Have you listened to the voices in your favorite fantasy series lately? What about in a sprawling period piece with a European setting? You might notice something strange: they all sound English. I don’t just mean that everyone is talking in English (that kind of goes without saying if it’s made in an English-speaking country, even if it’s set elsewhere), but that everyone has, what we here in the States call, British accents.
I didn’t realize how widespread it was until a BBC News Magazine article brought up the topic, but think about it: Game of Thrones, The Lord of the Rings, The Princess Bride, Ever After, Eragon, Anna Karenina, How to Train Your Dragon, 300, Gladiator: these are just some movies and television shows I came up with off the top of my head that are set in either fantasy worlds or countries other than England, yet the majority of the characters found therein speak in British accents.
First we have to break it down into two categories: fantasy pieces and historical ones set abroad. Let’s start with the former: fantasy series. As with most high fantasy (swords and sorcery versus fantastical happenings in modern surroundings) we experience today, I think we can blame it all on one man: J.R.R. Tolkien. Just about any high fantasy piece written after The Lord of the Rings bears inspiration from and homage to Tolkien’s work.
It’s easy enough to guess why the characters in most adaptations of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings sound English; even though Middle Earth is a fantasy world it’s clearly inspired by England. Thus it’s not unreasonable that the characters sound like they come from the country that has such a heavy influence on the settings in Middle Earth. Tolkien, a linguist himself, might have quibbled with how he wanted his characters to speak (I’m guessing he’d go for accents similar to the Germanic-sounding Old English), but then I think he’d have many issues with how his work has been interpreted.
It stands to reason, then, that works inspired on the page (even if that page started life as a screenplay) by The Lord of the Rings would follow suit in accent as well as setting. Not many high fantasy stories actually make it to the screen, either television or film, but a significant portion of those that do have British accents even though, with some more than others, there’s not any real reason why the characters should sound like they’re from England.
More perplexing than that, however, is the trend where characters in films set in places that are not the British Isles sound like they come from there. I first noticed it years ago when watching Ever After. Even my 13-year-old self was like, “Wait, isn’t this set in France? Isn’t this guy supposed to be the Prince of France? Why does everyone sound English?” As years have passed we’ve seen more films join the trend: the supposed Greeks and Romans in movies like 300 and Gladiator, Vikings in How to Train Your Dragon (where, interestingly, all the adults sound Scottish but the kids American), and most recently Russians with English accents in Joe Wright’s forthcoming Anna Karenina adaptation.
What’s most strange is that in many of these cases the actors have to adopt accents that aren’t their own anyway: American Drew Barrymore, Australian Russell Crowe, Scottish Gerard Butler, etc. If directors aren’t going to let these actors speak naturally, why have them use an accent that doesn’t hail from the country in which the film is set?
The easy answer, for both fantasy movies and ones set abroad, is that the English accent is to Americans at once foreign and familiar. It’s different enough from what we hear in our everyday lives that it helps us escape into a film, but familiar enough that it we don’t feel lost, or we don’t have to work too hard to follow what we’re watching.
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