Thursday, 17 March 2011

Is Fantasy Violence Okay?

Last night I attended the pre-publication launch of Department 19 by Will Hill and got talking to a group of bloggers and publicists. I was busy recommending Long Reach by Peter Cocks - a very fine teen thriller - when one of the people present said that a prominent London bookstore are thinking about removing Long Reach from their teen bookshelves due to the nature of the violence within it.

This rather surprised me. Yes, there is some rather nasty violence in Long Reach - it is a novel about a seventeen year old going undercover within a London gang, with all the threats and murders that this would entail - but I wouldn't deem the violence to be any worse than Department 19, which is gory to the extreme in places.

But then it occurred to me that in the former example people are killing people, whereas in the latter people are killing vampires. Does the fantasy aspect of it make the violence okay? Can we therefore distance ourselves from the blood and nastiness because it isn't a "real" person.

I then wondered about Black Swan - the film about a ballerina descending into madness while she rehearsed a particular role. This film garnered a 15 certificate - but the nature of the horror was, once again, fantasy. She was dreaming her way into horrific situations. If it had been a film about a serial killer with the same horror and tenseness and nasty scenes, would it have received an 18 rating to ensure that young minds weren't terrified?

What is your opinion? Does the fantasy aspect mean that violence and horror is overlooked?


  1. I think you're absolutly right, that we imagine a degree of distance around fantasy that probably isn't helpful. There's a subtext of 'if they aren't real people, it's ok to kill them' and of course the first thing abusers, psychopaths, genocidal maniacs do, is find a way of removing personhood from their intended victims to make their actions fit this belief. Violence happens, there's no reason not to include it in stories, but we ought to be more honest with ourselves, I think.

  2. Darren Goldsmith17 March 2011 at 10:36

    Perhaps teen and YA books, like movies, should be rated? For example, the BBFC will only cut those scenes deemed to be real… i.e. it’s OK to see Arnold Schwarzenegger and Robert Patrick go head-to-head, smashing each other up in Terminator 2 because they are both cyborgs. This is partly why it was given a 15 certificate and not 18.

    Or maybe that’s a step to far?

  3. It's tricky, I think the BBFC's guidelines at least do make an official distinction between fantasy and read violence, but the way in which it's fantasy will make a massive difference.

    I still remember being horrified and repulsed by some of the (very effective) violence in Duncton Wood. That was Moles, but because the Mole's were well characterised, the horror still worked.

  4. Darren Goldsmith17 March 2011 at 10:50

    Many, many apologies for the typo! I meant 'too' far, obviously. *hangs head in shame*

    Any way of editing that?

  5. I wouldn't say that fantasy violence is okay, or even more okay, by default. Killing demons in a fantasy world can be described just as horrifically as butchering a real-world animal, after all, and humanoid beings like vampires can be sympathized with in a way because they look human, or close to it. But a lot of people give fantasy violence a bit of a brush off because there's the assumed disconnect. It's fantasy, therefore it isn't real, therefore people won't be able to relate, therefore it won't affect them as badly. But to my mind, the violence is still there, no matter who's doing it to what, and why.

  6. " Does the fantasy aspect of it make the violence okay? Can we therefore distance ourselves from the blood and nastiness because it isn't a "real" person."

    only in remote 3rd world countries do people believe that movies are real. keep something happening, violence or plot intrigue, just keep the ball rolling as best you can. if you're good at violence, write it. it's keeping a few killers off the streets, they exorcise their hate on people who are NOT REAL. help 'em out, and away from tax shelters (prison). support those book retailers!

    wasn't A CLOCKWORK ORANGE banned for some asinine reason by power grabbing short-sighted goobs in Britain? c'mon, best movie of 1971, i saw it when i was 12 and it was the coolest thing ever (until Alien). don't suppress artistic gestures of any kind is my creed. no one got hurt watching Kubrick's take on that swell book. up to the parents if they are gonna let kids watch whatever. ya know, the Avengers tv show nonchalant killing pastiche was a staple for my family when it came out. was i 5??? (yes, i'm as old as that tree over there). point is my family knew it was tv and thought me smart enough to understand the fantastic.

  7. Horror is so subjective. I am never scared when reading a book even if it's in the horror genre and there may be lots of violence, but show me the same thing on the screen and it's very different. And then you have things where one thing is horrifying to one person but nothing to another (germs, clowns, for example).

    Violence is more quantifiable, but I still feel like it's different in a book versus a movie. I also feel like.. you can always stop a book very easily when you read something you're uncomfortable with, and with a movie, you may be stuck there unless you leave, but you still see/hear more as you leave. It seems to make more sense to advise a movie has violence because of this. Books.. I think that books with violence would be written with a complexity that would appeal to a certain age and taste anyway, so just through reading ability and what a kid would gravitate to would sidestep an issue.

  8. A Clockwork Orange was pulled from screens by Kubrick himself after a similar violent incident tied to someone who saw the film. Only released after his death.

    I'm not in favour of book agony as the lines are blurred and enforcement would be weak. I wonder if Fantasy violence is more down to traditionally large groups of cannon fodder be it orcs or demons or aliens. Would this be different from smaller genres such as war or westerns? Crime fiction is probably most probe to graphic violence and that prides itself being in our world and very popular.

    The most impact I feel is on characters you have grown to care about and their pain/death is taken by a reader as 'real'. Harder to do so for random soldier x when the hero decapitated him


    '1972, Kubrick refutes the idea that one film alone can trigger violent behavior. The British press seems to feel otherwise, chronicling a series of "copycat" crimes allegedly inspired by the film. Owning the rights to the picture, Kubrick delays A Clockwork Orange's general release by a year, limiting its run to one London theater until the controversy dies down.'

    basically the world wanted to edit this thing down, he was fine with it. i was fine with it. its a wonderfully grim movie, based on an even better distopian future lambasting book.