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Why Is Fantasy So Popular In 2012?

The past few years have been very good for fans of fantasy. We can find more books, movies, and TV shows catering to our interests than possibly ever before. It’s wonderful, but I often find myself asking why? Thinking short-term, I believe the surge in fantasy might be just another modern-day commodity bubble, always on the verge of popping. But thinking more long-term, even if the fantasy bubble should pop, I believe something has changed on a more fundamental level such that fantasy will remain more popular than it has in the past.

Game of ThronesIt is no secret that bestselling books tend to become popular movies and TV shows. If you look back at the top grossing movies and bestselling books of 2010 through 2012, you will see the overlap: namely, Harry Potter, Twilight, and the Hunger Games. HBO is currently airing the second season of Game of Thrones, based on George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series; it is about to start the fifth season of True Blood, based on Charlaine Harris’s The Southern Vampire Mysteries series; and it is developing a six-season adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods.

The relationship between print and film is often a cyclical one. A book becomes a bestseller, then the film rights are purchased, then a TV show or film is produced, and then the books (or boxed set by this time) get more time on the bestseller lists as fans of the filmed version decide to read the book(s) for the first time. Publishers then look for the next bestseller to begin the cycle anew. Theoretically, this cycle can continue almost indefinitely, regardless of a book’s target audience. Movies will continue to cater to young and teen audiences, while cable television can target a more adult audience.

But this relationship is fragile. It only works if people keep buying books, watching movies, and subscribing to premium channels. When it comes to fantasy, people are currently doing all three, and publishers and producers are rushing to give us more. But that eagerness creates an increased risk that “the next big thing” could turn into the “next big flop.” All it takes is a couple of stumbles, and the fantasy bubble will pop. Money will dry up, and fantasy fans will have fewer options.

Classic Future PosterBut even should the bubble burst, I think we are undergoing more fundamental, societal changes that will push people towards fantasy fandom in the long-term. I believe we live in a science fiction world. But it is not the chrome-plated, rocket-powered, optimistic world of tomorrow described in so many classic sci-fi stories. I think people are growing increasingly confused and uneasy in this world of rapidly evolving technology, so people are rejecting the modern world in a variety of ways (for example, it should not be a surprise that fewer and fewer people are interested in traveling beyond low-Earth orbit).

The fact that people use modern technology to distract themselves from the modern world only adds to the dissonance they feel. For example, look around at how many people avoid others by listening to music or podcasts, tweet to strangers online instead of interacting with the people around them, or research crafting projects that have not been popular for generations. You may even be reading this on your phone right now, ignoring what is going on around you. Yes, I realize I am bordering on curmudgeonly old man territory here, but bear with me for a moment.

Book Werm by Kristin KestMy argument is that people are looking for escapism, but they do not want to turn to science fiction. People get enough science fiction in their daily lives, and many are uncomfortable with that fact. Instead, they will turn to fantasy: primal stories of monsters and magic as a rejection of the modern world in front of us. And they will continue to do so as this problem continues and expands. Therefore, I believe that even if the fantasy entertainment bubble should burst, I think a demand for fantasy will remain. The best case? Fantasy will enjoy elevated popularity for the long term. The worst case? It is a short-term boom. Either way, enjoy the ride, fans of fantasy.

Title image by Joel Robison.

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9 Comments

  1. Avatar Larik says:

    Interesting article. You made a very good point, but aren’t you worried half of the avid readers of Fantasy Faction will agree and decide to stop coming here? xD

  2. Avatar Alice says:

    An interesting take, Overlord. I’ve noticed the same thing, but came to a different conclusion. I think people are turning to fantasy and superheroes because life’s pretty tough right now. With the economy tanking and civil rights slipping I think people want an escape where the reluctant messiah, or super hero or benevolent wizard can arrive and save the day.

    Since I have a self-pubbed book, I try to read self-pubbed and I am astonished at the number of coming-of-age books where the protag doesn’t know they are the sole heir/final descendant of magic or some such and ultimately a reluctant messiah. And a good portion are selling well. I think that shows a preponderance of readers who feel a little helpless in their daily life and want to read about someone who gets to turn the tables.

    I also think fantasy has to do with the reader’s level of imagination. I have a few friends that can’t read fantasy. Their brains just don’t get it. And I have other friends who have fallen into fantasy novels by accident and really enjoyed them. Once the audience widens to those that can “get it”, I think it will stay that way. There’s a lot more than sword and sorcery these days, to appeal to a wider variety of tastes.

    • Agree with this and would add the element of ‘shortcut society’ that reality TV and modern day quiz shows generate.

      Everybody wants success handed to them without working for it and this is a common theme in a lot of fantasy.

      • Avatar Daniel says:

        I think the relevance to modern life is unavoidable. To many people. especially in the Western world, modern day life is deemed dull. Obviously, that just means we don’t have to worry about our next meal, or whether we’ll be killed before the year is out. But this, and as you said, a kind of dissolusion with the modern world, drives people to realms where not everything is normal and safe, and where amazing things can happen that don’t have to be purely logical. Fantasy is a more personal take on the world than real life, in a way, and people who want escapism aren’t going to read a book where they mainly communicate through texting or emails. This is why I think Fantasy will always be fairly popular; it provides the greatest possible escapism, often by looking to the past, and does not pander to the reader like most television these days.

  3. Avatar the_hound says:

    This argument totally falls down when it comes to Space Opera – which is pure and utter escapism.

    Yes there are trends, sci fi was massive in the 60s and 70s, horror in the 90s and now fantasy. And go back before that westerns. I think it depends more on the quality of the writers in each genre, and of course on the quality of the related films and tv shows. (also concurrently super heros are MASSIVE right now). Get a few excellent writers appearing in another genre – like Martin and Rowling for fantasy in the 90s, and that genre will become massive.

  4. Avatar AE Marling says:

    Fantasy is an adventure, a vacation to another land. No waiting in security lines required. The ticket: imagination.

    The whimsey of fantasy also reminds us of the joys of playful make-believe. When we children, we understood the importance of play, but some adults feel the need to justify every activity. It all must have some point. Those who force themselves to live such lives tend to become very depressed, so says Dr. Brown, author of the book Play. In a sense, fantasy is just what the doctor ordered.

    I encourage everyone to touch the sky of human imagination. Read fantasy.

  5. Avatar darthqu3 says:

    my take on it is this. Firstly, Hollywood was back in a rut a couple of years ago and needed a solution. So they began to come out with movies with a pre-established audience. This approach decreased the likelihood of box office flops, and helped spawned many hits such as Batman, Hunger Games etc.
    Lastly, fantasy seems to be based off a mythology that is intertwined with British/American history. So the environment isn’t totally foreign to most of its audience. Its obscure enough to be mythical and magical but reminiscent enough not to alienate its viewers with a cumbersome new mythology.

  6. Good article. I researched scifi and fantasy movies for some page on my website and found that until the 1980s fantasy was not all that big in the movies compared to scifi. I thought that maybe it was because cheesy scifi movies could be produced low budget, and really bad fantasy movies still cost more and looked worse. Of course the big budget scifi movies are still with us, see Star Wars for example, though most really fall into the scifantasy category (as in the Force, et al). I agree somewhat with the premise that people are finding escapism in fantasy and magical thinking. Unfortunately, people are also rejecting science in growing numbers, without even an understanding of basic scientific premises, and so are not able to make informed decisions about real world changes. I love fantasy, and I love writing it. I also love science fiction, the hard kind without much in the ways of fantasy elements, and enjoy writing it too, even if the audience is smaller than it was.

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