There’s been a lot of ink, both real and digital, spilled pondering this phenomenon, so it’s unlikely my observations will add any real insights into this, but I would like to explore it a bit here.
I recently watched the entire first series of MTV’s (I know, I was surprised, too) television adaptation of Terry Brooks’ fantasy novel, The Elfstones of Shannara. It’s a good series as far as adaptations of fantasy novels for the small screen go, with a solid cast and competent acting on all parts. (Though I did find it a bit rushed, especially the final episode which ought to have had more time to really explore Amberle’s choice and its implications for the other characters–no spoilers here!) What is interesting as a directorial choice here (though understandable that Brooks’ series takes place in a future post-apocalyptic Pacific Northwest) is that the vast majority of the characters in the show speak with American English accents (John Rhys-Davies gets to keep his British accent as King Eventine, and Manu Bennett his New Zealand accent as Allanon). It’s a little surreal hearing Poppy Drayton’s American accent as Amberle juxtaposed with her normal British Received Pronunciation accent. In a world where many British actors attempting American accents sound like bad impressions of Canadians, her American accent is beautiful.
So The Shannara Chronicles puts the usual trope of fantasy characters speaking in a British accent on its head. If you don’t believe me, take a look at other recent fantasy film and television adaptations. HBO’s adaptation of Game of Thrones is a prime example. George R. R. Martin is an American author writing about a fantasy universe heavily influenced by medieval Europe (spoiler here if you haven’t heard it yet, but Martin is ripping off the War of the Roses–Lannister and Stark sound an awful lot like Lancaster and York, don’t they?), but that doesn’t necessarily imply that everyone speaks like a BBC announcer. Yet they do. It makes a little more sense that Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings would feature British accents given that Tolkien was himself British, but again, it’s not a given (after all, Elvish is a weird spiritual child of Welsh and Finnish, and the Dwarvish Khazad is based somewhat on Hebrew).
Mytho-historical and historical films do this, too. Troy does it (they’re Greeks, not Londoners!), 300 and its sequel do it, Gladiator does it, too. Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf does it (sure, Beowulf is written in old English, but the real accent he would have would be Scandinavian, not British). Kingdom of Heaven, about a bunch of French knights in the Holy Land, defaults to British accents. And Risen‘s Romans and Judaeans all sound like they came from This Sceptered Isle.
So why are our cinematic fantasy worlds mainly populated by speakers of British English? And why the same for characters from the historical past? The best answer I can come up with is that the British accent is exotic enough to American or international ears while still being easily understandable. Brian Wheeler writing for the BBC notes that British RP is “other” enough from the standard American Midland accent that it highlights the exotic and weird nature of fantasy or distant-past universes in media. What I also figure is that, at least for American audiences, the British accent hearkens to our own country’s “antiquity” (not that 400 years is all that long). We hear a British accent, it sounds like “old” English as we would think of it. Of course, the RP accent isn’t all that old, either, so this is a conceit created by Hollywood more than a representation of actual history.
And this “all ancient people and fantasy characters speak British English” phenomenon seems, to me, to be recent. In the golden age of American sword and sandal films (and later, sword and sorcery movies), you’d often find a mishmash of accents, or no attempt to create a uniform “foreign” accent at all. Kirk Douglas’ Spartacus is a good example of this. Laurence Olivier keeps his British accent, but Douglas and Tony Curtis don’t bother to trade in their American accents for English or even Italian ones. The Vikings, another Douglas flick, does the same thing. The original 1982 Conan the Barbarian also makes space for multiple accents (of course, having Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sandahl Bergman, and Max von Sydow playing major roles leads to a greater likelihood of dialectical plurality). This kind of phenomenon might be easier to get away with with movies about ancient people, especially when dealing with Rome, because of the cosmopolitan nature of the Roman world. But it doesn’t explain the more modern turn to giving everyone a British accent. (The recent Rome-flick The Eagle refreshingly does not do this, but this was apparently out of a desire to make a political statement–the Romans here are cast as analogues to American troops in Iraq.) Regardless, from the 1960s onward uniformity of accents doesn’t seem to be a real issue in movies until recent years.
The other reason I can think of for this is the tendency for actors in Hollywood’s early days to use the Trans-Atlantic accent (think Cary Grant or Grace Kelly), America’s answer to British RP. All I can imagine is that Hollywood’s love affair with British accents might be a replacement for this. It’s recognizable, it sounds august, and it sounds old.
So this may be why we like our fantasy characters and historical figures to speak like an Englishman on film. Even though the British RP accent is a more recent development (the British didn’t drop their Rs until the 19th Century, so they probably sounded more like us in the United States), we like it in these films because it seems old to us. We Americans don’t talk like our British “parents” anymore, so it’s an “older” English better suited for the seeming antiquity of historical or fantasy worlds. I wonder if perhaps we wouldn’t be better served to just not care about accents like the Hollywood of the ’60s, since in the case of either historical or fantasy worlds nobody knows how they really would have sounded anyway. But it may also be that the modern viewer’s imagination can’t suspend disbelief enough to allow for such a plethora of accents. Regardless, The Shannara Chronicles may hopefully signal a return to the older-style of fantasy or costume-drama film where multiple accents are on display.