One of my favorite episodes of the classic British TV series The Avengers, which starred Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg as secret agents stylishly investigating crimes in 1960s England, is “Honey for the Prince.” In this episode, a company called QQF (Quite Quite Fantastic) turns people’s fantasies into reality using actors, props, elaborate sets, and even special effects. (In one memorable example, they recreate the Battle of Waterloo for a Napoleon fan.) Enemy agents employ the services of QQF to figure out how to assassinate a Middle Eastern prince during his visit to London, and Steed and Mrs. Peel must find a way to foil the plot. Minor spoiler: it involves putting the lovely Diana Rigg in a scandalously revealing harem outfit that no doubt gave the American TV censors fits. (But not nearly as much as the episode “A Touch of Brimstone,” in which Mrs. Peel ends up in black leather fetish gear and a spiked collar, and which was banned in America. But I digress.)
There are many reasons I love this episode, not the least of which is that it’s a fun premise for a business model: a company that can make your fantasies come true. Who among us wouldn’t want to hire them to bring one or two of our dreams to life? Wouldn’t you want to step out of your reality for a bit and be a secret agent or a military commander or an actor at a film premiere?
In 1974, science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin published her wonderful essay “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” (link HERE) in which she ponders why fantasy is considered to be mainly for children and why adults who enjoy fantasy (including high fantasy, urban fantasy, science fiction, and so forth) are looked down upon for their interest. I’ve taught this essay numerous times in various college English classes, and it always sparks interesting discussion about the role of fantasy in our lives—and then, in a broader context, about the role of fiction, reading, films, and “escapism.”
In the essay, LeGuin theorizes that anti-fantasy sentiments are part of a larger issue: that so many adults—specifically, males—are anti-fiction. And truly, for many, the older and farther from school we get, the fewer books we tend to read. And though LeGuin’s essay was written more than forty years ago, I think her observations are still relevant, especially in the way she ties the criticism of fiction (regardless of genre) to capitalism. LeGuin writes: “To read War and Peace or The Lord of the Rings plainly is not ‘work’ – you do it for pleasure. And if it cannot be justified as ‘educational’ or as ‘self-improvement,’ then . . . it can only be self-indulgence or escapism. Equally, in the businessman’s value system, if an act does not bring in an immediate, tangible profit, it has no justification at all. Thus the only person who has an excuse to read Tolstoy or Tolkien is the English teacher, because he gets paid for it. But our businessman might allow himself to read a best-seller now and then: not because it is a good book, but because it is a best-seller – it is a success, it has made money. To the strangely mystical mind of the money-changer, this justifies its existence; and by reading it he may participate, a little, in the power and manna of its success.”
How sadly true.
At this point in the discussion, my students will inevitably point out the popularity of franchises like Star Trek, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and so forth. You might also include the Marvel and DC films, as well as the Game of Thrones television series (the most pirated TV series in history), in the counterargument. Clearly, fantasy (and the fantastic) does have an important role in our lives in the early 21st century. I’d argue that even the James Bond films continue to be popular despite questionable quality because they offer a fantasy world of spies, villains, gadgets, and adventure that we like to get lost in. Same goes for the Mission: Impossible films (especially the two most recent ones) and the new 80s spy action flick Atomic Blonde, starring Charlize Theron.
So does the runaway popularity of these films and series disprove LeGuin’s assertion that Americans are anti-fiction or anti-fantasy? I think the answer is complicated. We’ll take fantasy in small doses (a 2- or 3-hour film, a weekly show) but fewer will take the time to read a book. We can appreciate an escape into a fictional world, but we appear to prefer only certain types of fantasy that conform to our established worldviews on race, gender, and yes, capitalism. If you’re looking for a unique story with creative, imaginative storytelling and a plot you haven’t seen a hundred times before, good luck—original stories are difficult to find. The MCU films are mostly cookie-cutter origin stories (and the DC films, with the exception of Wonder Woman, have been awful). Perhaps we like fantasy, but only when it’s familiar, which somewhat defeats the purpose of fantasy.
On the bright side, we are in another golden era for comics and graphic novels, and we have more fantasy and fantastic shows and films out than we’ve seen in a while, so there the environment is right for more and better stories to be told. If you want fantastic stories, check out some of the awesome comics that are out right now: Saga, Monstress, Lazarus, etc. These are stories you have never heard before, and they are quite, quite fantastic (in all senses of the word).
Thank you for reading this rather lengthy post. It’s a big topic and I’ve barely scratched the surface, but I’m interested to hear your thoughts on what the role of fantasy is in our lives. If nothing else: What fantasy/dream would you hire the QQF to create for you? :)