As a lifetime reader, watcher, and writer of fantasy, it always fascinates me to discover an extraordinary new world. The stories with the greatest worldbuilding–worldbuilding that is completely interwoven with the story–seem to be the ones that stick with me throughout my life. Because of that, I wanted to touch on 8 of my favorite, mostly those that have been made into movies.
Many of these stories have inspired certain pieces of my own worldbuilding in my world of Dadreon.
Here they are in no particular order.
Warning: This post may contain spoilers! I will be discussing the specifics of plots in a number of movies/books. I will do my best not to give away any endings or plot points that directly reveal the ending.
The Neverending Story
The Neverending Story is the perfect story of an outsider who enters a troubled fantasy world in the middle of a conflict and learns of it as he goes. The relatable human boy, Bastion, learns about the world of Fantasia as it unfolds before him while reading a story book and seeing it through the eyes of Atreyu, the story’s hero. Atreyu is trying to stop the Nothing, which is eating away his world. But how do you stop “nothing”? Throughout the story, Fantasia is portrayed as a world so beautiful and full of fascinating creatures that you want to see it saved.
This was adapted from a book that I still need to read.
The Dark Crystal
I love this movie. Not only is The Dark Crystal gorgeous and full of Jim Henson’s creations, but the story and the world are incredible, even 30 or so years after I first watched it.
An all-powerful race kept peace until the source of their power, the crystal, cracked. The benevolent race was split into two separate races–the evil Skeksis and the good Mystics. It is prophesied that only a Gelfling can heal the crystal, and so the Skeksis hunt the Gelflings to what they think is extinction. But two remain, and they journey to heal the crystal before their world is plunged into a thousand years of dark Skeksis rule.
Also, I love that The Crystal Method use the opening lines from The Dark Crystal in one of their most well-known songs, “Trip Like I Do.”
Wizards is a lesser-known movie, and strange in many ways, but fascinating and rich–and a cartoon! It is both fantasy and science fiction, because it is based on a post-apocalyptic Earth destroyed by war and man-made weapons. This war killed most and mutated those who remained. Only thousands of years later has Earth and its inhabitants started to heal, and it has become a world of fairies and elves versus mutants and assassins. Two twin brothers were born–one good and whole, the other evil and mutated–who became the most powerful wizards in the world. Blackwolf, the wicked brother, becomes the ruler of the wasteland, Scorch, leading the rabble of mutants and assassins there. He tries over and over to conquer the fairy land of Montagar and fails until, after searching the ruins of old civilization, he discovers war machines and a projector of Nazi propaganda. The films encourage his mutants and terrify the fairies and elves. Finally, the good brother, Avatar, is forced to journey to save the healing world from his brother, and he leaves on this quest with the fairy Elinore, the elf Weehawk, and the assassin-turned-ally Necron 99 (AKA Peace). The scenery, creatures, and characters are all wonderful, even in the blunt and brutal way they are portrayed. That’s probably why I like it, because the characters are all flawed.
The Last Unicorn
The Last Unicorn is another obscure cartoon movie I’m not sure anyone has seen. It is beautiful and full of wonderful characters. It is about exactly what the title promises–the last unicorn. Why is she the last? Well, that is what she leaves her safe, enchanted forest of everlasting spring to find out. She follows stories of the Red Bull:
You can find the others if you are brave. They passed down all the roads long ago, and the Red Bull ran close behind them and covered their footprints.
On her journey, she discovers a magician and a scullery maid who accompany her. They come to the castle of King Haggard, who is the owner of the Red Bull. There, they discover the old King’s obsession with the sea, a fairy tale romance, and the fate of the other unicorns.
This movie was adapted from the book of the same title by Peter S. Beagle. I have read and very much enjoyed it.
Unico in the Island of Magic
The cartoon movie, Unico in the Island of Magic, is probably the only Anime I will ever like. (I tried to watch Akira long ago and numerous times, and it still makes little sense to me. It always feels like big chunks of plot and explanation are missing.) This movie is about a little unicorn who was banished by the gods because he had the ability to bring great happiness to those around him, a power the jealous gods felt should be only theirs. The West Wind takes pity on tiny Unico, and instead of banishing him, takes him elsewhere. Because of this disobedience, the West Wind is forced to move Unico whenever the gods discover where he is. So this takes Unico on many adventures, though his memory is erased each time he is moved.
In the Island of Magic adventure, Unico is taken in by a girl named Cheri. Cheri’s old brother, Toby, is the apprentice of a powerful and evil magician named Lord Kuruku. Toby’s job is to change people into living puppets and lead them to Lord Kuruku. When Lord Kuruku changes Cheri’s and Toby’s parents into living puppets, Cheri and Unico go on a quest to find Toby and beg him to stop. I mostly remembered this for how much Lord Kuruku scared the crap out of me as a kid, but also because of the strange land the story takes place in.
How to Train Your Dragon
I love cartoons. Maybe that is obvious from this list. I also LOVE dragons. So I really wanted to sit down and watch How to Train Your Dragon, and I’m really glad I did. The Viking fishing island of Berk is constantly plagued by dragon attacks. Hiccup, the bumbling son of the Viking leader is a disappointment to his father, who thinks his son will never be a dragonslayer. Hiccup, however, is more of a tinkerer than a warrior. After a raid on the village, Hiccup follows an injured dragon into the woods, but he can’t bring himself to kill it. He later befriends it, helps it to fly again, and learns more about the dragons and why they are raiding his village.
This was adapted from a book that I still need to read.
I was far more impressed with Avatar than I expected to be. The story is good, even though it is a standard humans versus “primitives” story, where the humans try to come in and take whatever they want because they feel they deserve it more than the indigenous species who belongs there and lives with the land instead of destroying it. It is the worldbuilding of this movie that pulls everything together and makes this well-known story different and gorgeous and new all over again. I love how seamlessly the Na’vi live and interact with their world of Pandora. They communicate and work with the animals of the planet through fascinating symbiotic relationships. They also speak to their goddess, Eywa, through their beautiful groves.
Ender’s Game: Speaker for the Dead
This last one is not a movie. The book Ender’s Game (which was recently made into a good, but mildly disappointing movie) is my absolute favorite book. It is the follow-up book, Speaker for the Dead, that contains some of the best worldbuilding and alien/creature creation I have ever encountered. Ender is asked to Speak for a dead man on the colony planet, Lusitania. He discovers people there who are walled into their village in an attempt to avoid any more interaction with the local culture, the Pequeninos (the Piggies). Ender finds out that the Piggies killed a few of the local xenobiologists who were trying to teach them to farm, among other things. It seems the Piggies are an intelligent race, happy to learn the things the more advanced humans want to teach them, and so Ender has to unravel the mystery of why these seemingly friendly aliens have killed some of their human teachers.
The life cycle of the Piggies unfolds during the course of this and the two following books (Xenocide and Children of the Mind), and it is this life cycle that I find so fascinating. It has inspired me in my own work. I hesitate to say more, for fear of ruining the story for others.
Read them. That’s all I’ll say.
When writing and especially when worldbuilding, the more you read and watch the more you have at your disposal to spark your own ideas. I honestly feel the movies above that I enjoyed as a child, and continue to enjoy as an adult, do this because they are fascinating and original and thought-provoking. I have obviously added to them in more recent years, and these newer stories have only broadened my ideas of what COULD BE or what MIGHT BE and most importantly, they have sparked the all-important phrase: WHAT IF?
And that simple phrase–WHAT IF?–is the basis for all we do as writers of fantasy and science fiction.
Never stop asking: WHAT IF?
What story worlds inspire you?