Melody in Elf Minor – Fantasy and Tone


James Nicoll posted this: More Words, Deeper Hole – In which I disagree with a luminary of SF to address a blog post by John Scalzi here: The Flying Snowman – Whatever.

For folks who don’t want to click, Scalzi is pointing out that people who object to some unrealistic things in a movie (like the way the lava in Mt. Doom swallows up Gollum) will blithely accept giant spiders and monster warriors birthed from the mud, and he says: Really, people? Nicoll doesn’t like to see the blame for a willing suspension of disbelief placed on the reader.

This is a conversation I’ve seen going around and around. Someone objects that the airplanes in KILL BILL have special sheaths for passengers katanas, and someone else points out off those talking animal movies. Someone gripes about CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON that “If anything is possible, nothing is interesting,” and someone else points out that there are “rules” to the fantasy elements which the story has to keep to.

And… Sure. Those world-building rules are important. Establishing the differences between our world and the world of the narrative is vital to letting people follow the narrative. It also helps avoid the “Why don’t they just cast a spell?” response in which the audience, knowing magic can do more, assume it can do anything.

But this is a pretty mechanical way of looking at it, and it assumes that “unrealistic” elements in a story (ones not covered by the established world-building) are errors. I think that’s wrong, and that it’s part of the fetishization of sf/f world-building.

Let me be clear: I’m not against coherent world-building. Of course it’s important, and of course it’s a necessary part of making a narrative work. But I think that tone is even more important.

Take that ending scene in RETURN OF THE KING: Should the lava have been more realistic? Should the ending have shown Gollum hitting the molten rock, breaking bones and bursting into flame?

Oh hell no. Considering everything that happened to that character, the tragedies, torture, misunderstandings, and burning junkie obsession he suffered, the sight of him screaming as he burned, limbs trembling as he tried to move his broken body, would have been completely tone deaf. It would have been too much.

Part of the problem is that the filmmakers were adapting a book. With as many liberties as they took with the narrative (cue bitter laughter from Tolkien purists) I’m sure they knew they couldn’t change that ending. Gollum had to take that fall.

But the filmmakers couldn’t rely on careful text to control the tone. They need to used sound and image to tell the story, and the effect there is very different.

Take Dany’s wedding in GAME OF THRONES. In the book you can describe an orgy in a few sentences or two in the narrative. On video, you have to hire actors, light them, put them in wardrobe, then point the camera at them while they hump away.

The effect is very different, and those issues of tone have to be managed. The movie MISERY (which I read about but haven’t seen) changed the scene where the fan cripples the writer because the filmmakers knew that chopping off his feet with an axe would be too much. That scene would be too intense and they would lose the audience.

For myself, one of the first revisions I made to Game of Cages was to change the sapphire dog so that it could not “eat veal.” In the first draft, the children of the town were fair game for the monster, and the crowd in the food bank scene included some very young characters.

My agent (a former editor herself) told me it was too much. I tried to explain that predators in nature didn’t have any qualms about feeding on very young prey, so it would be cheating to impose that rule on the predators in my book. She explained (paraphrased) that it was better to cheat the rules than to lose your audience.

And I knew she was right, so I revised the book so that pre-pubescent brains were ripe enough for it to feed on.

In a perfect world, tone and world-building would be reconciled. If anyone can find a way to get to a perfect world let me know so I can save up for a set of one-way tickets. In our world, issues with deadlines, adaptations, collaboration, and sometimes a lack of imagination/skill can lead to scenes that don’t work in some way.

The question becomes: when they seem irreconcilable, do you stay faithful to the world building? Or do you choose the right tone?

That’s something each creator has to choose on their own, but it’s telling that the most popular entertainments go for tone almost all the time.

As for that snowman, I haven’t read the book in question, but I wonder how much of the reader’s dissatisfaction with the flying scene was tonal. Not that the talking, heat-resistant snowman shouldn’t have the power of flight, but that snowmen are tragic; when their time with the child is over, they don’t fly away like angels soaring up to heaven. They die like earthly beings. They’re tragic. That’s my guess, anyway.

That’s why Gollum’s final scene is the correct one, even if the physics are wrong.