Lately, it seems like every story has to be massive, or nobody cares. Every Doctor Who story is about saving the entire universe. The latest Hobbit movie seemed to be trying to be a Lord of the Rings-style saga. Every action movie needs global stakes. Can we talk about our epic epidemic?
We couldn't help notice that the official plot synopsis for tomorrow's Doctor Who Christmas special proclaims that the fate of the universe is in the balance. This comes on the heels of last month's anniversary special, in which the synopsis proclaimed that "all of reality is at stake." The universe has very nearly been destroyed several times during the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors' reigns, to the point where this threat starts to feel empty and a matter of telling rather than showing.
This comes close on the heels of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the second of three installments of Tolkien's childrens' story of the clever burglar under the hill. But critics have noted that Mr. Baggins hardly appears in the movie, shunted to the sidelines in favor of wizard fights, love triangles, and endless CGI orc battles – much of those elements wearily borrowed from the Lord of the Rings films.
But mapping The Hobbit to the Lord of the Rings drained the story of some essential qualities – a sense of discovery, a focus on how the fantastic sights are changing Bilbo, and some arch commentary on those who race into ill-advised conflict on a moment's notice – and instead presented us with an epic so generic as to be tedious. It's another ready example of the dangers of making Epic the primary rubric on which fantasy media is graded, and it's a trend that should probably stop.
Some stories are better smaller
The truth is that some stories are folk tales, not sagas; a tighter focus doesn't make them inherently less worthy, and their stakes are no less crucial to the story for being closer to home. (There's only one wolf in Red Riding Hood, but that hasn't kept the story from being any less chilling or long-lasting, or any harder to adapt – Hanna recently provided a great twist on the archetype.)
Unfortunately, it seems that Epic Fever has hit many smaller-scale stories, mistaking worldbuilding for Epic and making "more than before" the default stakes for most fantasy adaptations. The Hobbit aside, Alice in Wonderland dredged up prophecies and plunked armies together for CGI carnage, and even Hansel and Gretel, Witch Hunters were fighting witches who seemed unsure why they even wanted to take over the world to begin with.
Some of this can be laid firmly at Hollywood's door: the increasing pressure to deliver blockbusters (3D friendly, at least one CGI monster, and a half-hour melee, please) means that bigger is assumed to be not just a better approach, but the only profitable one.
In a much-quoted interview last August, screenwriter Damon Lindelof said:
It's almost impossible to, for example, not have a final set piece where the fate of the free world is at stake. You basically work your way backward and say, 'Well, the Avengers aren't going to save Guam, they've got to save the world.'
And the influence of superhero movies spreads to other, similar genres: if Superman lays waste to a third of Metropolis in the process of saving the world, then even a pulpy B-movie like Underworld is going to have to spin out some serious backstory in its sequels to try and create a sense of massive scale — creating an increasingly intricate and eventually impenetrable mythology, that swallows up any sense of fun left over from the first movie. (Let's not even talk about what happened when the sleek, scary Pitch Black turned into the bloated Chronicles of Riddick.)
That's not to say the leap is impossible, either. When done right, epic often works particularly well on TV, where mythology can develop amid an uptick in stakes and audiences can form longer attachments to all those characters who are totally doomed.
Doctor Who was a great playground for high-stakes cosmic stories before it started leaning on them half a dozen times a season. Babylon 5's deliberate structure allowed the Shadow War to build steadily, an ever-creepier threat. And then there's Xena.
Then again, how many post-Xena epic fantasy TV series have come and gone, unable to drum up enough interest in their quests to keep people watching? Sinbad, Moonlight, Legend of the Seeker, where are you now? (Bucking expectations as it has since its premiere, and standing as a handy example both for and against the Epic, Sleepy Hollow ups Ichabod's concerns from a town bully to the Biblical apocalypse, which gives the story plenty of otherworldly dread and cheeseball portents to rely on, but has actually made its worst stumbles when trying to reduce the scope from the epic to get the stakes closer to Ichabod's personal life.)
What stories are not getting told?
But with Epic as the order of the day, particularly in film, there's a self-selection that makes you wonder about the things we might be missing out on. If everything's an epic, what happens to other stories?
Would Labyrinth, with its focus on a single young woman's agency (and bonus puppets), get made today — or would she need to be caught up in a prophecy with both worlds under fire from power-hungry goblin kings? What about Ladyhawke, in which the quest involved a single relationship? (You could argue about these movies' quality, but many generic epics of recent years are pretty questionable, too, so that's a non-starter. More variation in scope would only help .)
A fantastic recent small-stakes SF flick was 2012's Dredd, which managed to present complex protagonists in an incisively grim and gripping future without having to hold the fates of millions in the balance, but such movies are the exception rather than the rule right now – and Dredd underperformed at the box office, thanks to an ad campaign that, ironically, tried to make it seem more generically epic.
Perhaps it was a hard sell because of the tendency to equate smaller stakes with lighter fare — if it Matters, then it's probably Epic. (It also suggests the question of gendering in the cultural appraisal of these movies, where inherently-masculine battle stories are thought to matter more than the cozy fantasies apparently left over for the ladies, who aren't considered a prime audience for the heavy stuff – an assumption that's patently untrue, as survey after survey of fandom has proved, and will hopefully someday die.)
Of course, smaller-as-lighter certainly wasn't the case with Dredd, or even The Secret of NIMH, which anyone who's ever watched Mrs. Brisby try to get her house to the lee of the stone before Moving Day can tell you. In fact, in some ways, animated movies have picked up the mantle of the non-epic, managing to create vast worlds but keeping the stakes tightly personal — offhand, Finding Nemo, Toy Story, and Monsters University have all told powerful stories with largely personal stakes. It would be nice if we were able to seek out the same in live-action.
In the meantime, you can always watch the 1977 Hobbit, which keeps more of the wit of the original, sprinkles in half a dozen songs while still running under 90 minutes, and and is a movie that knows you don't have to be epic to be good: as Gandalf assures Bilbo (and us), "[Y]ou are only quite a little fellow in a wide world, after all."