the highs and lows of fantasy

I had this whole plan to write a post this month about December fantasy films because for years I’ve loved a good fantasy film in the winter. With the completion of the Harry Potter franchise and the demise of Narnia, it’s reasonable to feel like we’ve reached the end of an era of great fantasy films in the winter, even with New Line grasping at The Hobbit and studios buying up a ton of YA supernatural properties.

Then I came across this article which drew the attention away from my beloved December fantasy film but opened it up to the genre as a whole and it’s evolution within our society.

I think Mr. Chandler’s professor was spot on about the effect of war on the horror genre. When your aim is to shock and terrify you have to be more disturbing than what the audience sees every night on tv, either psychologically or graphically. And let’s be honest, graphically is easier.

But I think extending his theory to the fantasy genre elicits more questions than it answers. Without taking the time to contest his use of “high fantasy” and “low fantasy” (even though it’s totally off) I have to wonder if our lure toward more gritty fantasy is really a reflection of war?

Or is it something else? Perhaps a decay of something within us where only blood and sex will satisfy.

Was the time of elves really more innocent? We can’t, in analyzing this, forget that Tolkien and Lewis both wrote in the midst of WWII, which if less present in daily life (what with no tvs and all) was more visceral because it was a war still fought man to man. They didn’t just see graphic images on tv, they fought in war themselves; they lost friends and were intimately acquainted with grief and death in a war that was still waged face to face.

But Lewis wrote in Narnia of battles filled with nobility and honor, where the villains revealed themselves not in their savagery but in their cowardice. Today we live in a world of the anti-hero, propagated by Tony Soprano, who can be as savage and cruel as the villain. How do you draw a line between the two?

(and no, Lewis and Tolkien aren’t the only authors of high fantasy but they are the most widely influential progenerators so they remain my examples)

LORD OF THE RINGS | Viggo Mortenson as Aragorn on Weathertop
LORD OF THE RINGS | Viggo Mortenson as Aragorn on Weathertop

My basic problem with his hypothesis is that there is a fundamental difference between horror and fantasy – fantasy isn’t meant to terrify. And if fantasy doesn’t need to be graphic or shocking why the evoloution? Has it really evolved or is it just a reflection of our society?

The origin of fantasy in our social consciousness came in December, 2001 when Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings both entered our theaters in the wake of 9/11. We wanted something beautiful, something other than this world and this life and the grief that still clung to us. We wanted to know who the bad guys were and to believe that the good guys could defeat them. Suddenly, the not-a-geeks didn’t need to be grounded quite so fiercely in reality and were willing to open up to the imaginary and fantastic resulting in a renaissance of the fantasy genre, not only in film but in books and on tv.

And, in this, we have to expand to tv because Mr. Chandler’s only viable example of gritty fantasy is Game of Thrones. But that could be explained as an isolated sample, its violence and sex epidemic of everything HBO does. Fantasy films have largely remained the domain of the PG-13 crowd. Probably because anything with a hint of magic needs to be left open for kids otherwise studios don’t think they’ll make their money’s worth (and their mostly right). So, like Lord of the Rings, most manage to be brutal in their fight scenes without being graphic. The rated R realm belongs mostly to Zach Snyder or his imitators. These few show us that as an audience we’ve been taught to endure carnage. And in tv, especially cable tv, there are no boundaries; there is time to evoke character and create depth in stories. If Game of Thrones was confined to a film would it remain relevant and fascinating or would it become Conan?

Whether rated R or PG-13, full of violence and sex or more simple and evocative like Pan’s Labyrinth, we can’t deny that there is an element within the fantasy genre where the hero is not entirely virtuous, good cannot prevail because good itself is corrupted.

Is this a natural progression of a post-modern world view?
Seasoned by war, of course, but defined probably more by HBO than the NBC Nightly News; living in the despair of a crumbling economy with no trust in the leaders of our world. Of course Game of Thrones is compelling because it touches on these realities. But is that the role of fantasy?
To heighten the travesty of our world?

Or is it to show us a better world, evoking beauty and hope. Maybe that should be the distinction between high and low fantasy.

December 15, 2011 | Commentary , | this post contains affiliate links

7 responses to “the highs and lows of fantasy

  1. kel

    such a fascinating and in depth questioning of the evolution of fantasy in this day and age. my thoughts as i was reading, you touched on at the very end…i wonder if it’s a loss of hope somehow in our society as a whole. why and where that came from is a much larger discussion. but simple themes like good vs. evil, friendship prevailing through trials…don’t seem to be enough anymore. for some reason, there’s this perception it has to be gritty and gorey. maybe it’s an attempt to keep things grounded and feeling “real”…maybe it’s the disillusionment of our current society. but then again…disillusionment and loss of hope are quite related.

    • aj

      exactly! This one took a while for me to sort through and turn into something cohesive and I found that the more I wrote the more the ending seemed the most relevant part – that the shift in stories we’re telling, though gritty and gory as you said, isn’t about what you see on screen but about the nature of the story itself. There’s definitely a lack of hope that many people find adds that sense of “realism” which, also as you said, opens up a much broader conversation. It only emphasizes, to me, the poignancy of my final question. Are our stories (especially fantasy) supposed to be “realistic” or are they supposed to be relevant and still evoke something better than the “reality” we live in? Are they at their best when they give us hope we can’t find anywhere else?

  2. Ian Hess

    I’d argue there is a natural jading of readers from the first stories they read. The drift starts in the high fantasy of fairy tales, and some of the “classic” fiction. For some this drift in tastes maps to an inevitable fantasy counterpoint to daily life, and for others, the slow slide of expectation leads to non-medieval,non-european settings. Either way, high fantasy has logic problems in escalating expectations and challenges, and in realism. At some point, I dont think many readers can stomach the inevitable ratchet up.

    • aj

      The interesting thing is, you don’t see this same sort of a drift in previous generations. Which is why I would suggest that the changes we see are less attributed to the individual reader and more to our society’s prevalent world view.

  3. “Are they at their best when they give us hope we can’t find anywhere else?”
    Of course they are, but that takes great writing, of which there is a dearth in every generation, not just the present one. However, great writers, and great writing, are out there, and every once in a while you find one. I say that out of faith, not out of immediate personal knowledge, but that faith is strong and I believe that it will be rewarded, as it always is when given enough time, with the discovery of a writer whose work fills us with not just hope but joy and wonder.

    • aj

      The next logical question then is, what does it say about the writer who doesn’t strive to evoke that hope within us?