Let’s face it: some Americans would be turned off to a film like 300 if all of the characters, including the main ones, spoke like they were from Greece. It’s not an accent we’re used to hearing and, frankly, it would alienate some of the audience. If it’s too unfamiliar people won’t like it, but due to our higher exposure to British media (symptomatic of our close relationship to the country), the English accent is recognizable enough that most Americans would embrace it more than they would a Nordic accent in How to Train Your Dragon, for example.
Plus the whole “characters should sound like they would in the country they’re from” game turns into a slippery slope, fast. The characters in Gladiator wouldn’t speak like modern Italians. The Romans would have one accent, perhaps the most similar to the contemporary Italian, then the characters from other countries under Roman rule would come with their own different ways of speaking. Filmmakers would have to hire linguists to research and revive dead accents, already tired audiences would have to listen to characters sounding even more strange; it would just be a mess.
Some might say, well then just stick with a modern accent from the country in which the film is set. But even that could get thorny: at that point, why not just speak in the accurate language and subtitle the film? Of course Hollywood doesn’t want to do that, so it’s just going to use what’s safest: the English accent.
Considering fantasy movies, how does one decide which accents to use? Should actors make up a new one? Choose one at random? Perhaps filmmakers can try to decide the country that closest resembles the fantasy land and go with the accent from there, but that involves time and attention to a not even necessarily accurate detail that most filmmakers can’t spare. Again, the foreign-yet-familiar English accent appears best.
In other cases if it’s made in or for America, characters sound American. Legend of the Seeker, and its predecessors from the same producers Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess had everyone using American accents, although the vast majority of the casts came from Australia or New Zealand. It makes sense, though, that characters in fantasies or even foreign-set films would talk like the audiences watching them. The idea explains the English accents in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, a British-made film with a predominantly British cast.
Of course this answer might not be the only one. Maybe the best actor for a part can’t put on a good enough accent, so the director just has them speak in their own, or with an easier one. Peter Jackson has said that’s why the Glasgow-born Billy Boyd’s Pippin in The Lord of the Rings sounds Scottish. I’m only somewhat sympathetic to this, however, reminded of an interview I once read with James McAvoy. He was asked whether or not he minds always having to speak with English or American accents in movies. He said of course not; doing an accent is part of being an actor and getting into a character.
While the foreign-yet-familiar idea is just one possibly over-simplified answer to the question, one that comes with exceptions, I think it points us in the right direction. Those of us who love talking about media for its meaning and status as art can sometimes get lost in that, and forget that most of the people who finance our beloved television shows and movies want to make as much money back as possible. Sometimes that comes at the expense of accuracy, but let’s be honest: whether or not the characters have the right accents is probably not the only culturally erroneous thing in the film, and when looked at it that way it’s not even a major one.
I wonder if perhaps the English accent in fantasy/foreign-set films contributes to the Anglophilia prevalent among American fantasy fans. We grow up watching great science fiction, fantasy, or historical movies and television shows. Yes, some of it is British, but a lot of it isn’t – yet the characters still sound English. Maybe all of us Anglophiles have been trained for years to associate the media we love with England, even if it’s not actually set or made there. No wonder we think the British accent sounds so cool: all of the best things come with an accent.
Pages: 1 2