When 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.
So, 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.
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Editor’s note: The featured image is “Zrínyi’s Charge on the Turks from the Fortress of Szigetvár” by Simon Hollosy, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.