Fantasy as Filmware: Books, Movies, and the Cinema of the Mind

With big bucks currently being rung up by not one but two fantasy movies (you know which they are), it's a safe bet that the hounds of Hollywood are even now baying through the thickets of genre, hoping to flush yet another major British fantasist out into the open. And a safer bet that most of them wouldn't know a great fantasy if it bit them.

Nevertheless, the Rowling-based movie was nowhere near as bad as it could have been, and the Tolkien-based one was a near-miracle of interpretation of the original text. So, in gratitude and recognizing that the classic problem with fantasy cinema has been off-the-rack plots ("Gimme a size seven, with a dragon, a magic sword, and a side order of dwarves!" one imagines the director barking), I humbly proffer a half-dozen source fantasies, all British and all guaranteed, in the right hands, to make everyone involved a fortune.

Michael Moorcock's "Elric" novels. Elric of Melnibone was originally written as a sarcastic antidote to Conan. A frail albino granted superhuman strength by his soul-drinking sword Stormbringer, Elric is doomed to kill everyone he cares about. The last emperor of a decadent, non-human race, he wanders the Young Kingdoms of men, seeking adventure and experiencing endless remorse for having killed Cymoril, his cousin and lover. Worse, he's sworn allegiance to the Lords of Chaos, gods in perpetual battle with Law, and they are fickle masters indeed. On the other hand, he gets to ride dragons, and slay demons.

Elric was the original broody Goth, back in the days when even women didn't wear black nail polish. Moorcock, whose career encompasses low pulp and high art, brought to these books the intelligence and sardonic edge that movie sword-and-sorcery lacks, and badly needs.

Hope Mirrlees' Lud-in-the-Mist. Here, by contrast, is a fantasy with no sword fights, no battles, and no on-stage deaths. Gore, after all, isn't everything.

Lud-in-the-Mist is a river port in a sleepy little kingdom bordering the land of Fairy. Its mercantile burghers, however, never admit to this accident of geography - the vilest name a man can be called, in fact, is "a son-of-a-fairy." But strange folk from beyond the Debatable Hills have begun smuggling fairy fruit into town, triggering an epidemic of madness and death. Chanticleer, the mayor of Lud, begins as the most complacent and conventional of men. But when his own son and daughter become addicted to the fruit and run off to that land from which no soul returns, he must rise above himself to become a true hero.

No one has ever captured so well that sense of otherworldly strangeness that is the core stuff of fantasy. No one has ever taken the reader so deep into the Elfin Marches. Mirrlees, a crony of Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot, penned a magisterial fantasy - one that starts out quietly, gets its hooks into you, and is consistently surprising to the very last page. Perfect for a director who loves fantasy but hates the trappings.

Neil Gaiman's The Books of Magic. A mysterious stranger comes to London to tell a young orphan with oversized glasses that he has magic powers and is destined, after suitable training, to become the greatest wizard in the world. Sound familiar? But Timothy Hunter is no Harry Potter - he's a slum kid with real problems and a bad attitude. In the course of growing up and coming to grips with his destiny, Tim travels to Faerie, the heat-death of the universe, Hell (where he falls in love with the girl next door), and even America. But, like so many of us, wherever he goes, he's his own worst enemy.

I should mention here that The Books of Magic are not prose texts but "graphic novels" - what we used to call comic books. There have been many movies based on graphic novels lately, and while one would like to think the producers had recognized that a young medium had come of age, it's likelier that they no longer have the attention span that a full-length novel requires. No matter. The graphic novel has come of age. This series is worthy of any number of movies.

E. R. Eddison's "Zimiamvia" trilogy. Ignore Eddison's marvelously-titled but badly flawed The Worm Ouroboros, and go straight to Mistress of Mistresses and its two prequels. This is the Middle Ages as they should have been, with men as bold as tigers and women as dangerous as goddesses (which some of them are). Everybody, with the exception of some truly glorious villains, is noble, and they all play at sexual politics on a grand scale. At one point, Lessingham, (one of the good guys) with a troop of only a hundred men, bluffs a key city into surrendering to him, and so forces an invader to sue for peace. Any other writer would have milked this for at least three chapters. Eddison skipped it entirely, and dropped the tale into the delighted gossip of the princess and her court.

It's not the heroism that matters, you see, but how the deed plays to the ladies.

The prose, lapidarian, with swipes from Jacobean and Elizabethan texts and the occasional act of near-senseless bravura (there is a 232-word sentence that compares a woman to several mountains and the dawn in order to describe the act of her nostrils hardening), might be a bit much for your average mogul. He can hire somebody to write a synopsis.

Terry Pratchett's "Discworld" series. If fantasy has one flaw, it's that it tends to take itself too seriously. For a corrective, consider these novels set in a flat, disc-shaped world resting atop four elephants which stand upon the back of the great space turtle A'tuin. In such a setting, it's hard to take anything seriously, and Pratchett certainly doesn't. A librarian magically transformed into an orangutan resists being turned back because prehensile feet are so useful in shelving. Affirmative action forces the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork to recruit gargoyles. Death rides a pale horse named "Binky."

As with all the best comedy, there's a mad logic and an underlying honesty that make these works far more than a pleasant waste of time. Even better, from a commercial viewpoint, the twenty-some Discworld books break into several different series, some featuring the formidable Granny Weatherwax and her sister witches, others the pixilated wizards of the Unseen University, others the geriatric but still dangerous Cohen the Barbarian... the list goes on and on.

Terry Pratchett is insanely popular and would bring a legion of fans into the theater. Provided only that the movie treatment is as funny as the books. Hmm. Better get him to write the screenplay.

China Mieville's Perdido Street Station. It's a little cheeky of me to declare as classic a book that only came out two years ago, but I think I'm on safe ground here. Perdido Street Station is set in New Crobuzon, a city where magic and science coexist in an uneasy, compromised manner. The hero is Isaac Dan de Grimnebulin, a fat, brilliant, impoverished researcher who's having a passionate illicit affair with a woman who has the body of whatever starlet's deemed particularly hot this week, and the head of an insect. To him comes a secretive alien (there are many alien races in New Crobuzon, and they get along about as well as you'd expect) who's had his wings ripped off as punishment for a nameless crime and wants to fly again. Isaac takes up the challenge, unaware of how dangerous his research will prove to him - and to his world.

Perdido Street Station is custom-made for a director who loves large cities for their swarming humanity, their erotic menace, and even their ugliness. Just as the book is custom-made for readers who feel the same.

I've limited this list to British fantasy, on the assumption that movie-makers would find the notion of American fantasy simply too weird to consider. But if the franchise were extended, surely it would include Ursula K. Le Guin's dragon-haunted Earthsea books. Or Fritz Leiber's scoundrel-heroes, Fafhrd and Mouser (custom-made for the auteur who'd like to outdo The Thief of Baghdad). Or Tim Powers' steampunk fantasia, The Anubis Gates. Or Gene Wolfe's (okay, it's technically SF, but who cares?) endlessly baroque Book of the New Sun. Or Leigh Brackett's delicately perverse adventure-fantasies set on a Mars that never was. Or... Well, let's stop before we get to Me.

Most and maybe all of these movies will never be made. The great works of fantasy are simply too varied a lot for an industry where ten-millions is "low-budget" to take a flyer on. But so what? These films already exist - in the theater of the mind. Open any of the works I've mentioned. Read. Imagine. Hollywood can spend as much as it likes. But the best they can hope for are images we already hold, in that space where nothing exists but the reader and the words.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick; first appeared in Washington Post

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