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Fantasy Fiction: Unsuitable for Adults?

As author Clive Barker signs up for a Disney film, we ask where the field is heading.

By Andrew Osmond     June 07, 2000

'The great grey beast February had eaten Harvey Swick alive. Here he was, buried in the belly of that smothering month, wondering if he would ever find his way out through the cold coils that lay between here and Easter...'

So opens Clive Barker's 1996 children's fable The Thief of Always, in which a bored boy finds a wondrous 'Holiday House,' only to fall under the spell of its terrible ruler. Not exactly what nostalgic pundits think of when they extol wholesome, heartwarming entertainment, this is kid's fantasy with long shadows, dark sides and sharp edges. Now Barker has hooked up with Disney, which has paid millions of dollars for movie and ancillary rights to the author's forthcoming 'Abarat' quartet of novels. Publicized as a combination of Narnia, Oz and Harry Potter, the books (it is hoped) will spawn not only movies but a multimedia franchise of TV animation, interactive games, music and even theme park rides.

Meanwhile Talisman Films is in script development on The Homeward Bounders, based on a 1981 children's fantasy by British author Diana Wynne Jones. It's the strange, sad tale of a boy who bounces helplessly from world to world (some very bizarre), having being discarded in a diabolical game. As with many Jones books, the plot resembles a jigsaw puzzle. The full picture only emerges in the last pages. For her many admirers, Jones is the writer robbed by Harry Potter; she's a sophisticated, constantly creative figure eclipsed by the populist Rowling franchise. Some earlier Jones books, featuring the mysterious character Chrestomanci, have just been reprinted in Britain (American editions should follow). My local London store responded by putting them below Rowling's bestsellers with the legend 'If you liked these...[Potter] ...then try these [Jones].' Fan hackles raised... On a brighter note, two other Jones novels (not Chrestomanci) are being seriously considered for option by film companies.

Next up, there's Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' series, the third and last of which is expected later this year. From the publication of the first volume, known as The Golden Compass in America and Northern Lights in Britain, the saga has enjoyed rave reviews. The New Statesman called it 'the most ambitious work since Lord of the Rings'; the first book also won the Carnegie Award. Opening in a pseudo-historical world where people have alter-ego familiars called 'daemons,' the adventure follows a girl called Lyra through sinister conspiracies, adventures in the frozen North, and finally into another universe. By the end of book two, just about anything seems possible, up to and including the end of creation. Talking book fans are recommended to the ongoing audio version of the series, in which the author narrates the unabridged text with the help of an excellent voice-cast reading the characters. The first book alone comes to ten hours.

And finally, there's the eagerly awaited Harry Potter IV, due out in July. The middle book in Rowling's projected seven chronicles, this one caused furor with the announcement that Potter will start discovering girls - not, one hopes, the obnoxious hero-worshipping Ginny - and that a major character will (gulp) die. Most fan speculation points the finger at a certain fatherly figure, a traditional way of developing the hero, though Rowling is reportedly getting anguished letters along the lines of 'Please don't kill Hermoine' (Harry's bossy-girl ally). Meanwhile, there's the Potter movie to consider, though details are in flux apart from the confirmation that it is happening, with Chris Columbus as director. Beyond the obvious hope that Columbus can handle boy wizards better than long-lived androids (see The Bicentennial Man, or rather don't), my only wish is for British PM Tony Blair to play Lockhart if they get round to Chamber of Secrets.

Between them, Barker, Jones, Pullman and Rowling suggest children's fantasy is getting an increased clout in the multimedia mainstream. There's nothing new about quality children's fantasy, of course. Every young bookworm can name his or her favorites, whether Earthsea or Narnia, Lloyd Alexander's Black Cauldron or Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising sequence. Many of these have a sophistication that shames 'grown-up' formula fantasy, from Earthsea's profound reflections on personal identity and mortality, to Pullman's grandiose, escalating visions of parallel worlds where polar bears fight zeppelins and original sin is tied to quantum mechanics. And that's not even mentioning older works...try Alice for a whole college course in abstract metaphysics, Peter Pan for meditations on age and agelessness, and E Nesbit's Story of the Amulet (1906) for visions of socialist utopias and time-twisting ideas that'd challenge Bill and Ted.

But sophistication is one thing. Aren't some of these authors a little... dark to be doing kid's stuff? Taking the Disney/Barker deal, there's certainly a delicious irony about seeing the two names together. Disney, for all its regained hipness in the last decade, is still popularly associated with cartoon sunshine and cutesy animals. Barker is the creator of stories and novels that swing from rapturous beauty to sickening physical gross-out, a writer entwining pleasure and pain in their most extreme forms. Any kids wandering into Barker's world better watch out. (If you want to give a child screaming horrors, point them to 'Rawhead Rex,' an unashamedly pulpy tale in the Books of Blood collection that, more than any Spielberg dinosaur film, conveys the infantile terror of being ripped apart and eaten alive.) So what is a figure like this doing in kid's territory?

It's a false contrast, of course. Anyone who thinks Disney has no dark side hasn't watched its early features. Remember Fantasia and its 'Night on Bare Mountain'? More recently, Disney teamed up with Henry Selick and Tim Burton to create the two Skellington stop-motions, which combined charm and upbeat songs with moments of disorientation and terror. Remember the happy family lying on the beach at the start of James and the Giant Peach; then a rhino forms in the sky, and we're brutally informed James' parents were 'gobbled up.' Again, it's worth remembering that bland, safe Disney was responsible for one of the most iconoclastic children's fantasy pics ever made: Return to Oz, which has Dorothy imprisoned by a doctor who wants to burn out her dreams and her brain. Ouch.

True, James and Return to Oz were box-office failures. For the real moments of dark wonder, you generally have to stay with the books, where images and ideas are unsullied by test audiences and script doctors. Remember Aslan's sacrifice on the Stone Table; the soldiers from another world breaking down the front door in Alan Garner's Elidor; the moon snuffed out at the end of Diane Duane's So You Want to Be a Wizard; or even the showdown in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, with the half-dead hero stabbing the evil diary with a Basilisk's tooth, the ink pouring out like blood. One of the few films that works at the same level is Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits, from the superb opening where the armored knight crashes into the boy's bedroom (very CS Lewis) to his parents' comeuppance via an explosive lump of evil (very Roald Dahl).

All of which begs the question of whether, in a proper sense, there's any true divide between 'adult' and 'children's' fantasy. For many critics, there isn't. Edmund Wilson, for example, famously described Lord of the Rings as a trashy children's story. Meanwhile the success of fantasy pics like Phantom Menace is often used to track Hollywood's regression into escapist immaturity. More significantly, a great many writers have written fantasies that cross 'children's' and 'adult' categories, at least for marketing purposes. Tolkien is the obvious culprit, with Hobbit versus Lord of the Rings; but then there's CS Lewis, Richard Adams (of Watership Down fame), Diana Wynne Jones, Diane Duane and Terry Pratchett. Many kids, of course, ignore the marketers altogether, devouring the likes of Lord of the Rings, Stephen King or Gormenghast as soon as they can pick up the books.

In the fantasy genre, the child-adult distinctions often feel incidental. So many works on both sides use the same premises: young protagonists growing through adversity, the elaboration of dreams and nightmares. If anything, the distinctions favor children's fantasy. True, the plots and vocabulary may be simpler and the books perhaps shorter. Then again, that often makes for less clutter and redundancy, along with tighter, more focused reading. These days, some of the most interesting 'adult' fantasy openly reworks children's classics. Try the 'Game of You' strand in Neil Gaiman's Sandman, which incorporates grown-up issues into a Narnia-style scenario. Gaiman also co-wrote Good Omens, with Terry Pratchett, a Dogma-style comedy in which the Antichrist is the spitting image of William Brown, iconic boy rebel from British literature.

Good Omens is now in development as a possible project for Terry Gilliam... which takes us back to the start of this article and the mainstreaming of kid's fantasy. It seems strange that a medium for younger readers can be more inventive and diverse than the sub-Tolkien flummery often passing for grown-up material. Perhaps there really is something in the notion that kids see more broadly that we graying oldsters. Either way, next time you decide you can't face another doorstop trilogy on the fantasy bookshelves...hunch down a bit and see what's on offer in the junior section.

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