Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Script Frenzy: Fantasy Sucks

Let's face it, fantasy sucks. That might sound like an odd thing to say for someone who's currently writing a fantasy screenplay but, well, there it is. As a genre, fantasy literature, fantasy films, fantasy whatever is a backwater. Oh, to be sure, there's plenty of it. As an avid gamer, for example, there's no end of MMO and RPGs and others that mine that territory. Books lining the shelves in the bookstore. Since Lord of the Rings there isn't a year that goes by without some kind of fantasy film coming to the theaters. It's an expansive genre, a popular one, but not a vibrant one. Not one that really lives up to its potential.

Maybe it's because I come from more of a sci-fi background myself. But I expect something more than a retread of the Hero's Journey. Science fiction, as a genre is broad. It's used as a backdrop to tell any number of stories. You get stories about far flung empires and logical battles of wit with Asimov, you get lurid, flowing, poetic stories from Bradbury. You get cyberpunk, you get space opera, and you get dozens of tales being told about hundreds of topics. Fantasy, on the other hand, seems to be stuck trying to replicate Tolkien over and over again. You get authors churning out novel after novel of their own, pale imitation of Tolkien's richly detailed world. Volume after volume of text, divided up into multiple volumes so the authors and publishers can wring more money out of the fans.

For every R.R. Martin (And even there I'm a bit skeptical because although I liked the start of a Song of Ice And Fire about a thousand pages in I realized there's an awful lot there but not exactly a point yet. The series isn't finished so, who knows, but I think it's something that would benefit from a lot of editing. With a hatchet. Good writing bogged down by the demands of the format.) there's an Eddings or Paolini. Writers who seem to be doing nothing more than jot down their latest table top campaign. Repeating the same themes, the same concepts with their own stamp on them. Every story has a hero, every world a dark lord, there's a magical macguffin, and every place is some sort of weirdly idolized view of the world from the perspective of western medieval Europe. And the attempts to change that – to blend with another genre like steampunk or stories with a more oriental setting than the typical pastoral fare or whatever - amount to nothing more than dressing up those tropes in funny clothes and trotting them out as something new and exciting. Oh, look, it's fantasy but they've got top hats and pistols or it's about plucky young children instead of the hidden king.

I don't know, maybe I just haven't been reading the right authors and, if you've got any suggestions, feel free. But I think I've done a fair amount of sampling and searching out of these kind of tales. To be fair, there's good stuff to be found. Stories that are rewarding to explore. Authors that are invigorating to read. But it all seems to be telling the same story. Even the short stories I've seen are just trying to rehash the sense of some vague mythological fairy tale or legend (Which also applies to probably the last good fantasy novel I read, American Gods by Gaiman). It's all overwraught, overblown fap. There's no variety. There's no originality. There's no innovation. No authors trying to push the boundaries of what you can do with fantasy telling. The genre hasn't had a real giant in the field since the earliest days of the Inklings. When the modern template seems to have been set in stone.

Which seems like such a shame to me because, as a genre, fantasy has a lot of potential. Like the sci-fi it normally gets lumped at, it allows for a much broader canvas than what's currently being taken advantage of. Sci-fi, good sci-fi, works because by stepping away from the modern world it allows the author to hold up a mirror to the reader. Revealing not just the foibles of their world but something about that elusive universal human condition. At heart, it's not about the laser rays or ion trails, it's about the people. It uses the technology to pose moral questions, creating interesting dilemmas, and set novel premises in front of the characters. And through them the reader.

Fantasy can do the same thing. And the really really good stuff does. But it's mostly all concerned with the same issues of destiny and camaraderie of that heroic journey to toss a ring in a mountain top or pull a sword from a stone, whatever. The wealth and breath of humanity, the choices and problems and consequences we encounter aren't dealt with. They aren't tackled. They aren't brought to light and left up for the audience to puzzle over. Instead it's trapped in the shambling undead – the fantasy equivalent of stories about soulless robots clanking around and doing robot things disconnected from human emotion or concerns. Formalistic stories that have no impact on anyone.

To me, the central element of a fantasy story isn't about a young peasant who finds out he's got to save the world or about that group of heroes banding together to stop some evil. It's about magic. The presence of something, somewhere, somehow that transcends the normal, mundane everyday world and lets the fantastic happen. That's what fantasy can use. That's what lets it separate itself from the real world. That's what lets them hold up that mirror to the audience. The sense that there's something mystical, something out of the ordinary, something beyond the senses, on the tip of the fingers, balanced on the end the nose, in the corner of the eyes, just out of sight, just out of reach, but still tangibly there is how fantasy can explore its topics. It's the entryway past the reader's defenses that lets the author deliver their carefully coded message. They'll give the author that magic and the author can use that to create living, breathing characters. Tell cautionary tales, explore hidden and taboo themes, celebrate the human spirit or pity its weaknesses in the morals those characters relate. Ones that resonate and leave the reader better for having known them.

It could be so much better. And I wish I was a good enough writer to be able to do something with that feeling of mine. I'm not. But that doesn't mean I'm not trying with my own script. Maybe it's because I've had too many art classes. Read too many pretentious books. Maybe I'm just a little too deep into the mad spirit of the Frenzy. I don't know. But what I'm trying to do is to use those standard fantasy tropes, or at least the impression of them, to tell something different. Something more grounded and bound to the everyday concerns of the modern age.

My story isn't about gods and monsters dueling in the clouds. It's about people. People thrust into a world they didn't make and having to deal with choices they'd rather not have. Who just happen to live in a world where magic exists and can do some amazing things. But it's not a deus ex, it doesn't solve everything. It doesn't solve anything. It's just another tool, wielded the way people use swords or typewriters or anything else that helps them to shape their existence. Princesses might be saved, but the kingdom isn't. The fate of the world isn't going to come down to a swordfight. No one wiggles their fingers and gives everyone a happy ending. My favorite characters don't get on a boat and sail off into immortality. The world I'm making is going to keep spinning and the story I'm telling is just one small part of it. And I'm telling it because I think it's a story that anyone listening can find something of value in.

The world is ripe for fantasy, after all. LotR was a smash. There's a generation of children who've grown up on Harry Potter. Years ago these were the people who were raised on the pulps and serials that were transformed by the atomic age into a vital literary genre. The potential is there for someone to take the fantasy genre to the mainstream. To take it out of that stifling niche it's been trapped in for too long. And to throw open the door to experimentation, exploration, and iteration down a thousand paths from the highbrow to the low. I'm not mad enough to believe that I'll actually succeed. But I'm just mad enough to believe I have to try.

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