Though there may be many different genres of film, comedy, horror, sci-fi, romance etc I like to reduce those down to just two; Realism and Fantastical. My categories aren’t as clear cut as the usual genres and almost every film has aspects of both but I’ll try to explain the difference.
At it’s basic level I treat films that are based on real historical events or real people as Realist films. If you wanted to you could look this person up or read about the events depicted and most of the films that do this try to make what’s on screen represent the truth as closely as possible. Of course every film has dramatised parts, in reality real events don’t translate to a blockbuster film without some embellishment. You only have to look at the majority of the War film genre to see dramatised real life events. Saving Private Ryan, Pearl Harbour and the new Christopher Nolan film Dunkirk are all grounded in reality and heavily rely on their historical accuracy (less so for Pearl Harbour) but include many dramatised moments. The directors want you to believe that everything you are seeing on screen actually happened.
The next level (I didn’t realise there would be multiple levels when I started writing this!) is films based in real places or during real times. Even though the story of the film may be entirely fictional I will still class it as a realist film if it takes place in London for example, or during the American Civil War. The easiest way I can describe my interpretation of a realist film is that the film-maker has tried to make it look as realistic as possible (and before you start, I know most films try to add a level of realism these days).
The other side of things is the fantastical films. This doesn’t just mean things like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or Willow that deal with magic and mystery, it can include any film which is set in a completely fictional time or place, with unbelievable characters and story. My favourite franchise Star Wars is the perfect example of a fantastical franchise. We know from the beginning of each film that it is set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, which is really just an excuse for George Lucas to have absolutely anything he wanted within he universe while at the same time being influenced by things in the real world. Super advanced technology, weird alien races tools and weapons that are clearly more aesthetically pleasing that practical and a myriad of planets that you could only dream of, Star Wars doesn’t try to make you believe it is real.
You might have been able to gather from some of my previous posts I am an escapist. I will always favour a fantastical film over a realist one. If I wanted to watch something based on real events then I would look for a documentary on that subject or read a book. I like my imagination to be expanded with things that could never be real. But as with all film dilemmas I’ve discussed before (and the basis of my love for crossovers), in my mind, the perfect film for me to enjoy heavily mixes the fantastical with realism.
Superhero/comicbook movies are the perfect example of this combination. The characters and themes in the films are often wildly ‘out there’. Men who can fly, super soldiers, sentient robots and aliens are among some of the many, many different beings to inhabit these worlds. Very few of them can be classed as realistic, except maybe the espionage agents like Black Widow, but even that is a stretch. They are characters that no-one would believe could ever be real but we love them all the same. Even though the characters are strange many of the locations are from the real world. If we look at the recent Spider-Man: Homecoming, Peter Parker lives in Queens, New York. Most of the Marvel films have been set in real cities and countries across the world, starting with Afghanistan and Miami in Iron Man (2008).
There appears to be a desire in currently film making to ground the story in reality, no matter how outlandish the content is and I am all in favour of this! Seeing bizarre and crazy characters bounding through recognisable places make you feel closer to what is happening on screen, but on the other side of things I still love films like Guardians of the Galaxy which is set in locations completely different from the world we live in. Character abilities and weapons are explained with science and terms which sound real to most of us. If you don’t ask for a detailed breakdown of how exactly Bruce Banner became the Hulk then you can believe it! Even down to the outfits that most of the heroes sport, they try to make them practical rather than exactly replicating the source material (most of the time!)
The Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy is a great example of a director trying to bring a comic character into the real world. Instead of just being a ban dressed up as a bat, he shows Bruce Wayne developing his skills, and tech and gives reason behind it all rather than expecting you to assume that because he likes to dress as a bat and has loads of money he just has this stuff. The Bourne series is almost perfect for showing a fictional story in a realistic light. Nothing that happens in the films is outside the realms of human capability. While it would be incredible unlikely that a single person would have the skills, fortitude and analytical mind of the Jason Bourne character, there are people who can do the same things that we see on screen. Even though you know it’s fictional you totally believe it could happen in real life. What I’m trying to say I guess is that if done correctly, even the fantastical can seem real!
The combination of realism and the fantastical goes much deeper than this but I’ve rambled on for far too long now. I’ll leave you one last though to ponder;
Think of your favourite film and ask yourself:
- Is it based in reality or removed from our world?
- How much does the film try to make you believe is real?
- If it’s based in reality, does it take inspiration from real life events?
- If you removed the ‘realistic’ aspect of the film, would you still enjoy it?
I’d love to hear what your thoughts are. Let me know in the comments!