Fantasy Films


Much that has been written about fantasy focuses on it as a literary genre, but it can be equally applied to cinema. Although it is common to classify fantasy texts by themes and motifs or by the extent to which story-worlds and events deviate from realistic representations, Tzvetan Todorov concentrates on the response generated by the "fantastic" events in the story. In this light, fantasy must be considered not just one "mode," but three , since it creates a continuum stretching from "the marvelous" to "the uncanny," depending on the extent to which the characters and/or the reader experience feelings of awe and hesitation provoked by strange, improbable events. If the narrative's impossibility can be explained rationally or psychologically (as a dream, hallucinations), then the term "uncanny" is applied. The purely "fantastic" comes into play only during the hesitation and uncertainty experienced by the characters and/or the reader/viewer when faced with an impossible occurrence. By contrast, the term "marvelous" is applied to self-contained story worlds such as those of The Lord of the Rings or The Dark Crystal (1982), which do not ask the reader or viewer to question the reality of the story. (J. R. R. Tolkien called this "subcreation," also referred to as "High Fantasy.")

The Wizard of Oz demonstrates all three modes operating within a single fantasy. Unlike films that propose an alternate, imaginary universe as the setting for the entire tale, The Wizard of Oz frames its fantasy world with the real world of Kansas, suggesting that Oz is only a fantasy of the imagination. In light of Todorov's definitions, we can see that upon first encountering Oz, both Dorothy and the audience are operating in a "fantastic" capacity. But wonder and disbelief eventually give way to "marvelous" acceptance, and Dorothy and the audience participate in the quest to find the wizard and ultimately kill the wicked witch. While Dorothy and the audience may continue to "marvel" at the strangeness of creatures and events in Oz, it is never suggested that Oz is not actually "real" until the end, when the dream explanation shifts our understanding of the events into the "uncanny" mode. Our prior willing suspension of disbelief only adds to the impact of the final scene, when the audience shares Dorothy's consternation at being told it was all "only" a dream.

As a psychological phenomenon, the term "fantasy" refers to our unconscious desires (dreams, daydreams, wishes). For this reason, Rosemary Jackson notes that fantasy stories are perhaps the type of fiction most amenable to psychoanalytic interpretations. Although Jackson applies her analysis only to fantasy literature, it can be easily extrapolated to film. Drawing on Todorov's definition, Jackson argues that the fantastic is inherently subversive. By raising questions about reality and by revealing repressed dreams or wishes, fantasy makes explicit what society rejects or refuses to acknowledge. Indeed, to the extent that it includes the surreal and experimental, fantasy is often explicitly subversive. The original surrealists thought art should be shocking and politically progressive, and they intentionally disrupted those cinematic conventions that help create coherence and meaning for the viewer. But most mainstream fantasy films take care to adhere to the conventions of classical cinematic storytelling while constructing coherent space, time, and narrative causality. Nevertheless, horror differs from fantasy in this respect: it is a form of mainstream fantasy whose formulaic content is often examined for its subversive potential and for symptoms of a culture's repressed desires.

While horror has received much critical attention, other types of fantasy are often rejected as being merely "escapist"—a term generally associated with works of art that one is not supposed to take seriously. Most fantasy films are considered escapist because they temporarily transport viewers to impossible worlds and provide unrealistic solutions to problems. Even Jackson concedes that most fantasy is "marvelous" instead of truly "fantastic," more a matter of wish fulfillment than of challenge. Indeed, referring to The Lord of the Rings trilogy from which the films were adapted, Jackson describes Tolkien's fantasy as inherently conservative and nostalgic. With its magic, fantastical beings and clear-cut delineations of good and evil, The Lord of the Rings presents a compelling fantasy mirrored to some extent in the Harry Potter films. Many would argue that Harry Potter , like The Lord of the Rings , uses imagination to uphold rather than to transcend traditional values. Both tend to reinforce a hierarchical world based in traditional notions of morality, gender, and heroism. Both rely on a sense of mystical destiny and grace that, while not explicitly religious in nature, exhibits the strong influence of a traditional Western and Christian perspective. Both series feature a reluctant and somewhat unlikely young hero, and both offer the audience an escape into a different world where difficult problems are solved through magic as well as old-fashioned courage and integrity. The Harry Potter films differ from The Lord of the Rings trilogy, however, in pitting the viewer's own sense of "reality" against the magical world of wizards and witches.

A psychoanalytic approach to fantasy must take into account not just the psychological underpinnings of the characters but the pleasure and appeal of the story for the viewer. The most successful fantasy films provide viewers with vicarious experiences that resonate with emotional, if not physical, reality. Both Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings demonstrate the appeal of fantasy as a vehicle for wish fulfillment through their glorification of magical (hence unrealistic) solutions to serious problems. The viewer lives vicariously through the characters of Frodo and Harry, who strive to overcome the forces of evil. The psychological appeal of fantasy helps to explain the frequency of the Oedipal scenario in these types of narratives. For example, Star Wars features a classic Oedipal struggle between Luke and his father. Superhero movies also construct appealing fantasy scenarios, often starring unlikely or reluctant male heroes reminiscent of Frodo and Harry. Superman (1978), Batman (1989), and Spider-Man (2002) were popular movies that featured "ordinary" protagonists whose unremarkable talents presumably resonate on some level with most viewers. This ordinary-ness is revealed as a mere facade, however, masking the true superhuman powers of the character—another attractive problem-solving solution for consumers of fantasy.

Similarly, many recent supernatural/ghost movies also deny the reality of death by magically bringing back beloved characters as ghosts, as in Ghost and Truly Madly Deeply . A psychoanalytic interpretation of such fantasies, however, yields a more subtle interpretation. Whether or not such films are wish-fulfillment fantasies matters less than whether or not wish-fulfillment fantasies are inherently conservative. There is certainly nothing subversive about a story in which a male character wishes to become more macho (as in Spider-Man ), for such fantasies merely reinforce traditional Western ideas about masculinity, echoed in many of the fantasy films discussed here. But just because some fantasies are conservative does not necessarily mean that escapism is a worthless denial of reality and therefore of no cultural value. For example, recent melodramatic and comedy ghost films share a tendency to challenge traditional gender roles by creating passive and "emasculated" male characters ( Ghost , Truly Madly Deeply , The Sixth Sense ) who contrast sharply with the active male protagonists found in most Hollywood movies.

Regardless of whether or not these and other fantasy films are truly subversive or politically liberating, many fantasy movies provide an interlude in which viewers are invited to entertain forbidden desires and other heretofore unimagined possibilities. Thus, to draw on Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis's definition of fantasy as a psychological phenomenon, a fantasy film is thus literally the " mise-en-scène of desire," the setting whereby impossible desires may play out to their logical conclusions.

SEE ALSO Children's Films ; Genre ; Horror Films ; Science Fiction

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Fowkes, Katherine A. Giving Up the Ghost: Spirits, Ghosts and Angels in Mainstream Comedy Films. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1998.

Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion . New York: Methuen, 1981.

Laplanche, Jean, and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis. "Fantasy and the Origins of Sexuality." In Formations of Fantasy , edited by Victor Burgin, James Donald, and Cora Kaplan. London: Routledge, 1986.

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Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre . Trans. Richard Howard. Cleveland, OH: The Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1973.

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Weinstock, Jeffrey Andrew, ed. Spectral America: Phantoms and the National Imagination. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.

Katherine A. Fowkes

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