A study of the Fantasy Genre with Alec Worley’s “Empires of the Imagination” (III)

Categorizing films of the fantasy genre – Where do fairy tale adaptations stand?

An interesting chapter from Alec Worley’s critical survey of fantasy cinema, tries to categorize fantasy films by types of story and the way they are told. Inspired by Louis Gianetti’s scale (which Gianetti described in the book Understanding Movies), Worley divides fantasy into five different sub-genres that can be categorized on a scale with expressionism at one end, and realism at the other. At the time of the book’s publication (2005), fairy tale adaptations and fantasy weren’t particularly popular, hence, I believe that the descriptions he gives of the different sub genres have somewhat changed since then. Nevertheless, they are still relevant to a certain extent and I find it interesting to see how the genre has evolved in the past decade.

The scale ranges from expressionism to realism. Worley states that at the center of this scale lies ‘earthbound’ fantasy films. These are usually set in (or have a direct connection to) a realistic world, with normal, rational characters who either intrude upon a form of magic or whose lives are disturbed by a kind of magic. “In earthbound fantasy, magical forces collide with the mundane world” (Alec Worley, pg 13). For example, in the film Big (1988), a child’s wish comes true when he magically transforms into an adult overnight; the existence of angels in City of Angels (1998), and other films such as Harry Potter, which features individuals with extraordinary power who nevertheless, reside among ordinary people in a realistic depiction of the world. Worley argues that in this form of fantasy film, the line between what’s real and what’s magical is clear and precise. However as we move towards either end of the scale, this line blurs and may eventually even disappear. Our own primary world makes way to a completely invented secondary world, whose depiction and structure will then determine wether or not the film falls into the expressionism category or that of realism. I myself found the term ‘realistic fantasy’ slightly confusing, but Worley recognizes the oxymoron nature of the statement explaining that it’s about how realistically the fantasy elements are depicted (I will explain more about this in a paragraph further down).

Fantasy Sub-Genres

According to Worley, expressionist fantasy regroups both surrealism (which is at the end of the scale) and fairy tales. Surrealism (Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929)) is about irrationality. I will discuss more about Surrealism in another post.

Therefore, fairy tales seem to fall between surrealism and earthbound fantasy. Worley argues that fairy tales are usually symbolic or allegorical (a statement that has been demonstrated by many academics and scholars) and take place in “a world that resembles our own but whose settings are usually twisted or exaggerated”. The statement is well observed; in films like Sleepy Hollow (1999) or The Brothers Grimm (2005), the action takes place in a world very similar to our own, yet somehow, it’s hard to know exactly where the scene is set or if the characters are real rational people. However looking at the many new fairy tale films which have come out recently, it feels like they don’t seem to follow this rule anymore. I would be tempted to say that they are now closer to the “realism” part of the scale rather than the “expressionism” (let’s keep in mind that the survey written by Alec Worley dates from 2005).

Realistic fantasy is not about how rational and real, magic and mythical creatures are; it’s about how believable the elements of this new secondary world are. The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) is the perfect example: the world depicted has its own history, political system, historical figures, maps which make it completely believable as another world functioning on its own. This sort of films is categorized as epic fantasy, at the far end of the scale. Between earthbound fantasy and epic fantasy lies heroic fantasy which depicts the exploits of heroes such as Hercules, Sinbad or Conan. They need to be realistic to a certain extent, and (like fairy tales) set in a world similar to our own yet slightly different and maybe exaggerated even. However they have to be closer to realism than surrealism otherwise the exploits of the heroes would have no meaning. That being said, when thinking about the latest fairy tale adaptations, it seems most of these new films would be categorized as epic fantasy rather than fairy-tales (on the scale, they seem closer to realistic fantasy than surrealism: the worlds in which they are set are really believable, there is less absurdity than other older fairy-tale adaptations used to have).

WORLEY. A., 2005. Empires of the Imagination: A Critical Survey of Fantasy Cinema from George Melies to the Lord of the Rings, McFarland & Company – I have used this book as a tool for research, I do not own anything.

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