How Long Will Our Fascination With the Fantasy Genre Last?

Kaitlyn Fajilan

 

A wardrobe that opens up into another world.  Ancient dragons and an army of the Undead. Arcane schools of magic, a golden compass that tells the truth, and One Ring to rule them all.

 

When Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring first lit up silver screens back in December 2001, fans of the original novels flocked to see whether Jackson had indeed captured Tolkien's Middle Earth in all its crossbow-wielding, Elvish-tongued glory. With meticulously constructed CGI architecture and action sequences, sweeping aerials of New Zealand's landscape, haunting leitmotifs by score composer Howard Shore, and an estimated budget of $93 million for the first film alone, many deemed Jackson's trilogy (which took eight years to fully produce) the most ambitious Hollywood film project ever undertaken.

 

A bit of a gamble, some might argue, considering successful High Fantasy films up to that point had been few and far in between (Courtney Solomon's Dungeons and Dragons having been viciously panned by critics the year before), and back-to-back trilogies generally unheard of. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, which had been released in theaters a month prior, was faring spectacularly at the box office, but already had the luxury of a worldwide audience, thanks to British author J.K. Rowling's multi-billion dollar book franchise. Tolkien's novels, on the other hand, despite having long been accepted into English literary canon, lay in relative obscurity and were mostly known only to avid lit readers and fantasy enthusiasts. Furthermore, the world of Harry Potter, which chronicles a boy wizard's coming-of-age while attending a secret magical school, is set in modern-day England. Its storyline and characters, therefore, could simply come off as being more relatable to the average moviegoer.

 

Luckily for Jackson and New Line Cinema, the film's distributor, audiences found the medievalist Middle Earth, with its vast body of hobbit, dwarf, and elf inhabitants, just as captivating a world as that of Hogwarts', with ticket sales churning out a $47.2 million opening weekend and a 92 percent "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The film went on to garner 13 Academy Award nominations, winning four of them; the subsequent films, The Two Towers and The Return of the King, were released in 2002 and 2003, respectively, and were also smash hits, with the latter racking up no less than 11 Oscars (a feat paralleled only by Ben-Hur and Titanic), including Jackson for Best Director. The Return of the King also became the first fantasy film ever to win Best Picture.

 

Meanwhile, the The-Boy-Who-Lived continued to hold his own at the box office, earning $974.4 million worldwide and becoming highest-grossing film of 2001 (over the next 10 years, it would be followed up by seven more highly successful Harry Potter films, the last of which became the fourth-highest grossing film of all time). Book and merchandise sales of The Lord of the Rings (as well as its prequel, The Hobbit) and the Harry Potter series, soared as both films generated scores of new fans. "Tolkienists" and "Potterheads" alike turned to vast online communities to celebrate their love of their respective series, spurring the popularization of wizard, elf, and hobbit-themed fantasy conventions and cosplay events like Prophecy and Ringcon, and establishing both the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings brands as household names in pop culture.

Fantasy, the media joked, wasn't just for nerds anymore.

 

Indeed, each film's enormous appeal helped usher in a host of fantasy films over the next decade (each with varying degrees of box-office success), many being adaptations of popular children's novels (though this factor did not in any way deter teens or adults from seeing the movies).  In late 2005, Buena Vista Pictures released the first installment of C.S. Lewis's beloved Chronicles of Narnia series, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Set in England during World War II, the highly allegorical tale follows the adventures of four siblings who find themselves magically transported to a world of talking beasts via an enchanted wardrobe, where they become embroiled in the animals' struggle to oust their Draconian monarch. The film was another box-office hit, also resulting in a significant boost in book sales, and spawning two more films.

 

From then on, it seemed Hollywood had a tight hold on the fantasy genre, releasing several films based off popular fantasy books or book series every year, such as Eragon (2006), Stardust (2007), The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008), Inkheart (2009), Percy Jackson and the Olympians (2010), Beastly (2011), The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013).

 

Some, despite boasting a strong fan base and costing millions to produce, received lukewarm responses (2007's The Golden Compass, which featured A-list celebrities Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, being one example). While some were outright flops, like the boy and dragon-themed Eragon, which notoriously tanked at the box office, and 2010's The Last Airbender, based off the wildly popular Nickelodeon fantasy adventure series, was slammed by critics and moviegoers alike for its wobbly storyline and racial typecasting. Others hit box-office gold by way of computer-animated storytelling. In 2010, the film version of Kathryn Lasky's The Legend of the Guardians, a surprisingly dark affair for a story featuring anthropomorphic owls, and DreamWorks' How to Train Your Dragon, a quirky Viking bildungsroman loosely based on the kids' book series by Cressida Cowell, were released in theaters to international acclaim. Disney made a long-awaited comeback portraying classic Grimm's fairy tales in The Princess and the Frog (2009), Tangled (2010) and, most recently, Frozen (2013).  Still others, like Stephanie Meyer's Twilight, gained a legion of fans (often referred to as "Twihards") so encompassing it unleashed a slew of vampire and werewolf-based movies, novels, and TV shows onto mainstream media (True Blood, Teen Wolf, Vampire Diaries, and Vampire Academy, to name a few), as well as a "Teen Paranomal Romance" section in Barnes and Nobles bookstores.

 

Fantasy culture has leaked into television networks as well, with a certain Dungeons and Dragons-esque vibe being the order of the day. From 2008 to 2010, ABC catered to the sword and sorcery crowd with their series adaptation of Terry Goodkind's The Sword of Truth, retitled Legend of the Seeker, which takes place in a similarly medievalized New World, while BBC's Merlin (2008-2012) and Starz' Camelot (2011) both tapped into Arthurian folklore. Though critics had generally mixed feelings about all three shows, ABC's urban fantasy Once Upon a Time (2011), set within a fictionalized town in modern-day Maine, weaved stock fairytale characters like Snow White and Rumpelstiltskin into a contemporary setting to modest critical applause. Television's reigning titan of High Fantasy, however, came in the form of HBO's nearly universally lauded Game of Thrones (2011), based on George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels. While most popular fantasy titles reenact the perennial struggle between good and evil, Martin's Westeros (which heavily features grim realpolitik in the form of house rivalry, civil war, and severed limbs) diversified the playing field by featuring characters whose motivations are often morally ambiguous, if not outright diabolical, while progressively peeling layers off more overtly depraved characters in order to portray them in a more sympathetic light. Viewers are thus left hard-pressed to distinguish any cut-and-dry "good" or "bad" guys. The show's high production value, taut storyline, and dynamic characters dramatically increased Martin's already impressive fan base, further solidifying the series as a major player in the fantasy universe.

 

Now, more than 12 years after The Fellowship of the Ring introduced millions of filmgoers to Middle Earth, Part II of the trilogy's prequel, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug currently plays in theaters to mainly positive reviews. And with Game of Thrones’ fourth and most highly anticipated season yet on the horizon, the much-hyped sequel to How to Train Your Dragon gearing up for a June release, and Neil Gaiman's American Gods in development for its own TV series, viewers appear to remain spellbound by the fantasy genre. But how long before the spell is broken?

 

According to writer and fantasy enthusiast Eric Christensen, fantasy's reign in Hollywood could end as easily as it began based on the fact that the relationship between film and print is cyclical. It begins with a bestselling book getting its film rights purchased, and the resulting movie or show wins over a new set of fans, thus allowing the source novel to enjoy sustained popularity on bestseller lists. Publishers then hunt for the next bestseller to market to filmmakers.

"But this relationship," he writes in an article entitled "Why is Fantasy so Popular in 2012?" on Fantasy Faction, an online community for fans of the genre, "is fragile. It only works if people keep buying books, watching movies, and subscribing to premium channels. When it comes to fantasy, people are currently doing all three, and publishers and producers are rushing to give us more. But that eagerness creates an increased risk that 'the next big thing' could turn into the 'next big flop.' All it takes is a couple of stumbles, and the fantasy bubble will pop. Money will dry up, and fantasy fans will have fewer options."

 

Could America's ongoing fixation with dark lords, mages, and epic journeys be reduced to a mere commercial bubble that stays intact so long as fantasy filmmakers steer clear from too many box-office blunders? Or is there a rhyme and reason to our current affinity for the fantastical that might allow the fixation to transcend its appointed shelf life -- some deeper explanation as to why we've once again turned to the world of magic and mythology?

 

Frances Pheasant-Kelly, author of Fantasy Film Post 9/11, says it's due in part to the fact that our own world is one we no longer feel at ease in. In her book examining the correlation between fantasy genre consumerism and new millennial anxieties in the 21st century, she draws from a wealth of published fantasy scholars over the years to suggest that, in addition to "a complex range of commercial, sociocultural, and technological aspects" (such as CGI advances, and the fact that many fantasy films are sourced from already commercially successful novels), we turn to such films for their capacity to "address or rearticulate collective anxieties and traumatic histories."

In the current generation's case, that trauma stems from our experiencing the terrorist attacks of September 11th, as well as the war in Iraq. However, rather than merely turning to fantasy for relief from such anxieties, as the term 'escapism' suggests, Pheasant-Kelly argues that we also watch it to relive the painful events of our generational narrative in a "safe" environment.

 

Certainly, movies like Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia are, at times, cheery and romantic, often punctuated by bursts of comedy and feel-good moments. And yet, an undercurrent of the macabre is often found to pulse throughout:

 

"Many (of these films) are dark and nihilistic and espouse a subtext of death. These images and themes of mortality arguably reflect a post-9/11 milieu of terrorism, recession, and impending environmental catastrophe, with many scholars and writers observing a general 'darkening' of film and a prevailing mood of pessimism. ... Each of the Harry Potter films commanded high box-office figures, yet their entire underpinning theme is persistently one of death, with repeated visual resemblances to 9/11. Avatar, currently the highest grossing film of all time, contains obvious analogies with the war on terror, particularly in relation to preemptive attack, the Iraq wars, and "oil" as a motivating factor."

 

According to Pheasant-Kelly, for those of us not ready to face actual film accounts of the September 11th attacks and its ensuing entanglements, fantasy offers us a vehicle through which we can subconsciously re-enact and reinterpret the fears we experience in the midst of geopolitical turmoil, to mentally process events that feel increasingly out of our control. Fantasy films set against the backdrop of World War II, for example, such as Pan's Labyrinth (2006) and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, allow us to relive internal angst in a fantastical setting while simultaneously comparing our current wartime experience with a not-too-distant one. Fantasy thus not only offers us temporary solace from a dangerously shifting climate, but a means of making sense of it.

 

And according to Lev Grossman, critic, journalist, and author of The Magicians, an urban fantasy series best described as a blend of Harry Potter, Narnia, and 20-something existentialism, we wouldn't be the first ones to do it either. In a 2012 interview with The Lavin Agency, Grossman explained how J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, the godfathers of modern fantasy, found themselves in a similar situation to our own while writing in the 1920's and 30's:

"Tolkien and Lewis were both combat veterans of World War I. They were both fighting at the Somme. And that generation presided over the complete destruction of the world that it knew as children. Those people saw the electrification of cities, they saw the horse replaced by the automobile, they saw the rise of mass media, they saw the rise of psychoanalysis and mechanized warfare. The world they lived in looked nothing like the world of their childhood. And this kind of trauma that they lived through is what I think gave birth to fantasy, which is a literature of longing, a longing for things that are lost."

 

Grossman posits that we, too, find ourselves left to navigate the waters of a society that appears to be evolving too rapidly. Indeed, with the rise of digital media, global social networking, and handheld technology, even people in their 20s can hardly be blamed for feeling like walking anachronisms. To further illustrate the advent of foreign science clashing with the mundane, the bestselling author refers to Apple’s revolutionary music device, the iPod:

"The iPod is a very weird piece of technology -- we didn't use to have stuff like this. The iPod -- I don't know any other way to put this -- kind of gleams. It is a sealed, gleaming case. We cannot crack it open. If you did, you couldn't understand what happens inside it. We don't know why it works the way it works. We don't know where it came from -- ahem, China -- but, you know, we've never seen that factory. We're not allowed to hack its software. Its form tells us nothing about what it does. It is beautiful, but we are very alienated from it. It represents an artifact that is weird to us and that in some way we are really disconnected from. Fantasy...is a way of kind of trying to find a world that we feel more connected to than we feel connected to our iPod."

 

 

Eric Christensen agrees:

"The fact that people use modern technology to distract themselves from the modern world only adds to the dissonance they feel. For example, look around at how many people avoid others by listening to music or podcasts, tweet to strangers online instead of interacting with the people around them, or research crafting projects that have not been popular for generations. You may even be reading this on your phone right now, ignoring what is going on around you....People are looking for escapism, but they do not want to turn to science fiction. People get enough science fiction in their daily lives, and many are uncomfortable with that fact."

 

Indeed, whereas the turn of the 20th century -- a time marked by an intensified curiosity for all things digital, as well as the media's preoccupation with space exploration, and the threat of nuclear war -- saw an influx of American sci-fi and disaster films; we who are living in the new millennium appear to have grown sick of "what might be" and turned instead "to what was." 

And what exactly is it that "was"?

 

For a beguiling glimpse into bygone societies' conception of the mundane, one need look no further than Pre-Enlightenment literature. From The Epic of Gilgamesh, to Beowulf, to Dante's Divine Comedy, modern readers might be surprised to find in analyzing these works that what we now consider elements of blatant fantasy--be it a pantheon of scheming deities in Homer's The Illiad or Shakespeare's meddlesome fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream--were, in fact, once accepted by many as the basic fabric of reality--perfectly reasonable explanations for naturally occurring phenomena (though there remains speculation as to whether certain Pre-Enlightenment authors actually espoused belief in the wonders about which they wrote). In a world untouched by the reaches of scientific inquiry and reasoning, the mechanics of the sublime (What are lightning storms? Who or what creates them? Why?) often eluded human understanding. And so, to provide a framework for such mystifying occurrences, the organic became inherently numinous--the supernatural, natural (and vice versa).  And although many of these beliefs were probably discarded long before knowledge of physical law became widespread, their influence continued to pervade throughout literature until the late 17th and early 18th-centuries. Thus, when in Arabian Nights Sinbad the Sailor discovers that the island he is standing on is not, in fact, an island but a giant, slumbering whale, the effect is more tongue-in-cheek than extraordinary. Such commingling of reality and myth (or the utilization of myth to explain a particularly abstruse reality), as opposed to allowing 'myth as fiction,' is what ultimately distinguishes traditional fantasy from its modern component.

 

Still, magic--the attempt to understand and manipulate the natural world through esoteric knowledge and ritual--remains at the crux of both narrative forms. When we turn to these narratives, we, too, take part in a world in which the obscure is celebrated, where the metaphysical becomes physical and we lay at the mercy of supernatural forces. Yet in subscribing to these rules (however chaotic or bewildering they appear to us), we enable ourselves to play by them as well. Harry Potter spends seven years inside (and outside) Hogwarts learning to harness his innate magical abilities; the Fellowship would surely have been doomed were it not for the wizardly prowess of Gandalf, both before and after he emerged from death with newly acquired powers. Even the Pevensie children, despite being unversed in magic, turn the tide of civil war by appealing to magical entities like Aslan and the White Witch. In doing so, they become 'sorcerers' in the spirit of its original Latin usage, sortiarius, "one who influences fate."

 

Indeed, fantasy, it appears, is just as much about submitting to the supernatural as it is about manipulating it. Perhaps in subscribing to fantasy stories--be they in the form of books, movies, or television--we enter a space in which our fear of the unknown is domesticated. A world in which imagination enables us to transform the foreign into the familiar, even the desirable. After all, behind every fantastical tale, every epic journey, is a quest for self-knowledge, an opportunity to cultivate wisdom, courage, and fortitude in the face of danger and uncertainty.  "The fairy tale," writes fantasy scholar Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales "...confronts the child squarely with the basic human predicaments.” Accordingly, Harry discovers love, specifically the love his mother bore in dying to save him, to be the most potent magic of all, and Frodo's travels lead him to realize that wandering is not so much a spatial exploration as it is an internal one.

 

For whatever reason we turn to fantasy, whether the genre’s commercial bubble--if it is, indeed, a bubble--"pops" within the next year or the next decade, society will most likely continue turning to stories of the inexplicable and marvelous regardless of the frequency with which new fantasy films are being produced. Because as long as there as there are fears to be solaced, through disillusionment with technology, politics, or otherwise, humans will probably always be a little quixotic, longing for a time in which something like the strangely beautiful, strangely gleaming iPod could simply be chalked up to good, old-fashioned magic.

 

 

Author Bio:

Kaitlyn Fajilan is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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