I like dragons. Rather a lot, actually. There was a stretch when I was about seven or eight where I refused to read anything that didn’t have an animal on the cover, and if that animal was a dragon, I might actually finish the book. I think a lot of kids have this experience, or something similar. Just do a quick search for books with the word “dragon” in the title. We love the silly things.
There was also a stretch some years later when I remember everyone around me reading a book with a dragon on the cover. I was a bit late to jump on the bandwagon, but coincidentally, when I finally got around to it, I was probably the perfect age to read this series, about thirteen or fourteen. The movie had already come out by then and I was warned away from it by friends who recommended the book series, so it took a long while before I actually saw the film, mostly out of sheer curiosity.
And you know what? It’s not awful. I wouldn’t mistake Eragon for anything good, but the film is easily watchable. It’s sitting pretty at 16% on Rotten Tomatoes, at least by critics’ standards, which seems to me a bit absurd. I don’t like to cast aspersions on people who do this sort of thing for a living, but when most of the reviews are petty complaints about the height of the elves and how Eragon is just a Tolkien/Star Wars rip-off, the film’s getting an undue short shrift. Let’s see if we can’t remedy that.
3P Reviews: Eragon (film)
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: We Take Our Fake Norse-Latin Seriously in This Household
The book series is relevant to bring into the discussion, but I’ll restrain myself from too many needless comparisons. There are two important things to know about the series from the start:
- It was wildly popular among young teenagers in the early 2000s.
- It is basically a Tolkien/Star Wars rip-off.
Yes, I know. But that’s not an inaccurate description of the books, especially the first one. Eragon is highly unusual among fantasy series in that it reached a similar audience to the Percy Jackson, Spiderwick Chronicles, Series of Unfortunate Events, and even Narnia novels, but where those other series tend to be remembered fondly, people who enjoy Eragon as children often admit its flaws when they’re older. Its appeal is highly age-restricted, and it falls right between series for children and series for adults. Where many young adult series are written to be appealing to adults as well, Eragon isn’t quite at that level. It’s not that there’s a stigma associated with reading the book if you’re above a certain age (I tend to think that should be the case for any book, though admittedly I might have questions if someone unironically pulled out a six-page Bob Book to read on the bus). Rather, the story tends to lose its luster once you get more experience with the fantasy genre.
Fantasy in general is often derivative. Most fantasy adventures, especially those set in the past, are inspired by The Lord of the Rings directly or indirectly, which means you have to wade through a lot of sexy elves and self-sacrificing mentors if you want to get into the genre. Perhaps because these stories often have that common source of inspiration, but I find that fantasy series frequently follow the same well-trod path that looks something like this:
A once-peaceful kingdom is in shambles. The last king has died out, and with him, the good magic that keeps people safe. A demonic magician has corrupted the land with dark magic, and only a few rebel holdouts resist his influence. In a small village, a farm boy discovers he has magical powers, the first since the king fell. Dark servants of the evil magician come to kill the boy and steal his powers, and the local wiseman who is secretly part of the resistance recognizes his powers, so helps him flee. Often, the boy’s home is destroyed so there’s no going back. The boy travels into the wide world, where he has never been before, and learns many lessons about both magic and everyday life. The boy will encounter dubious allies, soothsayers, mystical elder beings, questioning priests, grizzled warriors, stuffy love interests, strange talking cats, cave creatures, evil henchmen, and the obligatory giant spider before their quest is over. They will also usually lose their mentor tragically at the end of the second act of the first book, and have to find new, older mentors, who will eventually tell them that they or one of their companions is the long lost son of the dead king. The Big Bad is eventually defeated through the power of god magic or a loophole in the magic system, and everyone gets married.
Give or take a few details, it’s the plot of The Lord of the Rings, it’s the plot of Star Wars, it’s the plot of half a hundred YA fantasy novels and RPGs and and anime shows, and it’s the plot of Eragon.
Eragon is at a disadvantage among the many replicas of this plot because unlike fantasy series with similarly standard plots like The Wheel of Time, Mistborn, or Sabriel, Eragon‘s world is similarly derivative. Fantasy series place an undue pressure on their magic system and creatures, and Eragon does little more than lift vague concepts from other series and rebrand them slightly. As the series goes on, it fills out its seams with more unique concepts, but even then, it’s only major identifier is its dragons. As someone who loves dragons, it was perfect when I was younger, but like many who later went on to read and watch and play more fantasy series, I eventually recognized its many faults.
Eragon is something of an introduction to fantasy tropes because it is so derivative. The writing isn’t bad, but it’s not particularly efficient or elegant in its delivery either. Characters talk in an artificially elevated tone of voice to give the impression that the story is set “in olden times,” but the language remains straightforward. This makes the book easy to read, but means much of its pagespace lacks depth. Like many first novels, it takes a long time to say very little.
The magical elements of the story have a similar feel; while there are many fantasy creatures and characters, and even a magical language with a vocabulary page in the back of the book, these are artificially complex. The lore of the series is incorporated into the story as needed, unlike in Tolkien’s works where the story was crafted largely to accommodate an excessively complex world. This is one of the few things I would argue Eragon has over Rings in particular, because as impressive as massive worlds are, I’ve come to resent the trend Tolkien set in prioritizing world detail over the purpose of describing that world in the first place. Eragon uses its main interest — dragons — and it uses them well. However, most readers will find this approach simplistic, especially when so much of the rest of the story does not hold up well to scrutiny.
In short, the book feels like a teenager tried to copy Tolkien but didn’t have the skill or patience to do so, so opted for the George Lucas approach instead and made things up that felt fun. Which, you know, is arguably what happened.
Suffice to say, anyone trying to adapt this book to film has a problem, because even before you address the ridiculously expensive CG dragon in the room, the story is a bit shit. It’s not going to appeal as is to adults, not really, nor is it vibrant enough to attract much younger children, so its existing audience is all the movie gets unless it changes anything. Studios don’t tend to like major changes because major changes cost money and aren’t market-tested, so what’s the point of basing the project off of a book in the first place if you’re going to change it that significantly?
Book fans, especially young ones, want to see the book put to screen exactly as they imagined. So if you change anything significant or run out of money, you’re in trouble. And even if you succeed, direct adaptations have a limited appeal and shelf life. They’re made knowing the book will likely endure far beyond the film unless the film breaks into a new niche. This film was almost certainly greenlit as one of many series mistakenly trying to be the next Lord of the Rings, the same way we’re facing His Dark Materials, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and The Lord of the Rings television adaptations now trying to reclaim the Game of Thrones niche. These projects are often doomed from the start because they are born fighting a huge amount of competition.
Might as well have a bit of fun with it while you’re at it, eh?
Part Two: Here, There Be Dragon
The film changes almost nothing from the book in its basic plot structure; I would offer a description of the story, but like I said, it changes little from that generic fantasy plot I mentioned.
Okay, fine, I suppose details are somewhat important here.
Eragon is not in fact the name of the dragon, as I thought for so many years, but the name of the farmboy. Eragon is a hunter in a local village who lives and works at his uncle’s farm. One day, an egg magically appears in a clearing and he takes it home, unsure of what it is. In his world, there are storytellers who describe the dragon riders of yore, and magic, and fantastical beasts, but the village where Eragon lives is far removed from that world, as it often is in this sort of adventure. The egg was teleported by an elf desperately fleeing from the army of Galbatorix, our Big Bad for the evening. Galbatorix is the primary antagonist of the series, and as the film was initially anticipated to spawn a series, he only appears briefly in the film. His direct underling is Durza, a dark sorcerer called a Shade.
The dragon egg hatches, as one might expect from the dragon on the cover of both the book and the film, and magically bonds to Eragon. The dragon, Saphira, can talk telepathically, fly, occasionally use magic, and once she’s larger, she’ll be able to breathe fire as well. Eragon is fascinated by his dragon; he loves hearing about how the world used to be full of dragonriders until Galbatorix, a dragonrider himself, slew them all. The man who tells these stories, Brom, starts to grow suspicious of Eragon sneaking around the village, and confronts Eragon about his dragon, warning him that Galbatorix’s men will be after him. They soon arrive, magical assassins called the Ra’zac, and destroy Eragon’s home while he’s away. Brom helps Eragon escape, and the first act over, the two boys and Saphira head for the road.
Brom explains to Eragon that there’s a resistance group called the Varden deep in the southern mountains, and they’ve been waiting for a dragonrider who can face Galbatorix. This of course means that Eragon will have to learn how to be a dragonrider, but without the structure of the old dragonriders in place. Brom teaches him how to fight, how to ride his dragon, and how to use magic, revealing in the process that he himself was a dragonrider and lost his dragon years ago to Galbatorix. Around this time, Eragon begins to have dreams about the elf woman who sent him the egg, as she has been captured and is held prisoner by the Shade. This is where the plot gets squirrely, especially in the film.
After a few minor encounters, Eragon decides he must rescue this elf woman. The elf, named Arya, is an ally of the Varden, and Eragon sneaks off when they’re close to her prison to try to rescue her. It’s a trap — because of course it’s a trap — and Brom dies saving Eragon, despite the boy’s best efforts to heal him. Arya agrees to help them, but doesn’t know the way to the Varden herself.
Luckily, a shadowy figure from the prison has been following them, and when they capture him, he confesses he knows the way. This character is Murtagh, and his role within the film is questionable at best. Murtagh tells his captors that he hates Galbatorix, but when they arrive at the Varden, they learn that the Varden consider Murtagh a traitor because his father worked for Galbatorix. The Varden immediately imprison him.
Eragon and his friends have led Durza’s army of orc-like Urgals straight to the Varden’s hidden base, so there’s no time to lose as the Varden prepare for battle. They give Saphira and Eragon armor, and Saphira discovers she can finally breathe fire. While they take to the air, Murtagh convinces the Varden to free him so he can fight for them, and turns out he was being genuine the whole time. What a weird nothing subplot. Durza joins the fray, attacking Eragon and Saphira with a smoke monster. Eragon kills Durza, but Saphira is severely injured in the fight, and he tries to heal her as he did Brom. He passes out from over-exertion, but wakes to learn that the battle was won, and his dragon is alive. The film ends with some setup for those sequels that never happened.
This is basic plot of both the book and the film, and it’s not difficult to see why people enjoy it. The story lacks much depth and has plot holes aplenty, but it’s a cute little action romp that scratches that itch if you want a easily digested plot. The film doesn’t really change all that much plot-wise — the Ra’zac are more prominent villains in the series and don’t get anywhere close to dying in the first book, we don’t ever see anything from Durza’s point-of-view in the book, Brom and Eragon initially go chasing after the Ra’zac rather than searching for the Varden, Murtagh is introduced much sooner and builds up a rapport with Eragon that warrants his existence, Brom dies in a separate incident from the prison rescue, Arya definitely knows the location of the Varden, the smoke monster is a construction of the film, and pieces of information or actions are occasionally doled out by different characters in the film.
As is often the case with book-to-movie adaptations, the film cuts more than it adds. The book has a lot of filler chapters and extraneous characters, and while some, like the amiable dwarf Orik, are unfortunate losses in the transition, as they add balance to Eragon’s posse, others tend to blend together. Often, this is because they don’t have anything to do in the first book but become important in later entries. Filming began right around the time the second book was released, so it’s easily possible that the script was already more or less finalized before anyone had much chance to think of how the project would work with a sequel. As a result, characters important in later books are combined with the small core cast of the first book and the story is re-structured to be more self-contained. Most of the changes are expositional, which stunt the dialogue for the sake of time.
I frankly don’t mind these plot changes, and I think some of them actually work out for the better. The cause of Brom’s death is ridiculous in both versions of the story because of bad decision-making, but the film’s approach is more efficient. A good chunk of the second act in the book is spent with Brom and Eragon ambling around the coast for unclear reasons, I think trying to find a ship to take them to a free country to the south. However, there’s no real reason for them not to head straight for the Varden, if Brom knows where they’re located. I believe there’s also an aspect of Eragon or him and Brom both trying to track the Ra’zac so Eragon can get revenge, and this is a similarly weak justification for what feels like a hundred pages of ambling about mindlessly. A friend reminded me once that there’s an entire character in this sequence who becomes essential in later books named Jeod, and I didn’t even remember he was in the first book. Suffice to say, I did not particularly miss his absence from the film. Brom dies after he and Eragon get too close to the Ra’zac, and there’s not much fanfare about it.
In the film, at least, the tedium of the coastal cities is cut in favor of making Brom the casualty of Eragon’s impromptu rescue attempt. Eragon’s decision to go and free some dream lady from an enemy prison for no reason is a dunderheaded one to say the least, but at this point in the story, he’s young and brash and eager to use his newfound powers to help people. He’s just killed the Ra’zac, he feels invincible, and he needs a cold douse of reality to remind him how far he has yet to go. It’s a more deliberate place in the story for Brom to die, so you lose some of the tragedy of the event, but it fits more neatly into the larger story.
Of course, you can rarely change one major plot point in a story without affecting others in small ways, and a difficulty the film has in giving Brom a more straightforward death is that it limits Murtagh’s role. Even without reading the novel, you can probably tell from Murtagh’s sudden appearance in the film that he’s only here because he plays a more prominent roll in the book. Murtagh is what I call a Second Cousin Character, someone who’s along for the adventure but has little personal stake in it and is mostly there to support the chosen one as a friend. Second Cousin Characters are useful because they can die tragic deaths without severely altering the plot and you can always give them secret baggage to make them more interesting. They also often serve the roll of comic relief. Murtagh is actually the archetypal example I think of when referring to this sort of character because the Eragon series was the first I noticed it in.
Given that relatively few characters have much in the way of distinct personalities in the book, Murtagh is rather important as a means of grounding the audience. However, one advantage the film has is that it doesn’t need to sustain its audience as long, so the slight personality quirks of characters lifted from the books are at least adequate for the sort of simple fantasy story it’s trying to tell. The film would unquestionably be improved if it had better characterization in general, and introducing Murtagh earlier might have been worthwhile, but it doesn’t need Murtagh as a character the way the book does. When it tries to shoehorn him in at the end, it gives some of the payoff of having a best friend-type character to work off of Eragon, but it’s done nothing to earn that payoff. The characters have no reason to trust Murtagh, and it’s very obvious he doesn’t need to be in the film at all.
The biggest problem the film faces is in trying to distill a five-hundred page book down to an hour-and-a-half movie. If done today, the adaptation probably would have been favored as a miniseries or the first season of a television show. It’s not even really the length of the thing that’s the problem, but the density of information. Eragon is padded with description and small adventures as many fantasy series are. But its story still takes place over several weeks, or even months. It needs to introduce a vast fantasy world with its own history and atmosphere, as well as the main plot, and when it’s trying to rush through fan favorite characters, key scenes, and expositional dialogue, it’s going to inevitably end up feeling rushed.
Part Three: Style Over Substance Over Style
Despite taking place over a vast environment and starring, you know, a massive dragon, Eragon feels surprisingly small. This is down to how the film handles atmosphere, which it nails perfectly on occasion, but more often has to truncate in order to fill in the plot. The Last Airbender has a similar problem, though I don’t think it has those rare moments of clarity.
Given that this film cribs so much of its story from The Lord of the Rings, consider how The Fellowship of the Ring captures the grandeur of Middle Earth and communicates vast periods of time spent travelling without showing every moment of it. Part of Fellowship’s success comes from visually-inspired montages of New Zealand fjords and mountaintops.The characters are shot moving through a variety of environments and from many angles, and often from a considerable distance that implies the great distance they still have yet to traverse. We also get a few scenes of the characters taking camp at different locations, further signalling to the audience that they are covering great distances.
Eragon doesn’t really do that. While the dragon flight scenes often show beautiful landscapes, the film struggles to give the audience a sense of scale. Most of the time, the characters are moving through what look like the same forests, mountains, and villages. Further, because the region chosen for filming included heavily forested mountains and hills, shots of characters on the ground are restricted to a middle-distance because of the trees. Clearings, waterways, and the occasional clifftop offer a better view of the characters within their environment, but shots like those I selected for this subsection and the header are few and far between. The story could all take place in the same little valley and the visuals wouldn’t indicate otherwise.
This means that the atmosphere of the film is similarly close, which, when combined with cut scenes, small sets, and a short runtime all make the film feel far cheaper than it actually was. I think this is a big part of why fans of the book disliked the film, not because it changed plot points or character beats, but because it failed to capture the sense of scale and duration crucial to the feel of the book.
A good example of this is the scene where Saphira grows to her full size. Eragon is teaching his new baby dragon to fly, and once she picks up the skill, she’s off. He becomes suddenly sad as he’s not sure whether she’ll even come back. In the clouds, lightning swirls around Saphira and she slowly grows in size, becoming an adult dragon that can fly elegantly. A now-grown Saphira dives out of the sky and greets Eragon in that same clearing, speaking to him for the first time and announcing her name. This is the scene that tends to confuse book fans the most, because the way it’s filmed implies that the dragon is magically growing to full size in the span of about five minutes. It’s not at all clear whether this is because of some divine magical intervention (which doesn’t factor into the rest of the story at all) or because that’s just how dragons work in the film’s world. It’s also certainly possible that the film is using a creative montage to indicate that Saphira has been gone for some time while she’s growing, and Eragon has either been coming back to the clearing regularly ever since or just happens to be there when she returns.
None of these explanations, or even the ambiguity associated, is necessarily a problem. Rather, the way the scene is filmed cuts short a sequence that feels like it should be much longer. Eragon’s relationship to Saphira is key to the entire film, so much of the first act should be devoted to him trying to keep her hidden, raising her, and learning what she’s like. It’s not the sort of event you want the film to rush through unless their relationship is supposed to be very different. It is a more antagonistic in the film, with Eragon initially blaming Saphira for his uncle’s death and struggling to bond with her for part of the film, but the difficulties in their relationship as dragon and rider aren’t the emotional focus so much as their love for one another, as in the book.
So the film’s a bit of a mess. Why watch it? Why even talk about it?
Honestly, I have a soft spot for this one mainly because I just don’t feel it’s quite as bad as a lot of people make it out to be. It’s a serviceable film, and while I wouldn’t recommend it, some of the acting and directing decisions can be laughably awkward, while many of the visuals hold up quite well. For all my griping about how the film fails to capture the atmosphere it wants, individual shots are quite lovely and the effects hold up to this day. I have a few qualms about the dragon design, partly in the way the wings are animated and how low they are on the shoulder. The choice to give Saphira feathers, while they give the model spectacular textures, don’t quite work in conjunction with bat-like wings for me. However, the dragon looks appropriately amazing, even by today’s standards, and continues to be one of relatively few completely CG characters that fits seamlessly into a live-action environment.
The film has its charms, and every so often, it makes the right decision, albeit briefly.