When categorizing the Dark Fantastic (assuming one feels a need to do so) there are several schools in which Fantasy can be broken down.
Heroic Fantasy, as in the medieval school of knights, wizards, dragons and the like, includes the earlier primitive era of barbarians, monsters from the earth, swordsmen and witches that comprise Sword & Sorcery, another subgenre. In this I'd place Mr. Tolkien's “The Lord Of The Rings” epic, films such as DARK CRYSTAL and EXCALIBUR, and the work of Robert Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, Krull and Solomon Kane.
Dark Fantasy dips into the well of Horror but is not primarily concerned with the school of simple scares, that you'd find in a good Richard Matheson short or novels such as Mr. King's “'Salem's Lot” and “Pet Semetary”. There are supernatural elements and terrible threats, dark presences and chills, but there is more at work, a richer detailing of a universe filled with ancient menace. In this I'd include Mr. King's “The Stand” and “The Dark Tower” series, much of H. P. Lovecraft's work and Ann Rice's Vampire books.
Light Fantasy, which is what most people consider when the term “Fantasy” is mentioned, is lighter in tone than the Dark Fantastic, although it may certainly contain dark passages and danger. Still, there is a gentler mood and a sense of wonder in its magical and unusual events. In this final category I'd place “Watership Down” and “Alice In Wonderland”, movies like LABRYNTH and THE PRINCESS BRIDE, and in general much of the Faerie subject books that inhabit the SF section of the bookstore.
None of this is meant in any sense as a judgment call; one doesn't call into question quality with these labels, such as saying that Dark Fantasy is more adult and deals in deeper themes than Light Fantasy. All the subgenres contain works that are exemplary as well as mediocre, and the reader decides for him-or-herself.
Nor are many works safely niched in one slot; THE PRINCESS BRIDE, for instance, easily straddles both Heroic and Light Fantasy, being a pastiche and satire of each in its own affectionate way. “Little, Big”, one of the finest Fantasies ever put to page can move gracefully between Light and Dark Fantasy, (although as Dark as it may get, the sense of wonder and geniality never dissipates.) “Something Wicked This Way Comes” offers Horror and Terror abounding within its Dark Fantastic frame of Halloween and the larger canvas of malign supernatural powers.
This is the main reason I try to refrain from categorizing at all; categories are for librarians, frankly, and if you enjoy a book, simply enjoy it even if it's a Goth-Emo-Post Apocalyptic-Western-Love Story. (Which I'd probably truly enjoy reading…but I digress…)
Having said that, there are some books that defy any easy categorization. I applaud this; the danger in so defying becomes that these may slip through the cracks of your local bookseller's neatly ordered shelves and disappear without finding their audience. Stories that may seem supernatural in nature, but are subtle, suggesting magic is around without spelling it out completely. The setting seems realistic, but the details are wrong, heightened, intensified and colored with a palate of unusual hues. Miracles seem close at hand, and powers beyond the natural plane of existence seem to be at play.
Much of Ray Bradbury's 'realistic' stories contain these elements, particularly “Dandelion Wine”. John Nichols's “The Milagro Beanfield War”, both book and movie, are steeped in this, as is Bernard Malamaud's “The Natural”. The films of Fellini and Antonioni drip with this sense of unbalance, as does the work of Terry Gilliam at his most grounded (such as THE FISHER KING). One phrase attached to this style is Magic Realism; it is most often associated with the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as in “One Hundred Years Of Solitude” and “Love In The Time Of Cholera”.
In these tales, as fantastic as they become, the forces of Good are equally as strong as any force of Evil encountered; they may toy with humanity and can be frustratingly unhelpful, but they exist, and they keep the world from falling into chaos and spiraling into despair. Love is as strong as Death, and if it cannot conquer it, it can bring it to its own terms. Optimism is powerful, and grace is rewarded even if there is some suffering or corruption along the way. And the message is: this is an Age of Wonder. This is a Time of Greatness. Look around, continue to strive forward even if your heart is heavy, and be amazed and gratified.
Or, put more simply, in the words of Leonard Cohen: “Magic is alive; God is afoot. God is alive; magic is afoot.”
One such novel is Mark Helprin's “Winter's Tale”, recently made into a film by screenwriter/director Akiva Goldman. The book was released to almost universal critical acclaim (but was quite polarizing to individual readers; we'll discuss that in a moment) while the film was released to almost unanimous disdain, leading it to be labeled the first genuine film failure of 2014. As I mentioned on my MENU Page, I don't think the movie was quite that bad, but I do consider it a failure, and I want to discuss both for a bit, the better to quantify what this White Magic Realism is, and how difficult it is to pull off successfully.
“Winter's Tale” takes place in New York City , but a New York that has never actually existed. There are genuine details of New York : newspapers, slums, taverns, street gangs, beggars, police, thieves showgirls and millionaires. But the citizens exist in a city cut off from the rest of the world: a great white cloud wall keeps anyone from leaving or visitors from entering, except on those rare occasions when it lifts enough to let in a train or two.
Outside in the marshes of neighboring New Jersey are bands of fisherman that live a savage existence and govern themselves by a code equal parts myth and ecology. The criminal element is a lower class hierarchy that inhabits the catacombs, tunnels, towers and bridges entwining and surrounding the city, almost as a Gothic kingdom. North of the city is another land, cut off from civilization, where the hill and mountain people exist with their own sense of community and magic. And the follow the paths of several characters that make their way through this landscape that encompasses all of space and time: people are known to die and then reappear after having traveled into another lifetime.
I haven't mentioned a plot, for a valid reason; there really isn't one. The narrative leaps from one situation and character to another over years and millennia, sometimes seeming very arbitrary. In this manner it's like the best work of Dickens, with his tales of David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, and Pip. The story is an accounting of a life, from humble (or not-so-humble) beginnings to a conclusion of sorts, meandering about wherever the author wishes to take it. This is one of the biggest criticisms leveled against it from its detractors: that the novel doesn't really add up to anything other than a series of interconnected situations. It doesn't draw to a logical conclusion, but simply ends, and there's no payoff.
Others, myself included, are pulled along by the wonderful writing of Mr. Helprin; his use of poetry, metaphor and imagery. Yes, the book meanders, but to us getting there is all the fun; we relish and cherish the journey, and the way it introduces us to characters that we'll remember for a long time with great affection. In that way it's much like life itself. It shares, for me, a lot of similarities with other meandering novels recording an individual's life experiences, such as the previously mentioned “David Copperfield”, “The Life & Times Of Nicholas Nickleby”, and “How Green Was My Valley”. In each one of these there's no real single plotline; we follow along on the drama and memories of the main character. “Winter's Tale” has no main character to follow because New York is itself the main character, filled with warmth surprises…and magic to spare.
If I had to choose another similar experience, “Winter's Tale” is probably closest to the television series BEAUTY & THE BEAST. (The 1980s version, not the awful series reboot currently on the air.) That show, for those who aren't familiar, featured an underground civilization of the lost and lonely; the homeless street denizens found a sanctuary in the subway tunnels and cellars of New York , which was presented as a gleaming, glittering jeweled city. Their benefactor and protector was a lion-featured creature with the gentle voice and soul of a poet warrior, who was himself in love with a wealthy, compassionate woman from above in the city, fighting wrongs as an assistant District Attorney. It was a fine show, with much of its Fantasy delineated by Creative Consultant George R. R. Martin, the award-winning author currently represented on TV by his successful GAME OF THRONES series inspired by his novels.
Where BEAUTY & THE BEAST differs slightly from “Winter's Tale” is that the Fantasy in the television show was very overt: the population of the underground world dressed in medieval/steampunk-styled garb; there were sorcerers and phantoms, underground lakes and ships encased in rock filled with treasure, guilds of assassins and secret society. “Winter's Tale”; through it's poetic evocation of another time (the story begins in the 1900s) seems more grounded in what we'd refer to as 'reality', although it's no more real the the New York presented in the TV series. The fantastic elements blend with the mundane seamlessly, so much so that the characters in the tale don't consider or recognize the fantastic as terribly unique or unusual; one of the best-known devices of Magic Realism.
Yet the film version opts to place the story in a completely realistic setting, so that all the supernatural elements are telegraphed, and the inhabitants of New York are constantly brought up by the strange and unusual occurrences that are happening around them. This is a major departure from the book, and it ultimate denigrates what was so wonderfully amazing in the text, sublimating the greater themes and images. I don't know if Magic Realism is beyond the talents or discernment of Mr. Goldman, but he clearly didn't understand what he was working with in this instance.
Because of this we're given a very bumpy ride into a sort of modern-day Fairy Tale (note the spelling; it's deliberate) where magical things happen only to certain people, instead of all of humanity being immersed in the miraculous in their everyday lives. It shortchanges the story, taking down paths that have nothing to do with the book. This approach jettisons much of the narrative, and to compensate. Mr. Goldman must add elements that have absolutely nothing to do with the novel, introducing well-worn devices of angels and demons existing in the mortal world, and bringing in Wil Smith as the devil, a character that never appears in Mr. Helprin's work.
It focuses on the love story between Peter Lake , foundling, criminal and mechanical savant, with Beverly Penn, a lovely heiress doomed to die of consumption, who as a child proposed mathematical equations that set the universe in motion. Not an unreasonable decision; the love story does take up a good deal of the book. The problem is that in jettisoning much of the other elements of the story (the savage tribe in the New Jersey marshlands becomes a lone Native American, which negates the war between the street gangs and the tribe, which negates the motivation for criminal king Pearly Soames to want Peter Lake dead, etc., and so it goes), Mr. Goldman must create new backstories and motivation for the characters, and quite frankly he's not up to the task.
He settles back into the standard forces of Good opposing the forces of Evil in a struggle for domination, which creates a sense of conflict and menace not prevalent in the novel (where the forces of Good are so strong that we little doubt their ability to right all the might befall the innocent, no matter how tragic it initially appears) and builds towards a confrontation al climax that is pure Hollywood, not the design of Mr. Helprin. It's warmed over sketches that we've seen already in WINGS OF DESIRE and PORTRAIT OF JENNIE and HIGHLANDER and other similar explorations.
I do understand that no film can be completely line-for-line faithful to the source material; nor should it be, since the writer is working in two very different mediums. There has to be a streamlining of the plot, a condensing of action and characters, to have the movie stand on its own as a work of Art. Yet, the writer must remain absolutely faithful to the intent of the original work, or the efforts are usually a lost cause.
Some basic examples: William Goldman adapted Stephen King's novel “Misery” into a superb film. The novel is basically a two-character piece, and takes place entirely in the home of Annie Wilkes. To open the piece up visually and take it outside the house, and to provide a means for expository information, Mr. Goldman took a very minor character in the novel – a policeman investigating the disappearance of author Paul Sheldon, who literally appears towards the end of the novel just to be immediately killed – and expanded his character so that one, the exposition could be given neatly in an interesting manner and two, his death towards the end of the film has a greater shock and impact. The film remains completely faithful to Mr. King's themes and intent.
The movie JAWS differs in many ways from the book; several subplots were excised in the streamlining process. In the novel Mrs. Brody has an affair with Hooper, the marine biologist; it's gone from the film. There was a subplot of the mayor being involved with organized crime, which wanted the revenue from the open beaches. That was removed, and the mayor became simply short-sighted about the threat. Sheriff Brody and Hooper hated each other; in the movie they become fast friends. Fisherman Quint has a slightly different backstory to explain his actions; Sheriff Brody has a completely different history. Finally, the character of Hooper is changed from an unlikable individual to the charming character played by Richard Dreyfuss. It can be argued that the book was changed radically when translated to film.
And yet, the themes of the book – a town at the mercy of a brutal twist of fate, and man battling a force of nature awesome in its power – remains intact. All of the major set pieces are in the film: the attack of the young girl at night, the death of the small boy, the attempted cover-up and the pressure on the Sheriff to keep the beaches open, the discovery of the dead fisherman's craft (much more visceral in the film), the final appearance of the shark on the Fourth of July, the three men locked in a struggle of finding the shark, then battling it at sea, the final confrontation between Hooper and the shark underwater (in the original script, as in the novel, Hooper was to die, leaving Brody as the sole survivor, but due to a filming mishap while documenting genuine Great Whites, they were not able to get a dummy into Hooper's shark cage to be ravaged by the shark, so it was decided, through filmic sleight-of-hand, that Hooper would escape the cage and survive), the sinking of the Orca and the death of Quint are all on the screen. I think the streamlining did a service to the story, focusing it more and making the film more powerful than the book.
One final example from outside the genre. “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” is a celebrated novel by John Le Carre, as intricate and mesmerizing as “Winter's Tale”, concerning a “mole” (a deeply established double agent) in the British Intelligence Agency. It had been previously made as a six-hour miniseries for television, and was greatly hailed by all. The film released two years ago was also almost universally acclaimed, and was half the length of the miniseries. Obviously some streamlining of the plot took place, subplots and characters were condensed, and the entire production was imbued with a nice, jarring visceral feel, both visually and in the narrative. Yet the themes – betrayal, trust, duty, a politics of espionage and their consequences – were strictly adhered to, and the drama was carried by the fine performances of all involved (led by Gary Oldman, superb as master spy George Smiley) and the attention to period detail in recreating the Cold War period of the 1970s. No one who was a fan of the novel felt cheated at what was discarded (at least to my knowledge; I certainly didn't), and admired the effort.
Of course, “Winter's Tale” requires some streamlining, having a myriad of different characters and stories throughout its pages. But the job of the screenwriting is picking the correct stories, choosing wisely what can be kept and discarded, and tossing out only that which won't carry the weight of the tale. Any changes made must reflect a desire to be true to the original intent of the author. By ignoring the Magic Realism of the story and focusing on the Fantasy elements, Mr. Goldman is forced to create material that has nothing to do with Mr. Helprin's vision of New York as a living entity enfolding, nurturing, challenging and inspiring its inhabitants. He relies on special effects to create the magic, rather than just letting the magic speak for itself. (Indeed, the scenes that work the best in the film are the few, the very few, that are taken from the book almost verbatim.)
It is possible to work entirely through suggestion to create wonder from the ordinary. I've mentioned the filmed versions of both THE MILAGRO BEANFIELD WAR and THE NATURAL. In MILAGRO, angels dance through the town of Milagro at dusk and dawn, dressed in sombreros and ponchos of Old Mexico, forces carry pirated protest fliers into the air from their attempted burning on a trash heap and distribute them, dropping them over the town, and a bounty hunter just may be a demon in human form. No special effects were required; the events proceeded from the wonderful cinematography and ensemble performances. In THE NATURAL the primal forces are stressed by slow-motion photography, the stirring Copelandesque score of Randy Newman, and the detailed recreation of the Golden Age of the Great American Pastime (emphasis on American, the movie literally glowed with loving remembrances of small town, bustling cities, corruption and chaos of a bygone era).
Magic Realism is also prevalent in John Boorman's film of James Dickey's novel DELIVERENCE. The woods and rivers where the men from the city come to spend a weekend combating and taming nature become supernatural lands, haunted by monsters as real as any that crawled from a sulfur pit in Mordor, even though they wear human faces. The city dwellers become as committed and devoted as the most feverent ragged barbarian wanderers in a Conan saga, and the landscape is alive with the mystical forces of death, doom and despair, testing them as in any medieval quest. All of this again simply through gorgeous photography and sound and powerful performances by all.
WINTER'S TALE, the film, could have had a similar fate. Perhaps it needed a director confident in simply letting the images work their wonder, as Boorman or perhaps Kubrick would. Perhaps it needed someone like Mr. Goldman who understands subtext and suggestion (and those who've read his short film script DI VINCI in his nonfiction tome “Adventures In The Screen Trade” will understand that Mr. Goldman understands magic realism very well).
It's a great shame; moments and images in the film are indeed inspired, when the words and performances speak simply. The casting of Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe and William Hurt is inspiring in their selected roles, and each would have been so superlative that one wishes they could have played the characters as Mr. Helprin had written them. Jessica Brown Findlay is lovely enough, but she lacks the otherworldly dying beauty, wisdom and wit of Beverly Penn, although one can't tell if this is the fault of her performance or how Mr. Goldman directed and wrote the part for her.
So what is left is an expensive, special effects laden but magically barren movie that looks handsome enough at first but is essentially hollow, and not terribly memorable. The critics who dismissed it harshly referred to it in many reviews as a second-rate Fairy Tale, and upon consideration I find that not too far from the mark.
I want to touch briefly, very briefly, on one more book I've mentioned above in the realm of White Magic: John Crowley's “Little Big”. Like “Winter's Tale”, it's a large, sprawling book that takes place over generations. Unlike Mr. Helprin's novel, “Little Big” is squarely at the forefront with its Fantasy, concerning a family that has interactions with the world of Faerie. A mortl falls in love with the oldest daughter, journey's to their mysterious home (shaped from above like a pentagram, with no two walls made of the same material) and marries into a clan that includes a grandfather in the form of a mystic trout. It's charming, sad, phantasmagorical and wondrous. The late Thomas Disch, a firm critic of the Dark Fantastic genre, called “Little Big”, "the best fantasy novel ever. Period.”
Again, I don't want to go into detail about the novel; the surprises should be yours to discover. I will place it side by side with “Winter's Tale”, as many readers have, as a novel where the idea of a universe not indifferent to the individual, but nourishing, enlightening and sustaining in ways humanity can't imagine; a universe in perfect working order and benevolent, unlike many other tales of the Fantastic, from the Dark Tower series through Mr. Howard's Conan books to current television series such as THE VAMPIRE DIARIES, THE ORIGINALS and LOST GIRL. (And I would also place Madeline L' Engle's “A Wrinkle In Time” and its companion volumes on the same shelf.)
Magic Realism, the kind practiced by the finest authors from Bradbury to Borges, is not easy to achieve, But when it works well, and “Winter's Tale” works very well indeed, it offers pleasures that stay with the reader long after he's finished the final page and closed the volume. The wonder stays with you, remembered fondly, with a hope and optimism missing from darker tales.
And though I deeply enjoy a good, frightful tale, in these instances I defer to Mr. Cohen. Magic is alive, indeed…