Why are fantasy films taken more seriously than fantasy books?
I’ve pondered on this over the course of a week, and conclude finally that I both agree and disagree with the sentiment.
My disagreement stems from the fact that this serious appreciation and recognition for fantasy films has been a relatively recent phenomenon. Let’s look back to the 1980s – this was the decade that spawned the rise of the fantasy film as a form of entertainment, beginning with Flash Gordon. Films such as this, Krull and Hawk the Slayer were never taken seriously as far as I can tell. They were critically derided and adored in a cult fashion by fantasy fans, rather than being considered serious films or social commentaries. They were most definitely pulp entertainment.
That isn’t to say there weren’t some truly excellent films produced in the 1980s under the fantasy genre – I’m thinking Highlander, Ladyhawke and The Princess Bride. But, for every one of these films, we were given a Masters of the Universe or a Conan the Barbarian. Laughable films, with only a loose grasp of the source material, produced on a budget and usually accompanied by a score that involved inspirational power chords provided by a synthesizer.
This all changed with the rise of the mighty franchises of films: The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Suddenly fantasy films were being regarded with enough seriousness that, since then, we’ve seen such movies as The Prestige and Pan’s Labyrinth receiving hefty studio backing and picking up critical acclaim on their release.
We’ve seen big name directors and actors taking on roles in fantasy films, and some of these films have been acknowledged by such mainsteam institutions as the Academy Awards, most notably when The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King received eleven Oscars, including Best Picture (although this sweep was widely acknowledged to be a proxy award for the entire trilogy). Fantasy films are now BIG NEWS.
And yet…. Could you ever see Robin Hobb’s latest being announced as a Booker Prize winner? Or Joe Abercrombie winning the Orange Prize for Literature? The thought of this makes me giggle somewhat, in fact, just because it seems so surreal! Our beloved fantasy books are never taken seriously enough to win any of the so-called “worthy” awards in literature; we have to have our own awards to recognise those authors who are writing quality fiction (the Arthur C Clarke award, the Hugos, the Nebulas and a number of other awards). In fact, just by looking at the range of awards we have to celebrate genre fiction, it can be seen just how seriously we take it, but outside our sphere few will ever know about those books making waves. For instance, I spoke to China Miéville about winning an unprecedented third Arthur C Clarke award for The City & The City, and he decried the fact that it just didn’t count within “mainstream” fiction.
Add to this the fact that there are several well-known and well-regarded literary authors writing books with a speculative slant, but actively pushing back against the idea that their novel is fantasy or science fiction. I’m thinking here, in particular, about Margaret Atwood – the author who, when asked whether The Handmaid’s Tale was a science fiction novel, replied “No, it certainly isn’t science fiction. Science fiction is filled with martians and space travel to other planets, and things like that.” She has also referred to science fiction containing “talking squids in outer space”. To be fair, she’s since clarified her position and says that her work is speculative fiction, feeling that the science fiction banner was too narrow for the novels she had produced, but her original comments were most certainly deemed to be snobbery and had a perception of looking down on poor old genre fiction.
So why are fantasy books not taken seriously? Why are people still sneered at for admitting that they read fantasy? Do any of you readers decide against telling friends that you read fantasy for fear of being derided? Why were the Harry Potter books (some of THE best-selling fantasy books in the entire world) repackaged with adult covers, so that adults wishing to read the books were not put off by the garish children’s covers and wouldn’t be embarrassed while reading the books on public transport?
I think that there might touch on one of the reasons. For good or ill, fantasy is still seen as being the province of elves and dwarves and creatures out of fairytale: in other words, creatures that children would be interested in. I don’t believe many people outside of the genre boundaries realise just how far fantasy has jumped forward since Terry Brooks and David Eddings were two of the main players. We are at a point now where “fantasy” seems to narrow a term to really define all of the wonderful types of books we have access to under the genre banner: epic fantasy, gritty fantasy, New Weird, urban fantasy, rural fantasy, classic fantasy, historical fantasy, comic fantasy… Is it simply a matter of trying to re-educate literary readers as to the treasures that can be found on the fantasy and science fiction shelves? And, certainly, it is time for them to realise that fantasy is not for children.
I also believe that those who do not read fantasy and who stick to worthy literary works are not aware that many of the fantasy/science fiction books deal with just as weighty considerations. We see characters agonising over their choices in life; children orphaned; the futility of war contemplated – I mean, those three issues alone would sit easily in a Booker Prize winner! Maybe mainstream readers would find much to enjoy, if they left aside the fact that imagined races are represented in the book, rather than just human beings?
This next point might receive a little flak, but I wonder how much of mainstream disdain towards genre comes as a result of the success of Terry Pratchett? To a lot of people unfamiliar with the fantasy/sci fi section in a bookstore, Pratchett would be one of the few familiar names – and his books are not taken seriously by anyone! (It is a whole other argument that his satirical observations on life are sharp and knowing, and should therefore be considered a rich source of social commentary). Is this part of why the fantasy genre is somewhat looked down upon?
To wrap this up, I want to end on a note of optimism. Thanks to the fact that fantasy films are now being marketed as serious and worthy forms of entertainment, many people are looking to the source material and picking up books they might never otherwise try. Friends of mine have watched the Twilight films, read the books and then asked me for recommendations of other books they could try in the same vein (haha, geddit? *slinks away in embarrassment thanks to poor pun…*) The same for those who tried the Lord of the Rings in the wake of those films – and I took the greatest of glee in showing them all the books I actually consider superior! So, although we have a way to go in making speculative fiction just as highly-regarded as other genres, we are at least welcoming new readers to our ranks with every fantasy film released – and that is a win as far as I am concerned.
And, y’know, it could always be worse: we could be readers of Westerns. Those guys have it bad *grin*.
First published on the Voyager blog