Update11/21/20: In my semi-regular series of posts for NaNo, I’m reboosting my post on magic. Usual disclosure: This is my theory of magic in fantasy. There are other points of view. I personally do not find magic systems with rules to be particularly appealing, but many authors and readers clearly think otherwise.
The reviews are coming out about A Wrinkle in Time, and they made me think about The Sisters Mederos. Not just, “damn, I wish I could write a world-changing novel or best-seller and have it turned into a movie,” but more specifically, special effects. Or, as we fantasy writers call it, magic.
I am one of those authors who writes fantasy but who doesn’t do magic. The magic in my books is scaled back and subtle and doesn’t take center stage. My fantasy novels are specifically about the intersection of magic with our world (Gordath Wood), or about an alternate or secondary world much like our own, which has certain magical elements in it (The Sisters Mederos). And then the magic sits there and does its thing, percolating or humming or informing the world and the characters who interact with their environment, and it doesn’t call attention to itself. It’s like weather. Well, not even weather. It’s like air.
A Wrinkle in Time, for all that it is a time- and space-traveling science fiction story, is magical in exactly that way. The Mrs are magical and very powerful gods, and they can perform amazing acts of science and magic, but A Wrinkle in Time is about Meg and Charles and Calvin and Meg’s mom and dad. The most chilling scene in A Wrinkle in Time is when all the kids are bouncing their balls in front of their houses in rhythm, and the reason it’s chilling and powerful is because the children see it and they see how wrong and horrifying it is. This has nothing to do with FX and everything to do with story telling.
Yet as soon as I saw the trailer, I could see that the fabulous Ava Duvernay had decided to focus on the magic and not the story. To try to make the magic in our minds real in front of our eyes. But every story teller knows, the most powerful magical bond is between the reader and the book — and it’s the bond the reader creates, not the author. Duvernay went the exact wrong way.*
True confession: I haven’t seen the movie yet. I’m sure it’s marvellous. I have already heard, however, reviews that confirm that it’s kind of … cold. Soulless. As the saying goes, this is a book about the ineffable, and they effed with it.
In contrast, take a look at The Fellowship of the Ring. The LotR was widely considered to be unfilmable. With Fellowship, Peter Jackson created Middle Earth that brimmed with magic and yet the magic was just there, humming along under the surface, the land steeping in it. Characters interacted with their environment, both magical and mundane, in equal measure, as if the magic itself was mundane. The FX weren’t overlaid on top in a “look at me!” way as the special effects were in later installments. I have all the movies on DVD, but The Fellowship is the only one I rewatch.
Magic as mundane. I think that’s what I mean by the kind of magic I do. Not that the magic is ho-hum — it’s not — or that it’s not very magical, but just that it doesn’t call attention to itself. It might even, as in The Sisters Mederos, exist ambiguously, just as magic does in our world.
I know that this theory is not to everyone’s taste. I love fantasy, but I’m not in it for the magic system. When I read a good science fiction or fantasy novel, I want to sink into the world and be immersed in the story. Same with the movie — I don’t want to constantly be noticing the special effects. After all, when it comes right down to it, the real special effects happen between the reader’s ears. The director — or the author — interferes with that magic at his or her peril.
*The last time Hollywood tried to film A Wrinkle in Time, the same thing happened. I think it’s a case of, well, we have all these cool toys…
The Sisters Mederos comes out in a few weeks, readers! Here’s a box of books and a few buy links: