English / Considering Fantasy'S Special Effects
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Autor: anton 19 December 2010
Words: 1472 | Pages: 6
â€¢ Technology, idea deficit spawns renaissance; Genre depicts current anxieties, authors' worldview
"There may be heaven; there must be hell."--Robert Browning (1812-1889)
Hollywood films of pure fantasy have been very rare. Horror, sci-fi, films based on the fantastic adventure tale such as the upcoming remake of King Kong, superhero films, space operas such as the Star Wars series--these related genres have all flourished on celluloid. But not traditional fantasy, the kind featuring other worlds populated by dwarves and witches.
Typically, in a traditional fantasy film, the young protagonist gets hit in the head during a Kansas tornado, or is introduced to a hidden train platform at King's Cross Station, or blunders through the back of a wardrobe and suddenly enters a different world. It's not an easy formula to pull off, which explains why there have been very few great Hollywood fantasy films through the entire 20th century. The Wizard of Oz is perhaps the only indisputable one.
So why is Hollywood, in the opening years of the 21st century, suddenly so interested in classic fantasy? Since 2001 we have had The Lord of the Rings trilogy, based on the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien, as well as the four Harry Potter movies, based on the novels of J.K. Rowling, and now The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, based on the novel by C.S. Lewis, the great English literary critic, essayist and Christian apologist, who died in 1963.
This last movie opens next Friday. Almost certainly there will be more Narnia movies to come--The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was only one of seven novels comprising The Chronicles of Narnia.
This unprecedented interest is all the more surprising given how many people fiercely dislike the whole genre. Toronto sci-fi writer Robert J. Sawyer, for example, has been outspoken in his criticism of traditional fantasy. He maintains that the wonders of modern science are far more interesting than elves and wizards. At times he seems to suggest that fantasy creators are a little wrong in the head.
"Sci-fi writers talk about how they have built a character to serve some dramatic or narrative purpose in the story," he once told the Star. "The fantasy writers talk as if their characters have spoken to them and told them how to write the story, as if the writers have been channelling them."
Nonetheless, the human appetite for the otherworldly is far from limited to fantasy fans. The late scientist Carl Sagan loathed any hint of the supernatural and yet he, in his novel Contact and in the 1997 movie based on that book, went tripping through a wardrobe he entitled "radio astronomy." Granted, there were no elves or wizards with pointed hats among his intelligent aliens, but the otherworld that he suggested was just around the corner was as unreal and as fantastic and as much of a wish fulfilment as anything conjured up by Tolkien or Rowling.
The Star Trek series--to cite another example--is pseudo-scientific, otherworldly fantasy for the pocket protector set.
"Do you really mean, sir, that there could be other worlds--all over the place, just round the corner--like that?" a boy asks a man called the Professor in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
"Nothing is more probable," replies the Professor. In those words, the Professor speaks for skeptics and mystics alike.
Fantasy and sci-fi have something else in common. No matter how far in the future the world of a sci-fi novel or movie is set, the novel or movie is really about the present, and reflects the anxieties of the present.
This is true for fantasy, as well. World War II, for example, influenced the Lord of the Rings trilogy--an epic Tolkien started to write in the 1930s and completed in the early 1950s. Tolkien denied the trilogy was about the war, but he clearly saw the atom bomb as another form of the ring of power.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was published in 1950, at the height of the Cold War, and the book literally depicts a cold war between freedom-loving Allies and a witch and her satellites, who have imposed endless winter on the land of Narnia.
The Harry Potter series is a story about education, and reflects our anxieties about preparing the young for the new "knowledge industries" and training them to be workers who "manipulate symbols" instead of tightening bolts on the assembly line. In the novels, Potter's training in logic to perfect an Accio spell becomes the imaginative equivalent of a Muggle training in the logic of computer programming. In both cases, it's forms of survival at stake.
If fantasy reflects present anxieties, it also reflects the author's general outlook on life--another point of contact between fantasy and sci-fi. The issue is most apparent in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where the sacrificial death and resurrection of the lion Aslan is an explicit reference to the passion of Christ. Lewis' Christianity has bothered many readers of the Narnia Chronicles.
In the case of J.K. Rowling, the opposite has occurred, with many fundamentalist Christians accusing the author of promoting witchcraft. Other readers, however, have discovered an underlying Christian bent to her novels. English historian and culture critic Owen Dudley Edwards, for example, describes Harry Potter in Christ-like terms as "a child whose very existence strikes at the heart of Evil, at whom Evil will move every means to strike, whose mother is struck to the heart in her love of him, whose preference is for poorer friends and social outcasts, who rejects offers of wealthier and socially pretentious companionship, who will not allow his friends to do evil however justifiable the result, who frequently breaks regulations and subjects them to the test of necessity."
Tolkien was a Catholic, but like Rowling left his beliefs well in the background, so that many British neo-pagans have claimed The Lord of the Rings as a manifesto for their own religion. Tolkien's Catholicism can only be inferred by his championing of classic Christian virtues such as humility, pity and mercy. Tolkien's critics, therefore, have mostly attacked him by attacking qualities in his writing that are really qualities of the fantasy genre. Proponents of diversity and pacifism, for example, can only be distressed by the joyful bloodletting in Tolkien's Middle-earth, where the only good orc is a dead orc.
In the same fashion, C.S. Lewis has absolutely no sympathy for such minority cultures as the "Cruels and Hags and Incubuses, Wraiths, Horrors, Efreets, Sprites, Orknies, Wooses and Ettins" who fight beside the witch in Narnia.
But the literary truth bears repeating--Narnia and Middle-earth and Hogwart's Academy are not our world. They are worlds that exist primarily so that the characters in them can be tested for their courage and virtue. And the tests are all the more terrifying because of the consequences of failure--in fantasy worlds, people really do play for keeps.
As the Browning quotation above suggests, a fantasy world must always include the existence of a genuine hell--whether that hell be Tolkien's Mordor, or Rowling's wizard prison of Azkaban, or the witch's castle in Narnia and Oz.
Fantasy is serious business, then, which brings us back to the question of why Hollywood has become so interested in the genre lately. There may be profound cultural reasons for this interest, including the dismal failure of Hollywood, in recent years, to come up with anything else of much interest, in any genre. But the answer may also be rather simple the recent advent of special effects via computer animation has made filming of fantasy books much easier than before.
This has been a mixed blessing. Special effects hijacked the filming of The Lord of the Rings and helped to make hash of all three movies in that trilogy. To a lesser extent, the same thing happened in the Harry Potter movies. As for The Narnia Chronicles--we'll find out on Friday. But to Hollywood, aesthetics are less important than the huge fan base of Tolkien, Rowling and C.S. Lewis. That was always a market waiting to be exploited, once the appropriate technology was available.
The irony is that technology--which has always been alien to the spirit of fantasy--has renewed fantasy life on screen.
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