effects low can also help focus on the characters and the story. While wowing the audience could pull them into the show, if there’s anything shows like Supernatural or Buffy have taught us, is that while the supernatural genre could be visually stunning, the characters are what hook the audience to continue watching.
It’s easier, for films dabbling in urban fantasy, to be isolated incidents. Small stories that surround a single instance of fantasy in a modern world like Shape of Water. We never dig deeper into the world of where this creature came from or if there were more and how the existence of these creatures has affected the world or been affected by the world outside of the story. While a great film, it doesn’t create a world other than the one in that instance. This is great for movies because you only have two hours. It helps to focus on what’s at hand and keeps unnecessary information from overwhelming the audience.
However, in TV shows, having a hidden depth to a world can give the audience something more to think about as they wait for the next episode. Like an iceberg, only show the audience the immediately necessary details. Then, reference a world beneath what they’ve seen, one that lives outside the story. In The Magicians, based on Lev Grossman’s novels, there are history books about magic that have gone through several volumes, the ever-present question of “where did magic come from?”, and a school that has been established for years that may lead the audience to wonder what it was like when it was first built or what it will look like years in the future.
These ideas can work for either film or TV, but these are what seem to work best for each. If you have the luxury of knowing that you’re going to make a film series, then you can spread out information and make it easier for audiences to absorb.
Let’s take a closer look at the most recent urban fantasy release: Bright. It takes a city setting that looks familiar to us, but there are fantasy races like orcs, elves, and fairies and that’s only what we see. Dwarves are referenced and there’s a centaur policeman at one point. It only mentioned one historical moment of all the races – the battle that lead to the Dark Lord’s demise. Everything else seems to be regular human history. This brings up the question of “How long have these races been around?”. They seem to be integrated into a modern-like society, but there was no mention as to how this came to be, other than that one ancient battle. How did elves get to be the rich upper class?
There is an enormous amount of restrictions on film other than budget. We have a time limit, amount of characters, and audience process abilities. Within two hours, you can only say so much. Even with our ability to absorb more information than we used to, there’s only so much someone in an audience wants to learn before it becomes work. If there are too many characters, the audience can get confused, if there’s too much information, the audience can get lost. These are all things to consider and Bright definitely made a good attempt, but it fell short. It did attempt something risky – a whole reenvisioned world in one film – and Bright should be commended for taking that leap. They got urban fantasy’s foot in the door, now we just need to take it the rest of the way.
When creating an entirely original urban fantasy in film (sorry, Harry Potter, the books really helped you sell the movies) it can be incredibly difficult to create the world. An original fantasy storyline creates a lot of new information the audience may need to understand this new world. A good start is to really sort through what the audience needs to know and what can be left out. It can be hard to sacrifice information you really think is important, but if your story takes off there will be more chances to put it in later if it’s still necessary. Books are for those who want to pour detail into every aspect of their world (for those who thrive on visuals, try a graphic novel). This makes one-and-done fantasy realms nearly non-existent. No one has created a whole new world and thought, yeah sure, one is enough. Worlds can expand into amazing stories and combine into a reality that audiences will want to explore. What does that sound like? A cinematic universe.
Marvel does this great. It has self-contained stories and each story adds a bit to the world. When you watch them, the world adds up to a world that has depth. It helps that the world is a modern civilization with some science fiction/fantasy changes and therefore, not a lot of exposition is needed when a character is in New York or they mention weaponry that most people know. The world expansion does help which is why TV shows and film series like cinematic universes might be the best way to push urban fantasy into the light. However, the reason Marvel has successfully created and maintained it’s universe is that the comic books have characters that the audience either knows of them or are part of the enormous fan base that surrounds comics. Like Harry Potter, the films are able to make enough money from the fanbase alone. Most of the information that is missing from the world, an intrigued audience member can find in the books.
For a film that has an entirely new or altered world, it might be hard to get all the information to the audience, if they even show up. The unknown and unique films are few and far between, drowning in reboots and sequels. Those are safe. Producers know that reboots and sequels will always bring back curious fans, even if it doesn’t do as well, at least it has a chance. It is hard for people to put money on something new and something radical. With Bright, I think urban fantasy might have a greater chance of getting out there and succeeding because they cracked the ice and all it needs is a polished and successful film in urban or contemporary fantasy to break it. Even in other genres, there are more original scripts coming through: Get Out, Shape of Water, A Quiet Place, Isle of Dogs, and Coco. Nothing is more revitalizing and refreshing than risk and experimentation in film.
If you think there’s something I missed or want to add more to my list, join the conversation and comment below!
Beverly Peders is a Screenwriting student at Drexel University. While focusing on writing for the screen, she has also dabbled in playwriting, writing comic books, and video games. World building is her favorite and she constantly obsesses over anthropology and linguistics. In her non-existent spare time, you may find her begging her plants to stay alive or trying to convince nonbelievers that dragons are real. She is also a percussionist in several ensembles with a love of music that outweighs her skill.