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imaginationI confess to feeling a little surge of excitement this week in watching the trailer for the new Star Wars film. I thought the Narnia movies were pretty good, I greatly enjoy Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I do not complain too much when my sons drag me off to yet another superhero movie. I am sure Harry Potter films thrilled the fans of that magical world and I’m as delighted and captivated as the next person to the latest filmic fairy tale or science fiction adventure.

So I hate to be a fantasy film fuddy-duddy, a science-fiction spoil-sport and a big screen party-pooper, but there is a problem.

With their special effects and computer generated wizardry, the film maker magicians can now do anything. It is possible to whizz through the wardrobe with Lucy, fall down the rabbit hole with Alice, launch into space with Luke Skywalker, and hop into Hobbiton with Frodo and his friends. No alternative world is out-of-bounds. No fantasy realm is out of reach, and while we love to visit other realms, once a fantasy world is realized in film, there is no fantasy.

The appetite for fairy tales, science fiction, fantasy films and extraordinary stories has never been greater, and it is arguable that the glut of fantasy films of all kinds has fueled the production of more fantasy literature. 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, image,s 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.

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 his imagination is obliterated he will have nothing but an insatiable appetite to be entertained.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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6 replies to this post
  1. You are right. Prefabricated images have a disproportionate place in our culture. It is by listening to stories that we really appropriate them. In The Uses of Enchantment Bettelheim argues, contra mundum, that books for children should not be illustrated.

  2. How often, alas, did I go to a movie version of a book only to be disappointed the movie was so bland compared to my dreams. It took years for me to understand books and film are totally different media, with different modes. TV is passive, radio is active. Film is passive, books are active. Even live theater is active.

    Now that I understand the difference, I have not abandoned film. There are lots of good ones out there, and mostly from the non-Technicolor era. But now I know what is NOT there, also.

  3. I agree with the author and have two comments.

    The first is how much I relish the Discworld series by the (late) author, Terry Pratchett. The rich fantasy world developed through a large series of books could be coopted by film, as a filmmaker would have a large terrific vein to mine. The number of movies in the series, if it were to be successful staggers the mind. I’ve seen 2 books adapted to film. They thin out the story so much. The characters and the events and plot are there, but each is a wan copy of the original.

    The second has to do with my personal experience of the importance of the imagination. Our home has had work and there remains work to be done. The kitchen was done over by an outfit that was difficult to work with, but they had a soaring imagination and my new kitchen just is amazing! Going with a different group for the nearby bathroom, I found a man very accommodating, genial, great at communicating and easy to work with. One problem, though his taste is impeccable, the work executed very soundly, the result is beautiful and functional, he truly lacks imagination. His feet are soundly grounded in the “this is hiw it’s done” mentality and it was I who dragged the project in interesting directions, but the finished product really is a pale shadow of what could have been had he had an effervescent imagination. This has been an education for me in the value imagination adds to many spheres of life.

  4. There is both prophylaxis against the erosion of the imagination and a remedy for it. For example, I had a simple rule with my daughters, enforced pretty rigorously when they were younger — less so as they grew:

    Read the book before you see the movie.

    This rule had some great benefits. It prompted my younger daughter to read more (she hated the fact that her sister could go see the latest Harry Potter movie, but she had to stay home — because she had not read the book). It prompted a more critical appreciation of film adaptations. For example, my older daughter and I could agree that the first installment of Jackson’s version of the Hobbit was pretty good, the second installment was laughably bad, and the third was somewhere in between. She was able to do this because she had read and loved the book, and had her own imaginative concept of the story to balance against Jackson’s vision.

    Re-read the book after you see the movie.

    I recently read The Lord of The Rings. It’s been over forty years since I first read it as a middle school aged kid, and I have no idea how many times I have read it in the interval. Re-reading it yet again reminded me that LOTR is a powerful work of the imagination, especially if one brings one’s own imagination to it, and that Jackson’s film version, at best, is a pale shadow based on Jackson’s own perspective (and with Jackson’s own particular blind spots). I know that I will pick up LOTR again. I doubt very much that I will bother with the film version (maybe to enjoy the depiction of Gollum, which was spot on (perhaps because it closely matched the Gollum of my imagination).

    Don’t bother seeing the movie

    Lloyd Alexander wrote a marvelous series of books (targeted to kids) loosely based on Welsh legend. I loved them when I was young, and loved sharing them with my own kids. There was a Disney movie based on one of the books: The Black Cauldron. I heard its bad. I have no intention of seeing it, and never presented it to my kids.

    Another example: T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King,” is an amazing re-telling of the legends of King Arthur. A portion, “The Sword in the Stone,” was also adapted by Disney. Don’t see it. Go to the original.

    Remember the difference between the movie and the book

    As someone pointed out above, a film and a novel are very different art forms, and each, at its best, does something very different. One of my favorite film adaptations of a novel (or series of novels) is “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.” Although it shares the main characters of Patrick O’Brian’s excellent novels, and incorporates elements from the stories of different novels, the film does not even attempt to recreate any one novel. It works on its own as a movie, and that is all it attempts.

    Read books that have not been made into movies (and maybe cannot or should not be made into movies).

    I have a long list of favorite novels that, as far as I know, have never been made into films (and quite possibly never should). Even though I can see certain scenes in them with cinematic quality in my minds eye, that is where they remain — even if they were to be adapted for the screen, I would be reluctant to see it.

  5. An effect of wath tue autor said: I can´t imagine anymore Gandalf without the face of Sir Ian MacKellen.

  6. Imagination is necessary for embodied faith. This is particularly absent with modern Protestants (which I am). For God to be active in our world and lives, He must be active in our imaginations.

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