Aug. 30, 2022

Familiar fantasy provides people an escape and a new lens for reality

UCalgary professor weighs in on the proliferation of sci-fi and fantasy series and the impact they have on us
House of the Dragon
HBO’s House of the Dragon debuted to almost 10 million viewers, setting the record for viewership of any new original series on the network. Courtesy of WarnerMedia

Journeying through Middle Earth. Scheming for the Iron Throne. Rebelling against the Galactic Empire.

These are just a few of the many escapes becoming available to viewers with the click of a button on their TV remotes.

According to Dr. Anthony Camara, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of English at UCalgary, the idea of escape is one of the reasons why fantasy, sci-fi and horror content is booming on the big screen and on streaming platforms.

“There is an escapist vein to speculative fiction,” says Camara.

However, escapism on its own is not sufficient to explain the fandom that these properties generate, Camara says. Indeed, the idea of living in Westeros during a civil war or being in Haddonfield on the night of Oct. 31 can’t be all that appealing on its own.

Metaphors for life

“Another powerful driver for this fiction, why people are drawn to it and why its power is so magnetic, is because it gives us metaphors for thinking about our life and our anxieties,” says Camara.

“So, I think it’s a combination of both things, the opportunity to escape into a world that is fantastic and different, but at the same time this is a world that speaks eminently to the realities that we face in our own lives.”

One of the prime examples that plays out this duology is HBO’s fantasy epic Game of Thrones, whose prequel series House of the Dragon recently generated almost 10 million viewers for its premiere episode.

For all the flying dragons and medieval mortal combat the show has to pull viewers in, it is the political machinations and power plays that could just as easily be played out in real life that gives the show its true allure.

“There’s a lot of fascinating political commentary there that people identify with,” says Camara.

The old is new again, and still relevant

He says in a moment marked by a resurgence of fascist and autocratic governments along with feudal structures emerging in corporations and governments and all the fears associated with that, there is a real import to fantasy today.

“You see the same dynamic in science fiction,” says Camara. “So many people are drawn to a work like Dune, which captures political complexities that makes people keen to check out the material.”

Interestingly, much of the new fantasy and sci-fi content we are seeing stems from franchises that have been around for decades. Just this month, new content will be available from iconic franchises like Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and the Marvel universe.

Is it just easier to get people to buy into new worlds they’re already familiar with and love? Just as one does not simply walk into Mordor, can a studio not simply create a new world?

“A lot of these franchises have a really powerful mythology built over decades and decades,” says Camara. “Those mythologies, for better or for worse, have hooked themselves into all of our psychologies.”

He says these franchises have become idioms in which we think and through which we think about the world, so studios may be reticent to turn away from established franchises.

It costs a lot to build fantasy worlds

There is also the issue of the tremendous amount of resources it takes to build these worlds. Even though Middle Earth is well established in the pop culture zeitgeist, Amazon is still pouring one billion dollars into its Lord of the Rings prequel.

“To realize a fantasy world, to build a science fiction world, can take an incredible amount of financial resources, and if that isn’t carried out properly, studios face tremendous potential for loss,” says Camara.

These built-in mythologies can also insulate franchises and studios from blunders. After the almost universal backlash the finale of Game of Thrones received, it would be fair to wonder how many people would be willing to give House of the Dragon a chance. But a record-setting viewership for the premiere has already convinced HBO to renew the show for a second season.

“Studios realize that these flagship franchises have a generational fidelity behind them,” says Camara.

“However, it may be cynical to emphasize just that because at the end of the day a lot of these works just do things right.”