Why is the Fantasy Genre So Popular?
I was watching an episode of The Trews recently during which Russell Brand mentioned that the most popular movies at the box office last year were mainly science fiction or fantasy. He had some thoughts on why this was so and then proceeded to talk about escapism, personal faith and spirituality. Now I didn’t necessarily agree with all his points and I don’t believe in his views on higher powers but I did concur with some of his ideas discussed. As a result of the subject being raised, I have pondered of late why the fantasy genre seems to dominate cinema (and television), literature and gaming. Is it simply a case of providing a narrative vehicle that is universally flexible and accommodating, or are their deeper psychological and sociological reasons.
First off, escapism is perhaps the most obvious factor to consider when exploring the fantasy genre. It provides narratives that you can immerse yourself in, with its universal themes and conventions. In an age when people work long hours within an increasingly complex world, the notion of escapism as a means of relaxation seems eminently practical. A few hours spent in an MMO or watching Trollhunters on Netflix allow us to forget the rigours of the day and the iniquities of our place of employment. Losing yourself in a good book can have great restorative powers. I can think of several occasions during difficult times in my life in which a solid fantasy novel has allowed me to rest and maintain my emotion stability.
Yet escapism is not always a good thing, particularly if the respite it provides then becomes a crutch or worse still, an escape from reality and the problems one faces. Alcohol, drugs and the like can offer escapism to a degree and if their use is tempered with moderation, then they can be beneficial. Sadly an excess of these is far from good. The same can be said about spending large amounts of your time in a game, if it is done to the detriment of other aspects of your life. I remember as a teenager, how I use to struggle to do all the things I wished and would find myself getting up incredibly early to watch movies I’d rented from Blockbusters, yet had failed to because I’d been out socialising instead. Such habits were naturally unsustainable.
Another interesting facet of the fantasy genre is that it provides a means to process difficult subjects, that we may well avoid or recoil from in real life. Couching complex social issues or problems in a fantasy setting and exploring them via proxies that may have skills and abilities beyond that of mere mortals, can make the bleak, the abhorrent or even the tragic more palatable. A Monster Calls which is currently on release in cinemas is effectively just a tale of a boy having to come to terms with imminent death of his Mother. A difficult subject to be sure, yet the visually expressive way the film explores the story, via the use of allegory, helps audiences connect to the central themes.
Fantasy also offers us the opportunity to envision aspirational worlds that are better than the one we currently inhabit; worlds where deprivation and suffering are no more and people can meet their full potential. I believe a certain Gene Roddenberry may have had some views on this. Fantasy can also provide a virtual environment in which different social, political and philosophical models can be tested and explored. Within gaming, the genre brings likeminded individuals together and helps form communities. Charitable events such as Child’s Play have their roots in such groups and can do a lot of good in the real world. Fantasy can be a means to unite people, especially those who may find themselves marginalised in real life. It can bring a sense of belonging to those who may not feel that way already.
However, it would be foolish to only focus on the positive aspects of fantasy. We should at least consider other reasons for its popularity. As mentioned earlier, we live in an increasingly complex world. The pace of change has accelerated in the last thirty years and many of the social conventions and institutions we look to for stability have proven unsure. Life for some at present is unequal, highly fluid and bleak. Fantasy offers a means not just of escape but to refute the failings of a world we cannot control. Then of course there is the concept of “bread and circuses”. Are certain establishments happy to see the wider population immerse themselves in non-existent worlds and stories, thus allowing the status quo to be perpetuated and abuses of power to go unchecked?
Not all popular fantasy tales offer positive visions or foster egalitarian principles. The writings of Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft and John Norman however entertaining are somewhat dated in social and political terms. Many RPGs and MMOs are still accommodating to those who wish to indulge in stereotypical power fantasies. Equality in terms of race, gender and sexual orientation are still sadly lacking. It can also be argued that the very communities that are allegedly so beneficial can become echo chambers and inwardly facing pockets of elitism. Fans of fantasy are not always associated with positive social interaction. Consider gamergate and the recent outrage against the Ghostbusters remake.
For me the most interesting theory regarding the popularity of fantasy in the twenty-first century is the idea that it is a surrogate for religion and a variation of personal faith. Traditional religion has certainly declined in the UK and parts of Europe, yet many still yearn for a sense of spiritual growth and fulfilment. Fantasy can provide a framework of similar ideas to Christianity, without the need to embrace more difficult theological concepts and requirements. Within gaming our avatars can at times be presented with opportunities to be virtuous, that we may not have in real life. We can have a positive impact upon our fan communities, help others and feel we are empowered and making a difference. Are these not fundamental tenets of faith and evangelising? The parallels between religion and fantasy are many and whatever your perspective the subject is intriguing.
Like most rhetorical questions of this kind, there isn’t a single definitive answer. For me fantasy provides a platform for films, games and literature to explore beyond the confines of the real world. Those who create within such parameters to be bold and visionary, unconstrained by the rules of physics. Yet fantasy as genre does have its weaknesses. Narrative conceits such as “Deus ex machina” and predestination paradoxes can be very lazy and such a cop out. However overall I think there is a link of some sorts between the popularity of fantasy and the current political climate in the western world. Epic tales are often about restoring that which is lost or righting a wrong. These are questions that we are searching to resolve in our lives at present, yet seem to be failing to achieve. Perhaps we look to fantasy for potential answers? Who can say? May be in the future we will look back upon these times with a clearer understanding.