Thursday, December 13, 2007

Is Fantasy just a British phenomenon

Here's a confession I have: I'm not really into fantasy.

I was physically in a movie theater (more like a college auditorium) while Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring was playing (I don't remember being there for the whole duration of the film though) but I really don't remember anything about the film, except Elijah Wood screamed like a girl a lot and everyone was trying to protect him and help him out (maybe, because they were irritated by the screaming and wanted him to stop, I don't know). I'll admit there was a kind of neat scene where Ian McKellan and some other guys were going up an MC Escher-like staircase and McKellan fell through it, that I also remember.

If someone asked me if I had ever watched Lord of the Rings, I would say no, and because the Academy must be madly in love with Peter Jackson, they elected to not only nominated his film for best picture, but they nominated his two sequels as well. As a result, this renders me unable to render an opinion on who was the rightful winner in not one, but three recent Oscar races. Of course, I'd have to have watched The Hours (tagline: we've packed not just one but three suicidally depressed woman in one film), and The Pianist (no reason, just haven't gotten around to it) to comment on the 2002 race, anyway, but still I also have to endure "You've never watched Lord of the Rings?" queries of fascination from people.

The thing is that fantasy just does not compell me. Surely, I can appreciate the attraction of being drawn into another universe for a couple hours. I love sci-fi, because this showcases the possibilities of what science can do and what actually could happen. Hurtling through space in Star Trek or Star Wars, or seeing a universe governed by robots in I, Robot or an Orwellian society like Brazil are places I'd love to go. I love futuristic visions of society and I think that episodes of the Twilight Zone or a film like I, Robot raise such intriguing questions. They use the farthest possibilities of our universe to enhance their story. It adds a whole new dimensions to where screenwriters can go. Without being our current understanding of science, how can you believably tell a story about man being hunted down by his own creation, or someone who builds his own surrogate son out of machine parts, or a man travelling back in time to change history.

Another genre that transports me to another universe that I love is historical fiction. There was a picture about four years ago which was nominated for an Oscar, Master and Commander: Far Side of the World. I've heard complaints that it was slow and boring. For a story of naval battles, it surely was devoid of actions. To me, it was one of the most realistic portrayals of history I had ever seen on screen. In real life, if you were on a ship chasing Napoleon, it wouldn't be constant action. You'd have spent months waiting at sea. A lot of your time spent would have just been in anticipation waiting for the battle. Even a black and white film from the 1930's that does not portray any historical period but its own, is interesting to me because it's capturing how people were leaving back in those days.

Fantasy, however, is a complex made-up world with a made-up set of laws, characters, and guidelines so I usually don't really care. It's not from an actual historical era that shows me how other people actually existed in some significant period of history, and it doesn't showcase what the future might look like. Instead, it's from a universe that's usually just plain wierd and doesn't make me want to care. I watched the Golden Compass yesterday. Like Lord of the Rings, I lost hold of the plot somewhere pretty early in the film and I stopped caring, pretty soon thereafter.

The story involved a girl in a school who was entrusted with a compass that reveals the truth. A lot of adults appear along her journey and most try to help her. There are also giant elongated polar bears in the film who-WAIT, GIANT ELONGATED TALKING POLAR BEARS? WHAT THE HELL?-Yeah, see, that's where the film lost me, too. These polar bears regularly stood up on two legas and talked in Shakespearean English. I imagine if a bear was going to talk, he would have a growly sound in his voice, but the main bear was played by Ian McKellan, which I might write off as an error in casting but every bear was talking like this. It also seemed like a lot of the plot was being driven by the bears as the girl wanted the Ian McKellan to fight some larger bear for the crown to be king of the bears. There were some other adults in the picture, as far as I could tell: Nicole Kidman was one of the bad guys and Daniel Craig was one of the good guys, but again, I didn't care too much.

Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Eragon, Golden Compass, none of this stuff interests me that much. My friend told me that Golden Compass was an impassioned response to the pro-Christian Chronicles of Narnia and contains anti-Christian themes. I remember a lot of the Christian community was very enthusiastic about Narnia because of it's pro-Christian message but as someone who had to read the entire series in my youth, it never hit me as being pro- or anti-Christian. It also appears that JK Rowling was disgusted with CS Lewis' mysoginistic views and wrote Harry Potter with stronger female parts in response. Again, I never read anything shouvanist into Narnia. On wikipedia, it says that CS Lewis never intended to write any of this stuff.

Than I realized, CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, JK Rowling, and Phil Pulliam are all British and maybe this entire genre is fueled by this tiny literary community in Britain, and as an American I don't have to feel ashamed for not liking it. Maybe asking an American to appreciate fantasy is like asking someone from Germany or Turkey to appreciate a Western film. Then I was wondering why the British, of all people, write fantasy? Any ideas?


Matt said...

Interesting commentary. However, I think the works of Lewis, Pullman and Tolkien are better categorized as mythopoeia rather than fantasy. Mythopoeia does seem to be largely a British phenomenon, at least since the Greeks gave it up before the birth of Christ.

It appeals to a different sort of reader than science fiction. Aficionados of Asimov, Bradbury and Dick are most entertained by artistic appeals to their rationality. Aficionados of mythopoea, on the other hand, tend to be most entertained by appeals to their extra-rational sensibilities (the philosopher within).

Star Wars actually bridges the gulf between the two genres somewhat. In fact, it's often categorized as mythopoea and Lucas's metaphysics indeed have a lot in common with Pullman's. The Force and Dust are similar manifestations of naturalistic pantheism.

AR said...

I'm not sure I would agree with the above poster about Bradbury in that context. While he has a lot of work based on futuristic speculation, he has an equal amount involving the supernatural and unexplained. I would say his work makes a strong case for there being a type of American fantasy, which goes back to Poe and Irving.

I would also argue for an expansion of fantasy beyond the high fantasy many associate with the term. For instance, Groundhog Day is a fantasy to the extent the plot is based on an unnatural occurance that resists explanation.

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