History, fantasy and cinema in the new millennium

2008-10-02 08:05

Ever since Ridley Scott's rugged and tragic Gladiator and Peter Jackson's huge Lord of the Rings trilogy hit cinema screens several years ago, there has been a rising tide of cinematic interest in films about the ancient Graeco-Roman world on the one hand and mythological and fantasy realms on the other. And although films set in historical ancient times are not the same as fantasy, they do “transport” the viewer into a time and place considerably “other” than our own.

In the historical line we have had Troy, Alexander (the Great), Kingdom of Heaven (set in the Crusades but perhaps part of the genre), the big TV series Rome and the psychedelic 300. On the fantasy side there has been King Kong, the Harry Potter series, Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Eragon, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe (from The Chronicles of Narnia - further episodes to follow?), an Icelandic Beowulf, which didn't catch on and now exciting rumblings on the Internet about The Golden Compass. This latter, scheduled for release in December this year (another Christmas treat), will be the film version of Northern Lights: the first volume of Philip Pullman's breathtaking trilogy His Dark Materials. The film promises a strong cast of glamorous and seasoned actors including the likes of Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Sam Elliot, Eva Green, Tom Courtenay and Jim Carter, plus two young newcomers to match the superb children of the Narnia film. So, for cinema goers inclined to history, costume epics and grand-scale fantasy, the last seven years have been a banquet which seems set to continue.

Those who have not yet read His Dark Materials might seriously consider doing so. Although ostensibly written for children or at least “young adults”, the books are complex, sophisticated without being obscure, painful, exciting and mind-stretching enough for most adults. The title of the trilogy comes from John Milton's Paradise Lost and every chapter of the third volume (The Amber Spyglass) begins with a short, striking, often frightening quotation not only from Milton but from William Blake, the Old Testament and many other “serious” sources. As for Pullman's “mythology”: has there ever been a more heady brew of quantum physics and parallel universes, classical mythology, so-called fairy tales and Old Testament and revelation figures and themes? Characters slide or cut their way through into other universes like and unlike this one and come back again, real witches ride the sky on, well, not broomsticks but branches of “cloud-pine”, armoured polar bears prowl the Arctic and play a crucial part in the action, angels sweep through the skies and every character has his or her daemon - a kind of alter-ego, almost an accompanying soul or slightly projected but connected self, often in animal form (although the forms change vividly with circumstances and mood). And all of that hardly begins to do justice to Pullman's magical, frightening and kaleidoscopic multiverse in which people (and other beings) sweat and bleed and often die, and loyalty and courage are in constant conflict with betrayal and viciousness. Pullman's is no comfy escapist realm. (There are excruciating scenes of children having their daemons literally severed from them by a kind of guillotine, leaving them pathetic zombies adrift in a dark dream world. And through it all the young heroine Lyra (with her musical classical Greek name) is swept along on a mind-bending odyssey through every

conceivable enchantment and horror (including a trip into the land of the dead) towards a cosmos-shaking destiny.

Tolkien himself might be (posthumously) awed by Pullman's creation. And there can be no higher praise for fantasy literature than that. And if The Golden Compass is worthy of its written source, then it will be right up there with the superb Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia.

What are we to make of this groundswell of cinematic interest in ancient or imaginary realms? Of course, the interest is nothing new. It is the scope of the resources being lavished on the genre by film companies that is interesting. Clearly, such films are huge money-spinners, but why? A superficial answer might be that people need and enjoy escapism. That might apply to some of the material in question (and, in a somewhat different geographical and quasi-historical context, one might immediately think of The Pirates of the Caribbean series, which, as outrageous, colourful, action-packed and weird as it is, cannot really be said to carry any serious “message”). Also, some of what we are examining here, such as tales of superheroes like Superman, is clearly wish-fulfilment: all the Clark Kents of the world must thrill to the sight of the nerd transformed into the conquering hero. But not all the films mentioned are merely escapist. Even Superman is vulnerable to kryptonite and Batman's Bruce Wayne comes from a traumatised childhood. Most of such stories involve agonising personal crises, choices and suffering, often terminal. Perhaps one of fantasy's chief virtues is that it allows us to face, and somehow handle, deeply problematic material from an oblique, symbolic, “safe” angle in a way that we could not easily do faced by the stark facts. We need to deal with the many bitter realities of the human condition; but it helps if the realities are slightly distanced, projected on to other “worlds” where - as in this one - great beauty and wonder walk side by side with horror and pain, but over there, at a safe distance.

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