Saturday, 26 February 2011

Fantasy Films vs. Fantasy Books: Why So Serious?

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


  1. 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!

    Because you are picturing him in a dress?

    I'm afraid I don't find this post very convincing because you never really show that fantasy films are taken more seriously in the first place.

  2. Fair enough - thought I had dealt with it by referring to Oscars, big name actors/directors and new fantasy films being commissioned on the strength of previous success with LotR. Should have made it clearer, I guess, but was given a slight word count to deal with.

    The Orange Prize reference is a big oops from me, however, and just reflects the fact I wrote this in my naive first five months of blogging, I think!

  3. I think fantasy books does have a serious image problem. Because to the general public it would seem that these days it mostly consists of YA and UF/PR.

    For fantasy books to be taken seriously, I think the genre needs to distance itself from at least the PR segment. And I think it should, it is already there in the name; Paranormal ROMANCE.

    As for the UF part of the UF/PR...I don't know enough about it, but have seen that even the fans disagree on what is UF and what is PR, so maybe that should be considered romance too.

    And then we can go back to using Urban Fantasy the way it was used in the 1990s.

    The YA can also be a problem, but mostly when earlier works are re-classified as YA because it sells after the success of Harry Potter.

    It is sad when a genre that has so much great in it is identified as children's books (YA) and romance (UF/PR).

  4. Fantasy does have a serious image problem, but I think that did change with the success of the Lord of the Rings movies. Not much, but some. I don't really think there's anything that will change that, save some immense event. Or another really successful movie adaptation.

    What do you mean by Pratchett's "books are not taken seriously by anyone"? They're some of the best-selling fantasy books (at least in the UK), therefore big business and rather serious for the publisher, and enough so to make three TV adaptations that were big events (if also wildly varying in quality). I think people recognise that Pratchett is fun and his ability to talk about serious issues, in a way that is entertaining for people who may not spot it (because they're too young or whatever) I think is pretty well recognised. I also find more people willing to 'admit' to reading Pratchett than any other fantasy series (save, perhaps Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter).

    Actually, perhaps the Pratchett TV adaptations could be used as evidence in your piece: some of the actors really ham things up - Jeremy Irons gave Vetinari a LISP! David Jason over-acted in both Hogfather and Colour of Magic (never my favourite Pratchett book, it's true, but I only watched half of CoM, because I thought it was awful). It's clear that sometimes actors just don't know how to deal with the genre, and assume it's all fun-and-silliness, rather than perfectly able to be realistic-if-in-a-secondary-setting (as you mentioned in your piece - fantasy deals with many or all of the same issues you often find in literary fiction, to varying degrees, depths, etc.).

    I would totally agree with you that "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" - this was very much my own impression when I started to take an interest, and was therefore more hesitant to just pick up unknown authors. It was only after I was given a copy of Scott Lynch's 'Lies of Lock Lamora' that I had my epiphany moment and sunk happily into the genre.

    As for Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance... Well, that's just lucrative, just as the butcherings of literature with zombies/vampires/sea monsters is also lucrative. It sells, so its promoted-the-hell-out-of. Ultimately, though, if people are starting in fantasy with these titles, perhaps as they become more familiar with it they will explore other titles and authors, and come to realise that there's oh-so-much more out there.

    As for literary authors writing genre fiction - these are, invariably, their best-sellers.

  5. Firstly, I think it is wrong to suggest that the Oscars are a serious cinematic award. The comparison to something like the Booker is the Palm D'Or. The Oscars are really a popular vote for a limited pool of industry insiders.

    The Return of the King winning an Oscar is still a big deal but the books were already some of the most popular in the world. For example, it came top of the BBC's huge 2003 poll to find the most popular novel. (Also in the top ten: His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling, Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne, Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis.) Both the Harry Potter books and films have been incredibly popular but the films have never troubled the Oscars.

    So I think all you've said is that some hugely popular fantasy novels have made hugely popular fantasy films. The success of these films has absolutely nothing to do with the commissioning of The Prestige and Pan’s Labyrinth. The studio backed these films because of their auteur directors, not because fantasy was big business. They are so radically different to Lord Of The Rings as to make any comparison meaningless. And if Lord Of The Rings changed the game for fantasy cinema, where are all the other epic fantasies? It has been silent until A Game of Throne and that is going to be on telly.

    In the main, neither written or visual fantasy are taken seriously. But that is nothing much to worry about.

  6. 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.

    While I have many grave misgivings with CtB as a Howard "adaptation," from a cinematic standpoint I would certainly place it leagues above Highlander (which I also like an awful lot) or Ladyhawke (which was a pleasant surprise, but rendered almost unbearable by the heinous score and Matthew Broderick's presence).

    Conan the Destroyer, on the other hand, I would happily lump in with the other horrible '80s fantasy films.

    Still, I think you might have a point regarding fantasy films. Consider that the Lord of the Rings films have an Oscar, whereas fantasy fiction doesn't have so much as a Booker.

    I tend not to tell people I read fantasy, because I read a wide range of genres, so singling out one, even one I read a lot, isn't fair on the others.

  7. Fantasy films have clout because they have shown that they can make big money. In Hollywood, money earns respect.

    Still, I do not think Fantasy films have much critical respect considering how poorly they do during awards season. Generally fantasy films win the technical awards, e.g. special effects, costume, etc, but rarely the artistic awards, i.e. screenplay, acting, etc.

    As great as the Lord of the Rings is, it still took the combined weight of an entire trilogy to earn begrudging recognition from the Academy.

    The fact that Pixar is so routinely denied much beyond "Best Cartoon" is a real crime and no better example to how little critical recognition fantasy gets in cinema.

    In the book world, fantasy doesn't even really have luxury of being a major money maker. The big names, Harry Potter & Twilight, get heaped into the Children and Young Adult word. I see this as a double snub as not only does it slight fantasy as a genre but stigmatizes these books further by making them kids, i.e. unsophisticated, books when it comes time for award season.

    Since the publishing world isn't the big money that Hollywood is and if anything is even more close knit and incestuous; it makes it even harder for fantasy writers to break the stereotype laid on them. Fantasy isn't "real" writing in the same way that Romance isn't a "real" book.

    Why this is, I'm not sure. But, the closest explanation I have ever been given was by a college professor of mine who told me what a shame it was that I wasted my time with such garbage (fantasy). "Fantasy will never compare to the challenge of conveying the essence of human existence in a the skilled and artistic manner of a true writer. Fantasy is a shortcut taken by those without this ability."

  8. I agree with Taranaich re. Conan the Barbarian! It may not bear much resemblance to the source material but it's a fairly good film and, as he says, certainly better than Highlander in most respects. I certainly wouldn't group it together with Masters of the sodding Universe!

  9. I like the argument (fantasy films zero -> hero, books need to do the same...), but not sure that 80s fantasy films were that "zero". A lot of the fantasy films you mention - including the "flops" - really did quite well, and were produced on big budgets with big stars & high expectations. And that's not counting the huge spectaculars - Star Wars, Dune, etc. Hell, even Clash of the Titans was a huge investment (and was the 3rd best movie that year, or something ridiculous like that).

    That said, there's as much film criticism as there is book criticism - I suspect this whole analogy opens up a can of worms on what means "respected" or "successful" in film-world. None of which I know a damn thing about! The important thing (which I totally agree with) is the sentiment that someday - dammit - there will be that wonderful day when everyone is like "fantasy! fuck yeah!". I hope my grandkids live to see it.