AT PLAY IN THE FIELDS OF FANTASY

I love fantasy, and science fiction, and horror, which is why I get very nervous, sensitive, prickly, impatient, etc. when I get the feeling someone’s making fun of it.

During my time at Wizards of the Coast we were occasionally confronted with precisely this sentiment from D&D, Forgotten Realms, and Dragonlance fans. When we released books that had a “tongue-in-cheek” or worse, outright satirical take on any of those properties, boy did the fans push back, and ultimately, they were right. I feel the same way about the “silly episodes” of Star Trek (why did they do those in every series?) and no number of favorable reviews or heartfelt recommendations (okay, go ahead and post them in the comments here, it’s okay) of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books have managed to coerce me to read one. I don’t want fantasy to be made fun of, because that means you’re making fun of me for liking it, for writing it, for helping other people write it . . . for my entire life and a solid decade and a half (at least) of my adult, professional life. Ridicule fantasy and you’re ridiculing what’s paying my daughter’s college tuition even as we speak. If fantasy is silly and only to be laughed at then the house I’m living in, down payment courtesy of R.A. Salvatore’s War of the Spider Queen Book V: Annihilation, is a 1700 square-foot joke.

See how defensive I get and how quickly I get there?

This weekend, again based on personal recommendations from friends whose opinions I respect (the best way to find anything good) and taunted by too-revealing commercials on Xfinity On Demand, I rented The Cabin in the Woods.

Here’s another thing you can flame out on me about: I’m not a big Joss Whedon fan. There. I said it.

That doesn’t mean I hate him or want to censor him, and I respect him as a successful creator, and I tried to like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I just couldn’t. There’s a lot I like about Alien: Resurrection, but it’s my least favorite of the four (seven if you count the two AVP movies and Prometheus, which I suppose I should, which would then make it my sixth favorite with the second AVP movie taking up the rear) . . . but I digress.

I think Joss Whedon has a great sense of humor, but a lot of Buffy came off as mocking to me, and that’s enough to knock me right out. I missed Firefly.

I know. Whatever.

Anyway, back to The Cabin in the Woods. SPOILER ALERT!

Look at this picture of a bunny and stop here if you haven’t seen The Cabin in the Woods yet.

No bunnies were harmed in the writing of this post.

Okay, now that we’re alone and can talk. Someone had already spoiled the ending of The Cabin in the Woods for me, at least in broad terms, assuming I’d seen it. So I knew it ended with the apocalypse, but otherwise I had no idea what to expect from it. Only after the fine folks at Xfinity started showing me scenes of the “puppet masters” did I even know it had that angle. Damn you, Xfinity. You couldn’t just show a picture of a bunny? It’s easy. The internet’s crawling with them. Here’s another one:

Who does this bunny work for, really?

The Cabin in the Woods, being more than a little tongue-in-cheek, and conceived and written by Joss Whedon, should be something I don’t like, even hate. But I freakin’ LOVED IT, and here’s why.

I’ll admit that I’m a little didactic on my whole funny fantasy (or SF or horror) is always bad, and in fact I don’t always feel that way. I love Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein, for instance, which I think is one of the funniest movies ever made. But it was made with a real love of the genre. You could see it in the perfect sets and the amazing care that was taken with the source material. I couldn’t say the same for his insulting and awful Space Balls, which, well, let’s not ever mention it again.

The Cabin in the Woods takes not just specific horror (and fantasy and SF) tropes and turns them on their ear, but as with Young Frankenstein, I didn’t get a sense that the filmmakers were trying to say “horror movies are stupid and if you like them you’re stupid, too” but spoke to real fans, like me, and said, “We’re not going to spoon feed this. You have to spot the callbacks to other movies and franchises. If you’re a horror movie fan you’re ‘in the know’ and we love you for it enough to make your experience of the move richer than people who didn’t get the Hellraiser, Exorcist, etc. references.”

You’re speaking to me like a fan, like a member of the club.

I’m in.

That scene where the last two sacrificial victims release all the assorted horrors was amazing fun. That thing that attacked them in the little control room, was that a wyvern? I saw it as a wyvern, straight out of D&D. The Hellraiser guy was the most obvious, but I’ll be watching this one again—I’ve actually already watched it twice, once with my wife and again with my son and his friend from next door—to pick out more.

The nugget of advice: If you’re dead-set on inserting an inside joke into your narrative, make damn sure your core audience will actually get it, and appreciate it.

Though I will continue to caution authors to tread lightly with outright comedy or “spoofs” in genre fiction, maybe it’s time for me to unclench a little at least in the hope of finding more gems like The Cabin in the Woods or Young Frankenstein. Still, I will not defend Once Around the Realms.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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