broken swordWhen magicians are omnipotent there is no magic. Heroes need a flaw and the chance to fall or there is no story. Complete plenty eliminates desire, and when everything is visible imagination dies.

So I mused on exiting the cinema with my children after watching The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. On the release of the first film I was excited to see Narnia come to life. I was delighted to step through the wardrobe with Lucy. I was thrilled with how the sorcerers of modern technological had summoned up naiads and dryads, centaurs and minotaurs, dwarves, unicorns and every other marvelous and magical beast from Narnia. I was sure C.S.Lewis would have been amazed and delighted and enchanted to see his world come to life.

However, on the third cinematic outing to Narnia I began to feel jaded. Perhaps I simply had had a glut of the impressive artificiality of computer animation. Maybe I had witnessed too many explosions, endured drama with predictable plot lines and flat dialogue that was bloated with whizz bang camera angles and a swooping orchestral scores. It could be that I had gasped at too many mythical monsters and handsome heroes. Maybe I was suffering from fantasy film overload. The spell was broken. I was disenchanted.

So I asked my thirteen year old son what he thought of the movie. “It was okay I guess, but they’re all the same.” Yes. Here be dragons. Too many dragons. Here be heroes. Too many heroes. Here be witches. Too many witches. Here be wizards. Too many wizards. Here be marvelous, magical, mythical, mysterious, movies. Here be fabulous, fun and frightening fantastical films. Too many of them. Harry Potter. Seven. Narnia. Three so far. Lord of the Rings. Three big ones. Two to come. King Arthur and Camelot. They keep coming. The Titans. Trash. Stardust. More dust than star. Train Your Dragon. Trite. Labyrinth. Labyrinthine. Never Ending Story. Never Ending Stories.

And this is the problem: our appetite for entertainment is greater than the capacity of the movie makers. There are only so many ways to tell a story. There are only so many monsters, magicians, witches and wizards. My son was right. They’re all the same. There is nothing wrong, of course, with a story being re-told. The greatest stories demand re-telling. But our culture does not tolerate repetition. We want something new each time, but because the stories are ‘all the same’ the only way to satisfy the entertainment addict is to make the kick a bit sharper. The action sequences have to be even bigger and more amazing. The special effects must be even more eye popping. The explosions must be louder, longer and more spectacular in order to keep the attention of the bored popcorn munching pups.

And still the entertainment-addicted pup-ulation demands more. We stare at screens constantly. Movies and television are watched on every laptop, tablet computer, cell phone and gadget. The motion picture mega monster is ubiquitous, and children’s fantasy is one of its mainstays. Has Hollywood’s love for children’s fantasy furthered the cause of children’s literature or destroyed it altogether?

In commercial terms, Hollywood’s love for children’s fantasy has helped. The production of children’s fantasy books has never been stronger. While much that is produced is disposable rubbish, much else is clever, imaginative, profound and astonishing in its beauty. Movies have helped make children’s fantasy literature more popular than ever, and children, the proponents argue, really do curl up with a good book as a result of watching the movie.

Or do they? Too often the movie takes the place of the book, and when this happens there is a curious change of direction and affection. The dynamic of interaction is totally different when viewing a film as opposed to reading a book. When we watch a film we are drawn into a sympathetic relationship with the hero. We go on his adventure with him and identify visually and emotionally with his doubts and fears, joys and sorrows, conflicts and triumphs. The transaction is a dramatic one, through which I vicariously share in the hero’s quest.

The experience, however, is imaginatively passive. That is to say, the imagination is dormant. Everything is provided on the movie screen, and the viewer’s imagination lies on one side unused. When I went to Narnia through a book, a part of my own life was engaged at an even deeper level than simply going on the quest with the hero. My imagination made the book come to life in a mysterious and marvelous process. What happens when we read a fantasy story is that the author communicates from his imagination to my imagination, and the details that I fill in are furnished from my own store of memories, visual images and mentally recorded experiences.

stone tableSo, for example, C.S.Lewis may describe Aslan’s great stone table in great detail, but as he writes he may be summoning up a whole scene based on the ancient standing stones and prehistoric shrines of Ireland. There is more—far more—in his whole imagined scene than he can possibly describe. When I read his account, however, I meld together with his descriptions what I know and have seen and experienced of stone tables, lions and hilltops. My imagination, memories, images and experiences are not those of an Oxford don born at the end of the nineteenth century in Northern Ireland. My imagination is fed by the experiences of an American man born in 1956 in Pennsylvania. Therefore my imagination, while reading the book, will be uniquely my own. Not only have I gone on the quest with the hero, but I have gone on a quest with him in an imaginative world that only I know and understand fully.

This exciting and intimate alchemy of the imagination is missing in the film experience of a fantasy story. Instead of my imagination being engaged in a unique relationship with the imagination of the author, everything is provided for me by the intermediary–the film director. My imagination is unnecessary, for every detail down to the last scale on the dragon’s back is served up on the big screen larger, more completely and vividly than I ever could have imagined myself.

If this is so, then films of children’s fantasy stories, while very entertaining, may be counterproductive. If they stifle the imagination, then in the long run we will have a population that continues to have a great appetite for entertainment, but little agility of imagination. Like the sword of Isildur, the imaginations of the children will lie broken and unused.

So what? Who cares about imagination anyway? Well, the imagination is our gateway to creativity. It is an active and fertile imagination that allows us to dream and visualize and make the fresh connections that foster inventions and art and literature and technology and new solutions. More importantly, imagination is our gateway to the invisible realm. The imagination is the tool not only of creativity, but of worship. It is through the imagination that we meditate and dream and contemplate and pray.

Imagination is one of the things which makes us human. A gorilla may learn sign language but he will never write a sonnet. A monkey may look at the stars, but he will never wish on one. A man, on the other hand, may dream and visualize and meditate and adore the Most Blessed Sacrament and long for heaven.

But if the sword of his imagination is broken he will have nothing but an insatiable appetite to be entertained.

This essay first appeared in St. Austin Review and is republished here by gracious permission of the author.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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7 replies to this post
  1. “Perhaps I simply had had a glut of the impressive artificiality of computer animation.” How true. In the early days of Macs, users often went to absurd lengths to use all their fonts and styles. They must have thought it impressed. It just looked ugly.

    Movie makers are making a similar mistake. What computers can be made to do dominates all to many plots. The battles in The Lord of the Rings would have been better with more real close ups and fewer distant simulations.

    The fact that something can be done doesn’t mean it should be done.

    –Michael W. Perry, Untangling Tokien

  2. I enjoyed reading ” The Chronicles of Narnia ” during this past year. Most of the time I carried one of the seven books in my back pocket. The thin paperbacks are the worse for wear since getting in and out of the car “did a job” on them despite the liberal use of scotch tape on the covers and backs. As with all books that were made into movies the books are more enjoyable. I have rarely been in a situation where the movie caused me to read a book and I found the movie easier to follow. A few of the Robert Ludlum Bourne books are the exception for me. The Narnia movies and Tolkiens LOTR and Hobbit movies were great.

  3. Yes, imagination suffers in movies. But it would have helped a lot if they had not arbitrarily and drastically changed Voyage of the Dawn Treader into something almost unrecognizable.

  4. Don’t underestimate the role of imagination in responding to good filmmaking. All art involves communicating enough content to inspire the imagination, while leaving space for the imagination to work on it.

    A well-made movie also leaves room for the imagination – it just leaves different elements to the imagination than a book. For example, a book leaves the visuals to the imagination, but can present characters’ thoughts directly; a film shows us what’s happening visually directly, but leaves us to infer imaginatively the inner life of the characters. More on this on my blog:

    On the other hand, lots of film adaptations are very unimaginative, and visually overwhelming rather than imaginatively suggestive. It takes a lot of skill to adapt a book into a film in a way that enriches the imaginative experience. And there are few things more unimaginative than putting in clashing CGI armies just because you can.

  5. My biggest critique of the movie was its total departure from the actual story. It was as if people objected to the missing “Christian Imagery” of the second movie, and so the movie makers hired the writers of “Fireproof” to Christian the whole thing up. The whole bit with the seven swords and the constant and explicit references to the power of temptation took the movie out of the realm of true Faerie tale and into moralistic allegory (thinly disguised sermonizing) of the most trite variety.

    The dis-use of imagination as a result of cinema fantasy is a good point. I think Bruno Bettleheim would agree with it, that the imagination of the child (or adult) reader consciously and unconsciously bringing their own interpretations, hope and fears to the imagery of the story is precisely the power of enchantment, or faerie tales.

  6. I agree about the remark about Fireproof though. Its the story that makes the film. Peter Jackson had enough respect for LOTR to stick to the main plot and dialogue. But with Narnia the writers just feel the urge to write pretty much all their own dialogue and add new quests/battles as they feel necessary. consequently the dialogue is super flat. Few lines in Narnia are funny in films for they are all taken out for some reason. The LOTR films stayed much truer and conseqently were more funny/exiting. as for battles LOTR had a lot more choreography and real people in comparison to Narnia’s 95% CGI ones.

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