The Spectre of ‘Fantasy’

by Professor Martin Barker

28 Jan 2015

Right about now, the last film in the Hobbit trilogy is leaving cinemas across the UK. Although no doubt many will have enjoyed it, the truth is that these films have not generated the excitement and the resonances which the Lord of the Rings trilogy did, a decade ago. Rather, the public sphere is littered with comments complaining about its stretched length, overblown special effects, and exaggerated caricatures: typical ‘fantasy’. Yet even as it departs, taking its place is another film widely labelled as fantasy: the next in the Hunger Games series.  Also widely carrying that label, but quite different from The Hobbit in narrative, theme, and setting.  As are all the others that have emerged and struck gold in recent years: the Harry Potter series, Game of ThronesCoraline,The Maze RunnerTwilight, and many, many more.  Something is happening with ‘fantasy’ that needs careful exploration.  This is not just a genre on the rise, but one in process of transformation.

For a long time fantasy, and especially mass-marketed fantasy, was either dismissed as cheap entertainment, or rejected as reactionary by academics.  A turn to fantasy was judged by many to be an indicator of weakness, immaturity and possible disturbance – especially when they touched on sex (see for instance Bader, 2003).  Culturally, it was distrusted.  José Monleon (1996), for instance, offered a history of fantasy as the dark side of bourgeois ‘realism’.  While Rosemary Jackson did see critical potential in fantasy, her interests were strictly limited to proper literary works.  (In this she followed the classic work of Tzvetan Todorov, who sought a formal criterion to distinguish what would count as ‘proper’ fantasy.)

But in the last decade, alongside the changes, a reconsideration of the potentials of fantasy has begun.  More complex theories of how fantasy works as a genre works (see for instance Farah Mendelsohn (2008)).  Connections are being made with ideas of the world-building in fan studies, game studies and beyond (Wolf, 2012).  China Mieville – himself the author of a string of major fantasy works (Perdido Street StationThe City and the City, among others) – brought together a series of new thoughts in a special edition of the journal Historical Materialism (co-edited with literary scholar Mark Bould).  And while film studies, when asked to think about political cinema, has rather insistently gone back to art-house or documentary productions (see for instance Wayne, 2001), the films that have actually provided gestures, themes, and iconic moments for actual political movements have been things like Avatar (used in Palestine), The Hunger Games (used in Thailand), and V for Vendetta (used in the Occupy Wall Street campaigns).  Something really is going on.  And one voice – the voice of the audience, its pleasures, likes, dislikes, hopes and disappointments – has been missing so far (except of course that that is inevitably many, varied voices).

Which makes the timing of a project currently underway particularly apposite.  Made possible by a Small Grant from the British Academy, the World Hobbit Project ( has been gathering responses across the world to the Hobbit films.  The project is hugely ambitious.  With research partners in an unprecedented 47 countries, and operating in 33 languages, our complex questionnaire has already gathered well over 25,000 responses.  And our intellectual ambitions are similarly large – we aim to get at, not only people’s responses to these particular films, but more widely to their sense of what makes fantasy meaningful and valuable to different kinds of people.  The questionnaire – refined from the one we used successfully a decade ago to explore responses to theLord of the Rings films – combines quantitative and qualitative questions in unusual ways.  Audience research has long been the orphan child in the humanities family, perhaps because it is hard to design, conduct and analyse – perhaps because it is so tempting for academics either to tell people what theyought to be thinking and feeling, or to pronounce on their behalf what they are doing.

We will be gathering further responses – including hopefully yours, dear reader – for at least another two months, with the aim of gathering sufficient responses then to be able to draw out patterns across the world, by country, by age, sex, education, kind of work, and so on.  Then the really tough work of exploring how different kinds of people talk about their pleasures, hopes, disappointments, loves and dislikes can begin.  If you would like to know more, please contact us to ask.

Martin Barker is Emeritus Professor, Aberystwyth University
[email protected]

Bader, Michael (2003) Arousal: the Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies, Virgin Books.
Jackson, Rosemary (1981), Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion, London: Routledge.
Mendlesohn, Farah (2008) Rhetorics of Fantasy, Wesleyan University Press: Middletown, Connecticut.
Mieville, China and Mark Bould, eds. (2002), ‘Symposium on fantasy and critical theory’, Historical Materialism, 10:4, 39-316.
Monleon, José (1996), A Spectre is Haunting Europe: A Sociohistorical Approach to the Fantastic,  Princeton UP, 1996.
Todorov, Tzvetan (2001), The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, Cornell UP, 1975.
Mike Wayne, Political Cinema, London: Pluto Press.
Wolf, Mark J. P. (2012), Building Imaginary Worlds: the Theory and History of Subcreation, NY: Routledge.

Sign up to our email newsletters