Thursday, 7 June 2012

Fantasy Fiction: The Alternate Reality of Our Times

A special guest post by author Jason Starr.

At last year’s Comic-Con in San Diego I had the pleasure of meeting George R. R. Martin. I was introduced to him at a publishing party at a downtown bar as he was holding court to a group of admirers while double-fisting pints of lager. Later in the evening—and several pints later—my publicist from Penguin invited George to join us for drinks at the hotel bar. He eagerly accepted the invitation and off we went.

If you haven’t been to Comic-Con—think Mardi Gras with nerds, though at Comic-Con it is a major faux pas to ever, ever utter “the n word.” At night, the streets within a twenty block radius of the convention center are mobbed with revelers and, although the hotel was only about eight blocks away, the walk may have seemed a bit daunting for George—while he is quite energetic, I had the sense that he hadn’t exactly been running in many marathons lately, well at least not in the past few decades—and he announced that he wanted to take a pedicab to the hotel instead. Pedicabs, or bicycle taxis, are a common form of transportation in San Diego during Comic-Con. When we got on board with George the young, maybe twenty-five year-old driver’s eyes lit up.

“I know you,” he said excitedly with his foreign accent—later we learned he was a Turkish immigrant. “Game of Thrones!”

The driver went on raving to George, with an almost manic glee, about how Game of Thrones is his favorite show on television, and how much he loves the book and the other books in the series. George was very humble and seemed quite accustomed to the attention from random strangers, the way a movie star or superstar athlete is used to a constant flow of attention. The driver was so enthused we had to remind him that we wanted to go to the hotel. During the ride, he continued raving about what a huge fan he was and that this was the greatest night of his life. When we got to the hotel, he refused to accept payment and then gave George his business card and promised him free pedicab rides for the rest of his life.

I was amused by the interaction, but it also got me thinking about the recent mania surrounding fantasy fiction and their film adaptations. Joseph Kennedy famously once proclaimed that he knew the stock market mania of the 1920’s was reaching its peak when he received stock tips from a shoe shine boy. While I’m not equating the public’s ravenous appetite for fantasy fiction to the days before the Great Depression, nor am I predicting that the trend will come to a crashing halt anytime soon, witnessing the pedicab driver’s reaction to George R.R. Martin got me thinking about how deeply fantasy fiction has penetrated into our society. It’s certainly not unusual for the author of a book that has been adapted into a smash hit TV show to be lauded by a fan, but I wondered how many young, immigrant pedicab drivers there are who, not only would recognize an author, any author who climbed into the back of their bike, but who have actually read all of the author’s books? Granted, this was at Comic-Con, a giant fish bowl of pop culture lunacy, but perhaps when pedicab drivers start recognizing fantasy novelists it is a sign of a much larger phenomena.

There is no doubt that in recent years fantasy-based stories have been dominating the world of books and films and TV, as well as comics and video games. A slew of blockbuster fantasy films and TV shows have hit the big and little screen, many based on bestselling novels. Of course the likelihood of a successful film adaptation increases significantly if a book is a huge seller, but there are many bestselling novels that are never filmed, and there are also very few accidents in Hollywood. Before studios put up the huge sums to finance productions of big budget films they do their due diligence, including widespread market research campaigns, and they always end up backing the most potentially commercial projects. In other words, the public usually gets what it wants, and the fact that Hollywood has been choosing fantasy-based novels for adaptation is a good indication of the public’s psyche. 

The current trend of fantasy adaptations probably began with the Harry Potter books and the subsequent hit adaptations, and the Lord of the Rings blockbusters. But it seems as if the trend really took off and solidified in 2008 with the huge successes of the Twilight books and movies, as well as the True Blood TV show, based on Charlaine Harris’ bestselling novels. The successes of these franchises spawned many other adaptations with somewhat derivative themes, including the The Vampire Diaries and Teen Wolf TV shows. During the same period, in the book world, fantasy fiction has gained popularity, dominating bestseller lists. Books such as Jim Butcher’s Harry Potter meets Raymond Chandler Dresden series gained legions of fans and romance-based fantasy novels, by writers such as Laurell K. Hamilton and Heather Graham, have been particularly successful. Hamilton also started a successful comics series for Marvel and True Blood has been adapted as hit comic book for IDW. Lately, novels on the darker side of the fantasy genre have garnered a lot of attention, most notably Justin Cronin’s apocalyptic vampire saga The Passage, in development as an epic film to be directed by Ridley Scott.

While it’s no accident that Hollywood has chosen to adapt so many fantasy novels lately, it’s also no accident that authors are choosing to work in the genre. Few writers consciously write to trends, mainly because this rarely works. Most trends are fleeting, and during the time it takes to write a book, the trend is usually over, overtaken by a new trend, making the whole idea of chasing trends inherently counterproductive. In the end, most authors write what they want to write, what captures their imagination, and their themes and choice of subject matter often reflect what is culturally relevant. Thus it’s not surprising that many writers—including myself—have crossed over recently from other genres to write fantasy fiction. After all, authors are also readers, and we are attracted to the same themes and storylines that have fascinated the general population.

The trend in fantasy fiction indeed feels different from other literary trends of the past ten years such as, say chick lit and Marley and Me-esque dog memoirs. There is an enthusiasm for fantasy fiction, an almost unprecedented passion, that is perhaps best exemplified by the rabid mania of Twilight fans and True Blood fanatics who would gladly save all their blood for Bill, that brings up comparisons to Beatlemania and Justin Beiber fanaticism. If you have ever seen one of the Twilight films in a movie theater and heard the screeching wails from the audience when Taylor Lautner heroically takes his shirt off you know exactly what I’m talking about (in fact, Twilight has singlehandedly turned one of the classic cinematic devices—the gratuitous topless shot—inside out; it used to be girls who took their shirts off in movies, but now it’s the guys). While the major fan base for romantic and erotic Vampire-based tales may be largely female, the stories have resonated throughout generations—from older readers to teenagers, and the impact has been so widespread that at times it feels less like a trend and more as a symptom of a larger cultural revolution.

It’s no accident that mania surrounding fantasy stories is happening today, at this point in time. During periods of great economic hardship, people always seek out escapist entertainment. In the midst of the Great Depression romantic comedies were the public’s great cinematic escape. On the fiction shelves during the same period, adventure novels, and crime and detective fiction gained prominence. People were attracted to these stories because they provided a gateway to reprieve from the hardships of everyday life, a way to temporarily get away from the headlines about failing banks and soaring unemployment. Now, during our so-called Great Recession and the aftermath, people also want to escape. Thrillers and adventure stories and comedies will always have their legions of fans, but right now fantasy tales involving vampires, werewolves, zombies, fairies and other otherworldly creatures are our great collective escape, our alternate cultural reality. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Twilight and True Blood became runaway hits in 2008, a year after the stock market collapse. In 2008, trying to decide whether you were on team Jacob or team Edward was a much more pleasant dilemma than having to think about whether you were going to have to foreclose on your house.

While fantasy fiction has existed since the beginning of fiction itself and the desire for the ultimate escapist tales will always exist, all cultural trends, even the far reaching ones, eventually subside. But for the foreseeable future fantasy is the escape that the public wants, that the public needs, and you can experience the proof in movie theaters, on television, and in bookstores all across the world, not only on the streets outside Comic-Con.

 © Jason Starr

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