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A portal into fantasy
on 29 September 2010
There are two sides to Katherine A Fowkes' The Fantasy Film. A chunk of the book is taken up by a very dry investigation into the genre itself, an attempt to understand it and a defence of it. Right from the off, Fowkes has to answer questions over the genre's very existence. Can a genre labelled 'fantasy' ever really exist? Plagued by hybrid classification, mainly with horror and science fiction, it's an awkward genre. All cinema that isn't based on true events is fantasy of some kind.
In its purest form a fantasy film is when the action on the screen is only taking place in the head of an individual or a collective. Dorothy doesn't really follow the yellow brick road, George Bailey doesn't really get led through an alternate reality by an angel. (And by the way, what a big head with an overinflated sense of self-importance George Bailey is.) Fowkes (and, in fairness, most right-thinking people) extend this basis to that which is impossible In The Real. The book offers a solid explanation but falls in danger of being too didactic and amorphous.
Then, just when the book threatens to become overbearing for all but the most hardcore of readers, it changes pace and offers ten case studies of films that go into detail about individual aspects of the genre. They are:
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Groundhog Day (1993)
The Lord of the Rings (2001-3)
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)
Harry Potter I-VI (2001-2009)
How much you enjoy this book will largely depend on your appreciation of the above films. These chapters are prone to not only losing touch with the genre but the medium as a whole, as you may see from a number of them deriving from literature. The list appears to respect the laws of chronology with the exception of Big. I'm not entirely sure if there's a valid reason for this. Moreover, we're denied a hefty portion of cinematic history from 1950 to 1988. Fowkes' selection is overloaded with entries from the 21st century. The 1980s were huge on fantasy and the special effects of that era were a major player in the fantasy film's development. To be honest, I would have loved this book unconditionally if it had spent a chapter discussing The Neverending Story. At the other end of the scale, it's also a shame that this 2010 release doesn't get to discuss last year's Where The Wild Things Are at all and only mentions Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland in passing as forthcoming.
I studied film during various semesters, so I approached this book as I would have back in the old university library: divulging the key points and unique angles and scanning for quotable material. Unfortunately, the most quotable lines I found were from those from others which Fowkes herself quotes in the book. This isn't to say her own ideas aren't fully formed or her writing is inadequate, far from it, it's just that finding anything that would allow me to add this to an essay bibliography was a bigger chore than I'd have cared for as a student. However, the research is of the standard that will have you seeking out the entries in the book's own extensive bibliography section.
The Fantasy Film serves as a good introduction, written with heart and soul, but by its own admission that it 'only skims the surface of a vast terrain', it doesn't make it into 'if you only ever read one book on fantasy film, make it this' territory.