Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Fantasy in Film

To begin with, I haven't the seen either of the installments of this bloated new Hobbit trilogy. I have nothing against them or people who like such things – well, perhaps just a little bit – but to me they and the LOTR movies are a mere mockery of the works closest to my heart. The spinning-out of subplots in the interests of making millions upon millions of dollars I pass over in silence. Same goes for the utter tone-deafness of the screenplays (or what I know of them, at least). No, right now I just want to focus on the visuals, which many would say is their strong point. For they certainly represent a superbly realized vision (and I use "vision" in the literal sense) but such overabundance of eye-candy is somehow inimical – indeed, diametrically opposed – to Tolkien's own vision.

In his "On Fairy Stories," Tolkien says that one purpose of fantasy is to open our jaded, cynical eyes to the beauty of the common everyday world and its inhabitants. It ennobles grass and trees, bread and wine, sun and moon. This he calls Recovery. In his works, most of the narrative takes place in the unadorned, silent forests, plains, mountains, and deserts of Middle Earth, or else in such homely settings as the Shire. These elements combine their various strands into a wordless litany. Tolkien pays attention to mundane detail (food, plant species, topography) while refusing to constantly bombard the reader with the strange, the wonderful, and the terrifying. Because that, ultimately, is what really does jade the reader, and Tolkien's aim is to make us really see the strangeness, the wonder, and the terror in all that we take for granted.

Alas, this is something that has little chance of making it to the big screen in this sad era of bloated, multimillion-dollar CGI epics.

This isn't to say it couldn't be done. It is possible, I think, to use the art of film to fulfill the functions of fantasy. But film adaptations of fantastic fiction rarely achieve this. Generally they serve as vehicles for special effects instead. The eighties was the heyday of such films, e.g., the Star Wars trilogy, Clash of the Titans, Dragonslayer, Excalibur, Flash Gordon, Conan the Barbarian, Beastmaster, The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Dune, and so on. I have more than a little affection for several of these. A few of them occasionally come close to what I call fantasy. I think, for instance, of the last part of Excalibur, from the search for the Grail through the departure of Arthur, though the movie as a whole is something of a mess. But in general these films are content to remain action movies. They simply aren't contemplative enough to be fantasy.

Indeed, it isn't every director who can construct the silent cathedral spaces needed to effect Recovery. Fritz Lang was one. He was aided by the fact that his great works were made during the silent era, of course, but his Die Nibelungen and Metropolis will never be equaled in the genre categories of fantasy and science fiction. Both, of course, are fantasies in the sense that I often use the word.

Andrei Tarkovsky was another. His Andrei Rublev and Solaris are two of my favorite films. The Carver quote on my sidebar says: "At the risk of appearing foolish, a writer sometimes needs to be able to just stand and gape at this or that thing – a sunset or an old shoe – in absolute and simple amazement." Tarkovsky does this with film, and, miraculously, bears the viewer along with him. His movies aren't necessarily "fantasies" in the genre sense, of course, but perhaps the translation of the formal definition from written fiction to film involves a loosening of the matter.

Actually, the film that probably most successfully achieves Recovery – time and space, man and nature – isn't even fiction, but a documentary. I speak of Into Great Silence (2005), an intimate three-hour exploration of life in a Carthusian monastery (the Grand Chartreuse) without background music or a single word of spoken commentary. I went to see it in the theater and have since watched it many times at home; my children, who are four and five, often ask to see it. One of its most beautiful images is of the stars wheeling over the nighted monastery while the monks chant the divine office in a pitch-black church where the tiny red sanctuary candle throbs silently, perpetually. But it also bestows loving attention on mundane details, like ice crystals on green leaves, and jars full of buttons, and the placid surface of holy water in a font, and vegetables ready to be chopped. Its "interviews" consist of the prolonged gaze of the monks themselves.

And perhaps this gives away the extremely high expectations I have of fantasy fiction. I want it to replace, in a small way, the need that in a previous age would have been satisfied by making a retreat at a monastery or visiting a rustic shrine. I'm not speaking of any particular religion here, you understand, but of the universal human need to affirm life's goodness, to open one's eyes to that which is and see one's place in the universe.

I began this post with the intent of writing about a movie I received as a Christmas present, a movie that achieves the goals of fantasy in a distinctively American way, though lying well without the genre. It's gotten away from me now, though, so I'll continue in a second post.

NOTE: Just to show that I'm not just a curmudgeon who doesn't like anything new, I happen to greatly admire Peter Jackson's King Kong. In my humble opinion, he did a service to humanity in making this grand homage to the original film.


  1. It was in one of my adult readings of LotR that I realized how much of it was set in landscapes devoid of people and silent save for the ambient sounds of nature. i don't think there's ever a moment in the PJ movies that uses that. There's always loud, swirling music. Every shot swoops in from on high instead of letting the viewer linger in the loneliness and beauty of the land.

  2. I first read LOTR when I was fourteen or so, right after I'd spent two weeks camping and backpacking in the mountains of New Mexico. I think that was one reason it resonated so strongly with me.

  3. My friend, I write you urgently to beg you to see the movie WINTERS TALE. It is based on a novel by Helprin. It seems at first like a romance set in the turn of the century New York. It is not. What it really is, I dare not say, lest it detract from you the pleasure of discovery. I will say only that the sensation of recovery of which you speak, at least for me, was present, and perhaps would be for you as well.

    1. I shall most certainly try to see it on your recommendation.