The Evolution of Fantasy Film as Influenced by Peter Jackson


In high fantasy, the hero usually takes an epic journey through magical worlds populated with creatures from folktale in order to save society. The hero’s honour is equal to that of the Anglo Saxon warrior, the enemy usually dabbles in black magic, and the weapon of choice is usually a sword. Though viewers have many high fantasy films to choose from now, it was not always a popular film genre. Early fantasy films focused on talking animals such as Tarzan of the Apes, (1918) or expanded fairy tales such as the Wizard of Oz (1939) (List of Fantasy, 2012). In the 1960s, fantasy and music became the mix for fantasy films such as Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (List). Audiences began developing a new taste in fantasy in the 1970s, when the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons became popular in North American teen society (Rausch, 2004). The game created an audience for sword and sorcery, influencing music, novels, cartoons and eventually film (Rausch). Filmmakers began producing films that featured medieval culture, folk creatures and heroic quests, such as Return of the King (1980), Dragonslayer (1981), Conan the Barbarian (1982), and Krull (1983). In the second half of the 1980s, high fantasy continued, but with the addition of humour. The Princess Bride (1987) by Rob Riener and Willow (1988) by Ron Howard are full of honour-bound heroics, but the sword-play and sorcery swings between suspenseful action and slapstick comedy. Both films appeal to family viewers who long for the heroic journey that ends in a fairy tale-style resolution. There are few, if any, high fantasy films created during the 1990s. But in 2001, director Peter Jackson resurrected the quest with The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Jackson used horror conventions and special effects to move the fantasy villain to a new level of terror, setting the stage for fantasy films in the future.

The directors of The Princess Bride, Willow and Fellowship of the Ring all use a narrator to provide background on the plot, but Jackson’s technique is the most effective in maintaining audience immersion in the film. The Princess Bride (1987) begins with a grandfather reading a fairy tale to his sick grandson in the comfort of a contemporary home. The Director, Rob Riener, cuts back and forth between the fantasy and grandpa, pulling the audience out of the story and into the real world. This technique interferes with suspended disbelief and reduces any suspense the film’s plot might generate. Ron Howard’s Willow (1988) begins with a black screen across which white letters state “It is a time of dread…”.  The words continue, accompanied by suspenseful music, to explain the prophecy of a child saviour and the evil Queen’s response. Though the music and the choice of words create a sense of foreboding, this opening technique also presents the film as a story–something to experience, but not to take seriously. In Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001), all information is delivered through the characters acting out the story. The character, Gandalf provides the background story of the rings during a conversation with Frodo (the hero). This type of “homodiegetic” narration provides seamless characterization without interfering in the forward motion of the plot or the audiences engagement with the story (Fulton, 2005). It is not surprising that Jackson would use this type of delivery for the backstory, given his history as a horror filmmaker. He understands the need to keep the audience immersed in the plot to better manipulate their emotions (Bio – Peter Jackson 2005).

Photo by Natasha Baucas

Jackson also knows that vulnerable characters make for good thrills in horror films, and he uses this convention in his portrayal of Frodo in Fellowship. Each hero, in the three films, is introduced as a member of a feudal, agrarian society, but of the three, it is Frodo who is the least skilled, least adept at survival, and least mature, making him the most vulnerable to evil (Grenier, 2005). In The Princess Bride, Reiner does the exact opposite because he wants the audience to feel secure about the outcome. Reiner’s hero, Westley, is a farm hand in the service of Buttercup’s family. Through actions, Reiner presents Westley, the indentured servant, as a heroic character long before he must be a hero. When Westley chops wood, he wields the axe like a sword. When Westley carries wood, he stands like a king. The audience never doubts Westley’s ability to win the day. Willow, from Ron Howard’s 1988 fantasy, is also shown plowing fields, and caring for livestock, but Willow is struggling to make the farm work. Howard presents Willow as an untested hero through other character’s reactions. Willow’s children and wife adore him, but powerful members of his community disregard him. Tension in the film is heightened by the uncertainty of Willow’s abilities. Frodo, in The Fellowship of the Ring, is also part of a community that is agriculturally based. The difference between Frodo and the other two characters is that we do not see Frodo working in the first scenes of his introduction. He is lounging in the green grass beneath a shade tree reading a book. Frodo is even further removed from the natural existence because he has literature and his Uncle has money, so he can enjoy leisure while his friends plow. The leisurely, pre-journey life of Frodo creates a strong contrast to the ensuing challenges he will face, and the audience will doubt his ability to overcome the odds in Jackson’s film. This doubt creates a sense of dread, one the audience has felt when viewing the college girl running from the “slasher” in horror films. Jackson knows the audience will cling to the edge of their seats when Frodo wanders from the protection of his helpers, because Jackson has shown us Frodo’s unpreparedness.

True to high fantasy, the peaceful, natural existence of the three heroes is rent asunder by evil, but Jackson uses his skills to ensure the audience experiences Fellowship’s evil through horrifying imagery. The Princess Bride presents the most subdued and least visually disturbing form of evil. Magic is not a malevolent force in this film, people are. Prince Humperdinck rules the kingdom of Florin with his henchman Count Tyrone Ruger. Both men are well-dressed, well-spoken, upper class criminals. The scariest thing about the two is their ruthlessness. Ron Howard’s style of evil is a little more lasting. Evil Queen Bavmorda (who looks like the Queen in Snow White) is behind all that threatens Elora Danan, the child Willow must save. Howard maintains Willow’s PG rating by not showing blood and gore. Instead, Howard uses rough posturing, allusions to harm and fearful images of death like the skull-mask on the Queen’s General to create apprehension.  Though there is morphing into pigs, trolls skittering along castle walls and a two-headed serpent to fight, the heroic, slapstick actions of Willow and his helper, Madmartigan keep the mood light. Unlike Howard, Peter Jackson forms evil into a new form of viciousness taking his high fantasy into the fringes of horror. Jackson shows the power of the ring through the imagery of demonic possession and the ghostly use of blue or harsh white light. Frodo’s uncle Bilbo, the Fairy Queen Galadriel and Gollum all experience frightening physical changes when tempted by or turned by the ring. Bilbo turns from a sweet, old uncle into a wide-eyed, desperate wild man who hisses through blue lips and rotten teeth. Galadriel, a peaceful blonde beauty surrounded by nature and soft sunlight, speaks of the ring to Frodo. Her desire for it causes her to levitate, as a blue-skinned, sharp-boned creature washed in white-light. Gollum is the most pitiful and disgusting of the three – having become unrecognizable as a result of his “possession”. Possession is not the only common horror theme Jackson uses. Sauroman is shown more as a Frankenstein monster instead of an evil sorcerer as he rips nature apart and feeds it into his industrial fortress. Jackson also uses Gothic darkness to surround Isengard, the Orcs, the Wraiths, and the army of Uruk-hai who are always presented in dark light with black shadows.  According to Jackson, he was inspired by the opportunity to present Tolkien’s through horror conventions. “One of the real motivations for me to want to make Lord of the Rings was the monsters,” (Thompson, 2008, pg 60).  Jackson’s portrayal of the ring-possessed good and the evil characters is more fitting for a horror than a fantasy, stimulating fear instead of imagination in the audience.

Given that Fellowship was released in 2001 and Willow and The Princess Bride were released in the late 80s, it seems logical that Fellowship would have more terrifying scenes.  Special effects underwent remarkable changes as computer graphics improved. In the 20th century, computers have allowed filmmakers to create scenes, landscapes, worlds, creatures and effects “with the touch of a button” (Carrera, 2001). In the 1980s, audiences were wowed by Henson’s puppets, but in 1997 computers allowed James Cameron to build, sail and sink the Titanic (Carrera). Audience expectations have also changed as media pushes the boundaries of society, and society itself changes as it becomes desensitized to scenes once considered inappropriate. Imagine the impact The Exorcist would have had on viewers in the 1930s.

Another, less obvious, reason for the differences in the films is each director’s unique history in cinema that greatly influences their filmmaking styles. Rob Reiner is the son of Broadway and television actor and comedian Carl Reiner who worked with Mel Brookes and Dick Van Dyke (Carl Reiner, 2012).  Rob Reiner’s mother was a jazz singer and her singing career helped him “understand how music was used in a scene” (Rob Reiner, Biography). Rob’s childhood influences can be seen in The Princess Bride, which is reflective of earlier decades when comedy, action and music shaped the swashbuckling adventure. Director, Ron Howard, was also introduced to television and film at an early age. As an American child actor in the 50s and 60s , Ron was known for his apple-pie roles in family oriented films and television shows such as Happy Days (Ron Howard, 2005). Howard’s Opie-style family values of are evident in scenes between Willow and his children, and in the emotionally stimulating shots Howard takes of the baby. In contrast to Howard, Jackson’s New Zealand childhood was spent practicing special effects, creating models of outlandish creatures, and experimenting with the horror film genre. Jackson’s first films Bad Taste (1987) and Meet the Feebles (1989) were noted for “slapstick horror” and “adult themes of sex, violence and suicide” (Peter Jackson, 2005).  Jackson’s interest in horror is evident in his frightening rendering of Orcs in Fellowship. Tolkien wrote of the Orcs as “squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned [creatures] with wide mouths and slant eyes” (Carpenter, 1981). The physical Orc in Fellowship is much more disturbing with crooked, fanglike teeth set in a distorted face full of evidence of self-mutilation (tattoos, piercing, scarring), pierced by red eyes and framed by disturbing bat-like ears. Jackson’s experiences and preference for horror conventions are reflected in his directing of Fellowship.

Jackson continued his trademark of imbedding horror conventions into high fantasy with Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). The three films had incredible success in the box office and clearly influenced a generation of fantasy film viewers. Fantasy films following Jacksons that featured horror elements include Pirates of the Caribbean: The Black Pearl (2003) and the later episodes in the Harry Potter series (2001-2011). These successful fantasies feature frightening antagonists in Davy Jones and Voldemort—creatures whose physical features are as scary as their powers. The scenes in which the protagonists engage with Jones and Voldemort are filled with darkness, flashes of light, magic and just enough doubt in the protagonist’s ability to keep the audience unsure of the outcome. Jackson’s influence on fantasy is hard to question, but the ever-improving computer generated special effects are also taking fantasy films into new realms of possibility. As long as viewers continues to enjoy fantasy films that are filled with the conventions of the horror genre, directors will continue making fantasies that frighten as well as amaze.


 Rausch, A. (2004). Magic and Memories: The Complete History of Dungeons and Dragons. Gamespy:IGN

 Carl Reiner. In (2012). Wikipedia® Retrieved from

 Carpenter, H. (1981). The letters of JRR Tolkien. Boston: Houghtin Mifflin

 Carrera, L. (2001). The revolution of special effects in movies. Informally published manuscript, University of Texas, El Paso, US. Retrieved from

 Chen, H. (2011). Skeletal dysplasia. In Medscape Reference WebMD. Retrieved from

 Fulton, H. (2005). Narrative and media. (p. 112). Port Melbourne, Australia: Cambridge University Press.

 Grenier , D. G. (2005). Chapter 7: Agrarian societies. Informally published manuscript, sociology, Florida International University, Miami, Florida. Retrieved from

 List of fantasy films. In (2012). Wikipedia Retrieved from

 Peter Jackson – Biography.  (2005). bio., Retrieved from

 Rob Reiner, Biography. In IMDb Retrieved from

 Ron Howard – Biography. (2005). bio., Retrieved from

 Thompson, K. (2008). The frodo franchise: The lord of the rings and modern hollywood. University of California.


  1. What a great article. Another one that pops into my mind when discussing pulling the audience out of the fantasy spell the author works to spin, is The Neverending Story.


  2. I’m trying to remember that one – Oh right. The boy locked in the school was reading about Arturo? Is that the one? And the story kept going back and forth between the two plots?


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