The Thunder Child

Science Fiction and Fantasy
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Vol 1, Issue #3
"Stand By For Mars!"
March 2006

Non-Fiction Book Reviews
by Reed Andrus

Empires of the Imagination: A Critical Survey of Fantasy Cinema from Georges Melies to The Lord of the Rings
by Alec Worley
McFarland Books

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Reviewer Reed Andrus is a long-time fan, collector, and reviewer/interviewer of all things associated with science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mystery/thriller media, both printed and filmed. For more than three decades, his work has appeared in various locations including the Charlotte Austin Review, Mystery News (, and now The Thunder Child. He currently resides in Plano, Texas, near completion of a Ph.D in US history at the University of North Texas.

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Presenting oneself as a critic of fantastic literature and/or film to the ravenous consumers of such outre media can be a very dangerous undertaking. Most self-proclaimed critical analyses of film and literary genres are self-defeating insofar as they require auctorial establishment of a straw-man argument to build upon or to destroy ? an interpretation based on the critic?s personal definition of a given topic that can be immediately contested by readers, viewers? and other critics. Several forests have been denuded in order to produce enough paper to hold the numerous definitions of the terms ?horror,? ?science fiction,? and ?fantasy? as they apply to literature and film.

Science fiction author Brian Aldiss once brushed aside this war of words by presenting his personal definition of science fiction as ?anything you find on the library shelf labeled ?Science Fiction.?? Authors/editors John Clute and John Grant, forced to define genre and sub-genres in their massive Encyclopedia of Fantasy, opted for the broadest definition possible:

A fantasy text is a self-coherent narrative. When set in this world, it tells a story which is impossible in the world as we perceive it; when set in an otherworld, that otherworld will be impossible, though stories set there may be possible in its terms.

Clute and Grant do, however, separate ?fantasy? from ?science fiction? and ?horror?, the former being differentiated as a structure -- stories that are ?written or read on the presumption that they are possible, if perhaps not yet; and the latter describing stories that produce an effect rather than a separate structural motif.

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Too much of this pedantry threatens to create a glassy-eyed audience. Thus, numerous tactics are employed to move beyond the introductory stage and into the body of a given work. Horror film expert Tom Weaver eschews use of broad definitions and generalizations about his beloved genre in order to target specific films within specific sub-categories of that genre. Within the context of Poverty Row Horrors!, for example, Tom discusses and dissects individual horror films released by three minor Hollywood production companies between 1940 and 1946. Weaver?s primary assumption ? and one he expects readers to agree with ? is that each of the films in question contain some degree of horror, regardless of how that term is defined. Bill Warren takes a similar approach in Keep Watching the Skies, his seminal two-volume compilation and examination of American science fiction films released between 1950 and 1962.

The depth and breadth of Alec Worley?s recent study of fantasy films, ranging as it does from 1895 to 2003, is, however, so expansive that the author must of necessity take on the task of building a suitable definition around which to construct the ensuing chapters in his book. He opens with a rather disingenuous comment ?Defining fantasy is difficult,? and then proceeds to set up his own definition in the space of just a few pages. He separates fantasy films from science fiction and horror counterparts with a rather glib statement that ?fantasy films attempt some form of healing, whether the psychic wound of a hero or an entire land crippled by dark sorcery.? He gives a nod to John Clute?s definition, but prefers to establish his own working hypothesis based on Louis Gianetti?s linear scale of film categorization that places Expressionism on one end and Realism on the other. Within this context he subdivides fantasy films into five different categories ? Surrealism, Fairy Tale, Earthbound Fantasy, Heroic Fantasy, and Epic Fantasy ? then proceeds to define each category through discussion of what he considers representative example films moving chronologically between 19th and 21st centuries.

Once Worley?s definitions and subdivisions are in place in Chapter One: Locating Fantasy, the author moves quickly to and through Chapter Two: The Birth of Fantasy Cinema, in which he expends a small number of pages praising Georges Melies. Worley equates Melies? work with the Expressionism end of Gianetti?s scale, noting that ?story meant little to Melies; narrative was merely the glue holding together a parade of tricks.? As the 20th century moved forward, Melies? brand of fantasy cinema was rejected by increasingly sophisticated movie viewers who preferred more realism mixed with fantasy. Thus, the overwhelming bulk of Worley?s book concentrates on the last four sub-categories listed above, as described in Chapters 3 through 6.

Chapter 3 is devoted to Fairy Tales, ?the most unrealistic form of fantasy? [which] ? unlike epic fantasy? do not affect the land so much as those within it.? This broad definition naturally results in a broad array of examples ranging from various manifestations of L. Frank Baum?s Wizard of Oz to creations of the Walt Disney empire to specialty productions released by British, European, and other foreign cinematic leaders. Worley?s criticism is both expansive and constrictive as he introduces each example film ? some examples suffer the limited criticism of a single derogatory adjective, while the author engages his readers with others through two or three thickly-written paragraphs. As readers of this book begin to suss out Worley?s style and method, it becomes clear that he does play favorites, but due to the sweeping chronological nature of this particular beast, most of the author?s criticism is light and superficial. Worley does, however, stop to make the connection between ever-changing technology and audience appeal, warning that too much of the former could damage the latter: ?? fairy tale film now has the opportunity to launch new and even more penetrating explorations of Faerie, but must resist the temptation to abandon itself entirely to its pleasures. At present, the only certainty is that, happily or not, fairy tale film will live digitally ever after.?

Chapter 4 is entitled This Magic Earth, or Earthbound Fantasy, which is ?? easily the most numerous of fantasy films since their mundane settings are easiest to produce describes fantastic occurrences set in the world that we inhabit.? Another name for this category is ?magic realism? insofar as it encompasses all manner of fantastic impact on our real world. Worley is skeptical about using this descriptor ?since it has become a euphemism for those who dislike the term fantasy.? It is the midpoint in Gianetti?s scale.

Within this motif, author Worley includes:

1) Visitors from Beyond ? angels, devils, pagan and Christian gods, and even imaginary friends such as Harvey, the eponymous pooka;
2) Magical Artifacts ranging from ?a gargoyle-killing Tibetan dagger? featured in Jackie Chan?s ?dismal? The Medallion, to the enchanted crab used by Sarah Michelle Gellar in Simply Irresistible, to the self-empowered Volkswagen in Disney?s The Love Bug and associated spin-offs;
3) Bodyswap films such as Big, both versions of Freaky Friday, and especially Being John Malkovich;
4) the introduction of Fantasy Creatures into our mundane world, creatures such as mermaids (Miranda; Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid; and Splash are given several paragraphs, while smaller films such as Curtis Harrington?s Night Tide are ignored); talking mules (the Francis films, described as ?one funny joke? pounded flat by the rightfully loathed series.? By the end of which series, says the author, ?audiences were praying for Francis in the Glue Factory); leprechauns (Darby O?Gill, Finian?s Rainbow, and the Warwick Davis horror series); and ghosts.

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Worley makes some strange distinctions in this last sub-category, claiming that ?the degenerative spiral? of The Others defines it as a horror film, while the ?optimistic healing arc? of The Sixth Sense identifies it as fantasy. By this definition, film versions of Dickens? A Christmas Carol fall into the fantasy bucket despite the presence of multiple (possibly threatening) spectres.

r Change Catch-All MailCentral Manage Spam Filter POP Mail Domain Add Registered Domain to Account Custom DNS Record Domain Central Domain Pointing Manager Registrar TranThe author continues to add sub-categories to this already unwieldy chapter, including commentary on Lost World Fantasy (She, Brigadoon, Big Trouble in Little China and Field of Dreams, among others); Time-Slip Fantasy (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur?s Court, Time Bandits, Army of Darkness), and concludes with Witches and Wizards Fantasy (I Married a Witch, The Witches of Eastwick, The Green Mile, and the Harry Potter series). As with the other chapters in this book, Worley offers no conclusions or summary about the sub-category; the chapter merely ends.

sfer The sub-genre tackled in Chapter 5 ? Heroic Fantasy ? ?crystallized as a literary form in dustbowl America,? as a creation of prolific pulp author Robert E. Howard. This sub-genre?s chief convention is ?its endorsement of a superhuman central character? who is mainly concerned with ?magic and mysticism,? leaving pseudo-scientific rational to science fiction. The primary world of fantasy superheroes adhere to some degree to the laws of realism, i.e., physics, but are ?necessarily less detailed than those of the epic fantasy.?

Subdomain Pointing Manager Account Information Billing Console Change Account Info Change E-Mail Addresses Change Password Manage Subscriptions Resend Account Info Set Security Question E-Commerce PowerPay - Accept Credit Within this self-evident milieu, viewers find such films as the Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man series, James Bond, The Lone Ranger, and the peplum (men in skirts)/sword-and-sandal mini-epics such as the Hercules and Maciste variants. The Sinbad archetype qualifies for his own sub-category, anchored primarily by Ray Harryhausen and Charles Schneer?s multiple stop-motion extravaganzas. And finally, Worley pays a very strong tribute to Barbarian Swordsmen in the form of Conan the Barbarian, a film which ?stands as a benchmark for heroic fantasy and the numerous copycat movies generated by Arnold Schwarzenegger?s ham-fisted portrayal of Robert E. Howard?s principal creation.

The Indiana Jones trilogy qualifies for inclusion, according to the author, along with Alan Quatermain, The Shadow, Brendan Fraser?s fortune hunter Rick O?Connell in The Mummy, Angelina Jolie?s interpretation of video game heroine Lara Croft, and Dwayne Johnson (The Rock) in The Scorpion King. Of all the sub-categories of fantasy, author Worley is least inclined to cut Heroic Fantasy a break. He claims the future of this motif is questionable, that despite the construction of a solid foundation with Conan the Barbarian, ?the archetype?s breakthrough movie has yet to be made.?

Worley?s final sub-category, explained in Chapter 6, is Epic Fantasy which ?has its roots in literature just as much as fairy tale.? This sub-genre embraces settings in historical, modern, and space age environments, but all ?seek to recreate mythic stories.? All other facets of film-making ? characterization, directorial expression, screenwriter bias ? take a backseat to the personality of the world in which the fantasy is played out. According to the author, a defining characteristic of an epic fantasy is ?its vulnerability;? ultimately, the entire imagined world ?will be threatened with some kind of diminishment or a fall into entropy.?

Worley goes back to silent film days to include Fritz Lang?s Metropolis and Die Nibelungen, and is really hard-pressed to find a wide range of examples in the following decades. Forced to include such questionable films as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Sir Walter Scott?s Ivanhoe and other ?Arthurian Westerns? such as The Black Knight (in which Tony Curtis voices the priceless Brooklyn-tinged dialogue, ?Yondah lies da castle of my faddah?), Worley must jump all the way to 1967?s Camelot before regaining control of his subject matter.

Harryhausen?s Clash of the Titans, John Boorman?s Excalibur, and Disney?s Dragonslayer match up with Jim Henson?s The Dark Crystal, various Robin Hood renditions, and finally, the penultimate, ?sui generis? magnum opus that is Peter Jackson?s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Worley spends several pages discussing all the attempts to translate J.R.R. Tolkien?s vision to the screen. He is particularly critical of Ralph Bakshi?s interpretation, which ?never connects with Tolkien the way Jackson?s do.? But even Peter Jackson?s effort was a gamble. According to Worley, it is difficult to predict the impact of The Lord of the Rings ?without the digital-age revival of both the historical epic under Ridley Scott?s Gladiator and of bespectacled nerd culture in general under the Harry Potter phenomenon.

There is no real conclusion or summation of his findings other than what is stated in his Preface ? with this book Worley intends to address the ?absence of any comprehensive critical survey of fantasy cinema.? He contends that ?serious criticism of fantasy cinema is astonishingly lacking;? and claims that fantasy cinema has been ?ghettoized.? Now, he says, is the time ?for the genre to raise its wings and tear off its disguise. This is a genre fuming with potential.? One can almost hear an angelic choir or Orcish chant thrumming in the background.

To his credit, Worley steeps his fantastic brew in literature, providing a wealth of background information for most, if not all, of the films he uses as examples in this survey. He contributes solid material that will be of value not just to film fans and/or academic wannabes, but also to students of fairy tale, ancient mythologies, pulp fiction, and Joseph Campbell/J.R.R. Tolkien mythic interpretation.

Cards ShopSite Scripting and Add-Ons CGI and Scripted Language Support Enhanced Script Library Form Builder InstallCentral Manage MySQL Marketing Services Community Toolbar Google $50 AdWords Credit Marketing Guide WebSite Grader Yahoo! Sponsored Search Credits YellowBrix While this book does not tip completely into the realm of academe replete with arcane footnotes, the author does provide a small bibliography from which interested readers can delve, and perhaps most important, an extensive index that allows immediate access to specific films. In addition, he pays serious homage to technological advancement in film-making ? he is no enemy of Computer Graphic Imaging (CGI) that infests films of recent vintage ? including discussion of the use of puppetry, Muppetry, stop-motion animation, roto-scoping, and outright animation (not necessarily in that order).

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