Christopher Paolini began writing Eragon, a fantasy novel about dragons, elves, and a farmboy who finds out that his destiny is to destroy an evil empire, when he was 15 years old. Those themes may sound familiar to you, and that was perhaps an important part of the book's success: It became a bestseller.
I could have written a similar book (though perhaps not when I was fifteen) but I never guessed that the Tolkien estate and Lucasfilm would have given permission to use all of their ideas. As one of Paolini's characters says, forgiveness is easier than permission, and everyone seems to have forgiven Paolini (up to a point -- we''ll see how well the movie does). That's good, because every major plot point in Eragon is ripped off from The Lord of the Rings or the Star Wars series (with occasional ripoffs, probably subconscious, from other sources, like The Wizard of Oz). In fact, Eragon is so derivative it's surprising that it even got published. Or it would be, if publishing houses still had standards. Article continues below
What's also surprising is that director Stefen Fangmeier
tried to make a pretty decent movie out of this generic fantasy novel. Sure, too many scenes are again blatantly copied from Lord of the Rings -- the orcs are back again, just the same except for the name -- and the ending of these films is always weak, and so is the ending of Eragon, which copies them. It's a shame, because Fangmeier's direction is actually better than Peter Jackson's, the cinematography is perhaps better than The Lord of the Rings (the European scenery is excellent), and the CGI dragon is much better than, say, the hippogriff in Harry Potter a few years back. (CGI continue to improve with every major release.)
And the cast is not bad, led by Jeremy Irons
(whose voice unfortunately took me back to yet another recent blockbuster, The Lion King). John Malkovich
has only a bit part as the evil king, Galbatorix (judging from the name, apparently he's so badass that he's both Roman and Gaul). But newcomer Edward Speleers
as Eragon is more appealing than Hayden Christensen
(in what was essentially the same role), and reminded me how much better the prequels could have been without Christenson.
But ultimately, the things that Eragon has going for it don't count -- once again, the difference between a good film and a bad one is almost always the script. And the book is just too derivative to take seriously.
Almost all fantasy is derivative -- C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander, and a few other children's writers basically invented all the tropes decades ago, and not a single new one has been introduced that I can think of. What those writers all had in common -- and the reason their books are classics -- is that they were all moralists, and they turned to fantasy as a way to simplify fiction by taking out the distracting details of real life and to present entertaining stories with strong traditional values. That's what children's writers used to do, before they took on the topics of drug abuse and single parenthood (and forgot about all the other topics).
Why is fantasy popular? Because of drug abuse and single parenthood, because of Iraq and Korea and President Ahmadinejad, because of Paris Hilton and Hillary Clinton. Because the real world is full of disappointments and low-minded people, not high-minded heroes and magic. And because of all that, fantasy is not going away any time soon. So someone needs to start writing some decent, original fantasy and get on with the tradition.