I thought I’d blog about Fantasy and the new Narnia film. As many of you know, I’m a fantasy junky. More properly, I’ve always been fascinated with the fantastic in literature, which isn’t quite the same thing as the Fantasy Genre. The fantastic can quickly swell to encompass most fiction, depending on how you want to draw the lines. If we view “fantasy” as anything which contains something that “is not real nor factually accurate” then we’re looking at a slew of works that would include the Bible, epic myth (Gilgamesh, Homer) all the way up through Dickens and Twain to The Wasteland and Star Wars; in fact, if we wanted to include authorial “bias” as coloring the material via selective interpretation we could include most major contemporary news sources. That’s not so far a stretch as it might first seem – clearly, the ever-changing story for our current involvement in Iraq is chock full of things that are not real, factually accurate, and which the average person of reasonable intelligence simply would not believe on it’s face.
One quick way to distinguish Fantasy (the contemporary genre) from the fantastic in literature is that Fantasy asks you to temporarily believe something that’s empirically untrue or unproveable about the *structure* of the world insofar as the reader is able to temporarily adopt “a willing suspension of disbelief” (Coleridge) that in part depends on the seamless texture of the fantasy world. This quick definition works for me in that it excludes religious tracts (viewed by the non-believer as “fantastic”) and most fiction (which exists in “the real world” but is populated by made up characters). Instead Fantasy asks you to accept the idea that the sun is green, and under it, people are going about being people. If the fantastic world is wrought in a seamless and internally consistent way, the reader can ride along on the bubble of their disbelief, enjoying the story for its own sake. Tolkien’s work is a fantasy in that it contains Hobbits and Ents, and is convincing in that they behave (always) like Hobbits and Ents. The curtain is never accidentally or deliberately pulled aside. If a Hobbit were to become un-Hobbit-ish, then we’d have a problem, but it’s a measure of genius to be able to completely transform characters as Tolkien does while having them remain true to the cultures which produced them.
In many ways, modern High Fantasy was invented by Tolkien, who injected realism and symbolic resonance (which he termed “applicability” as contrasted to clunky “allegory”) on a hitherto unknown scale into fantasy literature. It didn’t hurt that he was able to weave in symbols and themes from all over the “western” tradition – Le Morte D'Arthur to the Green Knight, the Bible to the Kalevala, MacBeth to Homer, Oedipus to Beowulf (which Tolkien was pretty much singly responsible for changing critical opinion on via his essay “The Monsters and the Critics.”
This element of realism, in the literary sense, is primarily expressed by treating characters in an everyday, accurate, “realistic” manner. Realism is often contrasted with Romanticism – which treated subjects in an “ideal” and highly stylized way. Tolkien was perhaps the first fantasist to worry about having an accurate chronological arc for his stories and concern himself with the mundanities of how much food his characters had to carry on their journeys. This set Tolkien apart from Dunsany, William Morris, George McDonald, E.R. Edson, Kenneth Morris, and other early fantasists. Dunsany, for example, is a consistent but florid writer; everything is bejeweled. Tolkien also was deeply concerned with the origins of the viable languages he invented for his characters (and act I *still* can’t believe gets such little critical shift – it exceeds Blake’s myth-building and receives one one-hundredth of the critical attention.)
While you can lop of “Sword and Sorcery” fantasy writing as a sub-genre, it’s hard to distinguish it from High Fantasy, and particularly hard to distinguish it from Tolkien (as is so much contemporary writing) in the sense that Tolkien codified a lot of the archetypes: you don’t see the “Germanic dwarf” showing up all that often after LOTR – instead you see the “Tolkien dwarf” dominating the landscape. Some of this came through the Role-Playing-Game (RPG) movement, the most popular of which was Dungeons and Dragons. D+D pretty much assumed the Tolkein paradigm whole-cloth, although it tried to sweep in other mythos. Books, modules, short-stories written out of this mentality reinforced the standard Tolkien-esque fare (although like a degrading photocopy of a photocopy, the archetypes became less and less sharp as time passed.) In fact, the genre conventions became so strong that one of the most popular type of sub-genres rests on mocking or subverting those conventions (without exploring new territory.)
Tolkien has also created some of the seminal lines of thought (insofar as they apply to analyzing the fantastic – his essay, “On Fairy-Stories” is a must-read for anyone seriously interested in fantasy literature. Perhaps the subject for another post.
I’m not one of those people who often see fantasy films without reading the books (or the comics) beforehand, basically just because I tend to read a lot. Thus, it’s kind of hard for me to separate the film from the story on which is was based. Sometimes you get a really good film (or a bad film) out of a bad story, sometimes you get a good film (or a bad film) from a good story. I think it’s hardest for a filmmaker to take a really good story and make a good film out of it.
Tolkien’s LOTR is a case in point: I’d rate those films as A, B, B-, as films and A-, C, and F as *interpretations* of the book. (LOTR is one of the great novels of the 20th century, and it’s not that way because Tolkien needed to rewrite 80% of his dialogue or cast Gimli as a comic side-kick. ) I remember covering my eyes and cringing during most of the third film. Midway through the film I just completely gave up on it. I actually laughed aloud when Shadofax knocked Denethor back onto the pyre (how cheesy can you get?)
I hated the ending of the third film. The scourging of the shire is such an important element in the final book, largely because it speaks to “real life.” How many veterans serve abroad out of love for their country, then return to find things have not stayed the same, that petty dictators are easily set up? When you start removing stuff like this from the story, you push it closer to the original dismissive stance taken by critics of LOTR - that’s it’s merely “escapist fantasy” with no relevance to how we live our lives.
Mostly, I hated the dumbing down of the language – it’s not like the dialogue *needed* lots of “improving.” Compare Aragorn’s simple speech at Helm’s Deep with the awful “This is a good sword” speech from the film.
Compare Eowyn’s eloquent defiance of the Nazgul with the awful action movie dialogue lines from the film:
NAZGUL: Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!
DERNHELM/Eowyn: But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am, Eomund's daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.
Witch King: You fool. No man can kill me. Die.
Eowyn: I am no man.
Then the pathetically cliched Lifetime moment between Eowyn and Theoden (not in the book):
Theoden: I know your face... Eowyn. My eyes darken.
Eowyn: No, no. I'm going to save you
Theoden: You already did... Eowyn..
The characters didn’t *need* to have these odd Hollywood personas tacked on to them (e.g., Aragorn as self-doubter, Gimli as the comic side-kick, Legolas as a bad-ass action hero). Hopefully, in 20 years time or less, someone will do justice to LOTR with a series film that stay relatively close to the nuances of the story.
I think one of the tragic aspects of the film is that Jackson had so distorted the characters by the end, it was impossible to think of Jackson's Gimli or Legolas having the following exchange:
You may think them wonderful, but I have seen a greater wonder in this land, more beautiful than any grove or glade that ever grew: my heart is still full of it. 'Strange are the ways of Men, Legolas! Here they have one of the marvels of the Northern World, and what do they say of it? Caves, they say! Caves! Holes to fly to in time of war, to store fodder in! My good Legolas, do you know that the caverns of Helm's Deep are vast and beautiful? There would be an endless pilgrimage of Dwarves, merely to gaze at them, if such things were known to be. Aye indeed, they would pay pure gold for a brief glance!'
'And I would give gold to be excused,' said Legolas; 'and double to be let out, if I strayed in!' '
You have not seen, so I forgive your jest,' said Gimli. 'But you speak like a fool. Do you think those halls are fair, where your King dwells under the hill in Mirkwood, and Dwarves helped in their making long ago? They are but hovels compared with the caverns I have seen here: immeasurable halls, filled with an everlasting music of water that tinkles into pools, as fair as Kheled-zvram in the starlight. '
And, Legolas, when the torches are kindled and men walk on the sandy floors under the echoing domes, ah! then, Legolas, gems and crystals and veins of precious ore glint in the polished walls; and the light glows through folded marbles, shell-like, translucent as the living hands of Queen Galadriel. There are columns of white and saffron and dawn-rose, Legolas, fluted and twisted into dreamlike forms; they spring up from many-coloured floors to meet the glistening pendants of the roof: wings, ropes, curtains fine as frozen clouds; spears, banners, pinnacles of suspended palaces! Still lakes mirror them: a glimmering world looks up from dark pools covered with clear glass; cities. such as the mind of Durin could scarce have imagined in his sleep, stretch on through avenues and pillared courts, on into the dark recesses where no light can come. And plink! a silver drop falls, and the round wrinkles in the glass make all the towers bend and waver like weeds and corals in a grotto of the sea. Then evening comes: they fade and twinkle out; the torches pass on into another chamber and another dream. There is chamber after chamber, Legolas; hall opening out of hall, dome after dome, stair beyond stair; and still the winding paths lead on into the mountains' heart. Caves! The Caverns of Helm's Deep! Happy was the chance that drove me there! It makes me weep to leave them.' '
Then I will wish you this fortune for your comfort, Gimli,' said the Elf, 'that you may come safe from war and return to see them again. But do not tell all your kindred! There seems little left for them to do, from your account. Maybe the men of this land are wise to say little: one family of busy dwarves with hammer and chisel might mar more than they made.'
'No, you do not understand,' said Gimli. 'No dwarf could be unmoved by such loveliness. None of Durin's race would mine those caves for stones or ore, not if diamonds and gold could be got there. Do you cut down groves of blossoming trees in the spring-time for firewood? We would tend these glades of flowering stone, not quarry them. With cautious skill, tap by tap -- a small chip of rock and no more, perhaps, in a whole anxious day -- so we could work, and as the years went by, we should open up new ways, and display far chambers that are still dark, glimpsed only as a void beyond fissures in the rock. And lights, Legolas! We should make lights, such lamps as once shone in Khazad-dym; and when we wished we would drive away the night that has lain there since the hills were made; and when we desired rest, we would let the night return.' '
You move me, Gimli,' said Legolas. 'I have never heard you speak like this before. Almost you make me regret that I have not seen these caves. Come! Let us make this bargain-if we both return safe out of the perils that await us, we will journey for a while together. You shall visit Fangorn with me, and then I will come with you to see Helm's Deep.'
‘That would not be the way of return that I should choose,' said Gimli. 'But I will endure Fangorn, if I have your promise to come back to the caves and share their wonder with me.'
Some films I think did a really good job as both films and adaptations:
The Neverending Story, The Princess Bride, The Harry Potter Series.
I have to put The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe in that category; it was a very good film adaptation that stayed close enough to the essential elements of the book to make it not disappointing. I’d give it an A-.
LWW as a film was pretty clever, starting with the backstory (The Battle of Britain) being brought overtly into the story. I wonder how the average viewer will see LWW – given that it’s hard not to see the influence LWW has had – certainly in the Harry Potter stories, which is famous for sweeping other themes into itself. For example, the Penivese children in the vast sprawling mansion with the kindly Professor (Diggory) echo Hogwarts and Dumbledore. Further, Narnia and Potter both mix their fantastic creatures (dragons and centaurs and unicorns and fauns) without much explanation (Lewis’s dwarves are decidedly Germanic, while his centaurs are Greek). Although Lewis provides a creation myth in The Magician’s Nephew (and also details who the Professor is and how the Wardrobe came to be built), his story is one of agency which pre-supposes fauns and whatnot. (By contrast, Tolkien provided a consistent and concrete explanation in the Silmarillon.)
The most disturbing element was the battle scenes, which are becoming endemic to fantasy – as though modern fantasy film was infected with kick-ass-ness, a kind of martial proving of ideas that surely must appeal to the contemporary insecure American. We prove our righteousness upon the body of our enemies. Narina, in that respect, is pulled from the orbit of the books, which is about the inner strength to *resist* temptation, into a rather materialistic ass-whooping.
Also, it’s hard not to view the Stone Table scene in the book as being somewhat legalistic rather than mystic (i.e., somewhat formulaic in the elements it marshals). Alsan triumphs through what seems like legalistic trickery instead of something that just appeals to a sense of “rightness.” I suppose a more obvious perversion would be the griffins “bombing” the Witch’s army with rocks – a clear parallel to the German bombers over London in the opening scenes. What, I wonder, are we supposed to walk away from that moment thinking? That the “techniques” of the enemy are validly stolen and employed in one’s own cause, provided that one is on the side of “good”? I think the original book is far more to the point – that the children are shorn from the modern world and go through a process of assimilation into Narnia - and as far as I recall the books are filled (forgive me, I last read them 8 years ago) with references to the transformative Narnian air, and the more overt breath of Aslan. In that sense they’re spiritually essentialist (or fundamentalist? – ack, the word choice) insofar as they make the moral struggle more overt, more top-level. The Narnia of the books is a world where, if there’s an option to torture a person for knowledge they may not have, there might be some bluster, but the essential rules of conduct among beings preclude such activity.