AIDAN MILAN AND ROWAN FREWIN
A couple of weeks ago at Shark Week (a weekly radio show where we discuss film and TV) we had an episode in which we talked about all things fantasy, from Lord of the Rings to Howl’s Moving Castle and Labyrinth. But we all love fantasy so much that two hours wasn't enough and we've decided to share some more insight with you, the lovely readers of Le Nurb! And, if you like what you read, don’t forget to tune in to Radio Brunel for Shark Week every Tuesday night at 9pm to 11pm.
Another Reason Why the 1980’s Were Awesome - Aidan Milan
Often, fantasy gets a bit of a bad rap from people who think the genre caters only to neck beards (for lack of a better term) who live in Mom’s basement and have an unhealthy obsession with scantily clad animated women. Fortunately, these people are wrong. Fantasy, especially films that came out of the 1980’s, are for anyone who wants to escape for a couple hours and go someplace magical. A place where a young and beautiful David Bowie struts around in leggings, kidnaps babies and sings about how angsty he is; where a pre-Christian-science Tom Cruise can defeat an all-powerful evil; where a little boy can open up a book and save a whole world. Judge me if you will, but these movies captured my imagination as much, if not more, than Disney ever did.
Although one can easily see why the fantasy genre has perhaps a slightly bad reputation. For starters, there are a few too many occasions when the film adaptations of fantasy novels don’t live up to expectations. For example, if you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to have seen Stefen Fangmeier’s embarrassingly bad ‘Eragon’ adaptation, then you’ll be just as grateful as I am that it has faded into obscurity. But then there’s Peter Jackson’s indomitable adaptation of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy; which proved to modern mainstream audiences that the fantasy genre was worth their time. But sadly, even after the success of LOTR, book to movie adaptations of fantasy need to be approached with caution.
Admittedly, the female characters often leave a lot to be desired, except in the case of their clothing (or lack of). You’re lucky if one woman per film shows herself to have any form of independent though or substantial backbone. However, with this in mind, some of the best fantasy films of the 80’s have very important things to say about gender. By which I mean the female protagonists are portrayed as actual, real people; and not ethereal, idyllic damsels in distress or nearly naked ‘soldiers’, representing an over-sexualised parody of masculinity.
One of my all-time favourites, ‘Labyrinth’, follows the initially annoying Sarah on a fantastical coming of age tale as she solves the Goblin King’s labyrinth to save her brother. Pretty much everything about Sarah’s character development is on point. We see her grow from a petulant child into a person who is smart and capable enough to challenge David Bowie and win. This film is wonderfully unique in that it shows young and impressionable viewers that you don’t have to settle for the first handsome, flirty, sparkly royal who comes along and kidnaps your brother.
What I’m trying to get across here is that even if the genre isn’t perfect, there is so much to be said for good fantasy films, and there are some real gems out there. My top recommendations are Labyrinth, Legend, The Dark Crystal, and The Princess Bride. Don’t knock it till you try it!
Escapism in Portal-Quest Fantasies - Rowan Frewin
Fantasy has always been something that I love. I can vividly remember taking The Hobbit out of the library when at primary school, receiving The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe as a Christmas present, and curling up and reading The Phantom Tollbooth whenever I got ill. And this is the same for many people - whether you’re a lover of Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings or a Pratchett fanatic or maybe an avid watcher of anime. In particular, it was in my low moments when fantasy was the greatest comfort, and this is because of the powerful escapism it provides.
Escapism is a central element to fantasy’s broad appeal to adults and children alike, and one particular branch of fantasy that creates the strongest sense of escapism is the portal-quest fantasy. In her 2008 book Rhetorics of Fantasy Farah Mendelsohn breaks the fantasy genre into different categories, including the portal-quest, which she describes as: “simply a fantastic world entered through a portal... Crucially the fantastic is on the other side and does not leak. Although individuals may cross both ways, the magic cannot.” This definition can be used to describe many well-loved fantasy creations, from Alice in Wonderland, to Stardust, and Spirited Away, and possibly the most iconic example, C.S Lewis’ Narnia.
In such works we see the central characters go on a journey from the mundane to the fantastical, and in the process learn something about themselves and I think it is through the changing of characters that we buy into these stories. We join them on their journeys of self-discovery, empathise with them, and experience how these new worlds change them. Mendelsohn asserts “The portal-quest allows and relies upon both protagonist and reader gaining experience.” For example, at the beginning of Spirited Away, Chihiro is somewhat spoilt and unlikeable, but after her adventures at the magical bathhouse she becomes a confident, independent character who we empathise with, having grown with her.
The primary role of characters in these stories is to help to create the sense of escapism. In other fantasy the characters function as archetypes used to tell a story but in portal-quest, the character becomes the eyes through which we escape into this world. While immersive fantasies set in a completely new world certainly offer escapism in their own right, I feel that the possibility of escaping from everyday life to something magical resonates with people. This is why, for me, reading about Gaiman’s worlds beneath London or beyond village walls brings me the same sheer joy and excitement that watching Spirited Away or The NeverEnding Story did for me as a child. I think the latter exemplifies the feelings portal-quest creates beautifully. We as a reader or viewer inhabit the same space that Bastian does, becoming immersed in a new world as we see through the eyes of a character and accompany them on their journey.