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Selbo

3/27/2015

JOURNAL OF SCREENWRITING Volume 6 Issue 3


Intellect Press, UK

The fantasy and war genres:


invasion, the alternate plane and displacement
by Jule Selbo Ph.D.
California State University, Fullerton
jselbo@fullerton.edu

Abstract: Films employing the fantasy/war genre are top box office attractions and there is much
for the screenwriter, or for those who guide screenwriters, to consider in this fact. This article
will explore the reasons for the popularity of this film genre hybrid and contrast these films lure
to film narratives in the war genre told through a straightforward, realistic and/or historic
method. The article will also investigate how the fantasy/war genre, using elements of the
fantastical fairy tale or using the fantastical alternate plane in films such as Alice in Wonderland
(2010), World War Z (2012) and Red Dawn (1984, 2012) provide a desired displacement for an
audience in regards to conscious or sub-conscious anxieties regarding living in a world in
constant war.
Keywords:
Fantasy/war, displacement, alternate plane, invasion theory, fantastical uncanny, fantastical
marvelous, film genre hybrid

The fantasy and war genres:


invasion, the alternate plane and displacement

Cognitive analysts C.S. Peirce (1839-1914) and John Dewey (1859 - 1952), with
contrasting theories concerning the reasons for the human predilection to war, can give
screenwriters insights into why the film genre hybrid fantasy/war - has become the

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highest profit-making narrative form in contemporary cinema. Peirce, in his essay


Fixation of Belief (1877), posited that human beings strive to be in a state of belief with a
cessation of strife and doubt. When these desires are threatened, Peirce noted, people act
in necessary ways to achieve a new stasis that reflects their desired level of existence.
Dewey, in Human Nature and Conduct, noted, Clans, tribes, race, cities, empires,
nations, states have made war. The argument that this fact proves an ineradicable
belligerent instinct which makes war forever inevitable is much more respectable than
many arguments about the immutability of this and that social tradition. (Dewey, 1922)
Which of these well-supported theories drives the narrative approaches of many
screenwriters working in the fantasy/war genre today? In this paper, I will begin the
examination of the various story choices and the specific reasons for the popularity of this
amalgam of film genres.
The examination (history, theory and practice) of film genre, as it pertains to the
screenwriters ideation and construction process, is a relatively new area of investigation.
In my book, Film Genre For The Screenwriter (2015), I explore the most commonly used
film genres and discuss the term film genre hybrid (coined by Steve Neale1) and how the
use of multiple genres in a single narrative can aid the screenwriter in the writing process.
Understanding the attractions of certain film genres as well as understanding the specific
elements of each classic film genre can serve as another tool to be used in the
screenwriters craft.
Audience reception of various genres is an area explored by many film theorists,
notably by Janet Staiger in Perverse Spectators (2000), David Bordwell in Poetics of
Cinema (2007) and Torben Grodal in Embodied Visions (2009). The observations that
stylistic variances within genres appeal to certain audiences (Staiger:11, Bordwell:136))
and the argument supporting millenniums-old cognitive connections based on the general
human experience (Grodal):45), give the screenwriter clues as to how an audience
perceives and receives stories in the romance or adventure or war or horror or other
genres. And, of course, box office receipts are one of the most quantifiable resources
used to gauge the popularity of a film genre. Of the top twenty all-time American box

1 Steve Neale, University of Exeter, has published multiple works on various aspects of film genre.

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office winners (as of 2014), nineteen of those films are in the fantasy genre. These top
moneymakers also employ the war genre (Titanic (1997) being the odd one out). These
include Avatar (2009) a fantasy/adventure/war/action narrative and films using similar
genre hybrids such as Star Wars (1977) The Avengers (2012) and Transformers: Revenge
of the Fallen (2009). All of these latter films are fantasies that use the war genre in their
main plot lines. Even the financially successful fantasy/crime narrative The Dark Knight
(2008) uses classic elements of the war genre in its societal and political conflicts.
Screenwriters such as Phillipa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Guillermo del Toro,
John Milius, James Cameron, Ridley Scott, Hayao Miyazaki, Linda Woolverton and
many others have taken audiences into the fantasy/war genre and found commercial and
(for the most part) critical success. Breaking down the components of both of these film
genres can be of use for the screenwriter interested in this type of narrative construction.
The war genre
Historically, every filmmaking nation embraced this film genre from the
beginning days of cinema. Film historian Stephen Bottomore in Filming, faking and
propaganda: the origins of the war film 1897-1902 (2007) notes that the birth of cinema
coincided with imperialist military conflicts such as the Spanish-American War (1898),
the Boer War (1899-1902) the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) and audiences were
fascinated with the idea of seeing on-screen re-enactments of battles (Langford,
2005:105). The popular Cabiria (penned by Gabriele DAnnunzio and director Giovanni
Pastrone) in 1914 is a three-hour Italian epic2 set in the Punic Wars - when Rome
invaded Carthage to expand their territory. The two and a half hour commercially
successful Birth of a Nation in 1915 (written by Thomas F. Dixon, Jr., Frank Woods and
director D.W. Griffith) depicted the northern and southern states of the United States
invading each others territories in hopes of gaining dominance.3 The obsessive and
innovative French writer/director Abel Gances five and a half hour Napoleon in 19274

2

Film director Martin Scorcese refers to it as the first epic ever (Variety, Epic Ambition May 14, 2006)
Birth of a Nation was so controversial in its depiction of freed African-Americans that Griffith, in almost
an apology, next put together Intolerance (1916). (New York Times, Birth of Another Spectacle and Its
Life. July 26, 2013)
4 Gance wanted to make seven more films on Napoleons invasions but was never able to gain financing
(Randall, 2013)
3

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thrilled audiences, as did the more manageable one hour and 52 minutes 1938 Russian
film, Alexander Nevksy (written by Sergei Eisenstein and Pyotr Pavlenko and winner of
the Stalin Prize in 1941); its focus is on an attempted invasion of the historic Russian
territory, Novgorod, in the 13th century by Knights of the Holy Roman Empire intent on
spreading their religious beliefs. Filmmakers created films depicting the invasions,
battles, social and political conflicts of World War I (many focusing on nave soldiers
taking part in various invasions, discovering the horrors of war) and years later depicting
similar situations in World War II (focusing, in this era, mostly on the valiance of war
(Langford, 2005:111). In the 1970s, American screenwriters John Milius and Oliver
Stone penned their horrific stories of invasion and military disarray in Viet Nam,
mirroring the sense of futility of war presented in tales of World War One. War films
have continued in all nations and screenwriters have constructed narratives in various
perspectives. French screenwriter and director Claire Deniss Beau Travail in 1999
explores the disenchanted solider caught in a memory/angst regarding the
French/Algerian conflicts. The Turkish film Fetih 1453 (2012, written by Attila Engin
and Irfan Saruhan) looks at the events surrounding the fall of Constantinople to the
Ottoman Turks.5 Today many American war films depict troubled soldiers and lift them
to near-heroic status while they maneuver through ugly, technologically savvy and
invasive wars in films such as The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012) (both
penned by journalist/screenwriter Mark Boals) and American Sniper (2014, screenwriter
Jason Hall based this work on the life of a Navy Seal, Chris Kyle). The aforementioned
film narratives are based on historical or contemporary real wars and actual nations
variant support and/or belief in the veracity of specific invasions and conflicts. For the
most part, they have attracted a specific audience (i.e. in gender and age) and experienced
various levels of box office success. The longevity of this particular film genre speaks to
audiences desire for and understanding of its narrative relevancy (Selbo, 2014:34). What
is attractive to the audience about the war genre?
The actual term war relates to an official governmental declaration of explicit
hostile action, however, most film analysts will include police actions, coup detats and
even societal conflicts such as gang warfare within the war genres perimeters (Selbo,

5

The film was banned in Lebanon because it was thought to be offensive to the Orthodox Christians.

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2014). Film narratives told in the war genre most likely focus on the reasons for war, the
techniques, the obstacles and struggles of participants to maintain (C.S. Peirces theory
speaks to this approach) or to impose a certain way of life (Deweys theory speaks to this
approach), and battles to ensure protection or instigate invasion employed by warring
units.
The stakes are high; war genre narratives, in most cases, involve life and death
circumstances for societies and/or individual human existence. The war genre narrative
often examines extreme heroism or extreme villainy and/or the roots of power and/or the
extreme desire for power. Langford notes that many war films focus on small military
units with defined memberships and boundaries, often forcing personal tensions that must
be overcome in order to successfully address a specific mission. The focus on the
microcosm can be seen as representative of multiple similar units facing similar conflicts
in other battlefields (Langford, 2005:107).
One of those specific conflicts of war is the act of invasion. Invasion is a very
potent idea to most - whether one considers it in the role of an aggressor or in the role of
a victim of aggression. This element often supplies the inciting incident or major plot
point of a story told in the war genre. Narratives in the war genre are not typically small
family dramas they live on a bigger scale of stories that look at the affect of actions on
a larger society or even the entire world. Peirces point that war is employed because a
orderliness and stability and a known domain is desirable to many, supports the idea that
world order is a concrete entity that is worth great sacrifice to maintain. The screenwriter
may gain creative ideas knowing that there is, for the audience, inspiration and perhaps
solace in the comprehension that they are not alone in their want of an existence that is
understandable and acceptable. The plot lines, the themes, the characters dilemmas
inherent in the war genre speak to an audience, but, in most cases, it is only when these
elements are teamed with the fantasy genre that audiences begin to multiply.
Popular hybrid
The fantasy/war genre, that certain breed of war film now consistently enjoying a very
wide and very popular reception with audiences of all ages and genders, are stories where
screenwriters employ the structures and elements and plot points of the classic war genre

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narrative but form a marketable and potent hybrid by conjoining it with the fantasy genre.
Box office results show that fantastical, unreal, out-of-reality tales of invasion, mass
destruction and civilizations-at-risk set in fantastical locations during fantastical times
appeal to the broad audience.
Why is the fantasy/war hybrid so popular?
Max Brooks, son of screenwriter Mel Brooks and author of the novel World War
Z, notes:
People have an anxiety about the future. Theyre constantly being battered
with these very scary, very global catastrophes. I think a lot of people
think the system is breaking down and people need a safe place to
explore their apocalyptic worries. They cant read stories about real
plagues or nuclear war. Thats too scary. (Brooks in Barber article, 2013;
emphasis mine)

Suzanne Collins, novelist and screenwriter, daughter of a career Air Force military
specialist, in an interview about her screenplays based on her bestselling Hunger Games
novels, noted:
Telling a story in a futuristic (fantasy) world gives you this freedom to
explore things that bother you in contemporary times. So, in the case of
the Hunger Games, issues like the vast discrepancy of wealth, the power
of television and how it's used to influence our lives, the possibility that
the government could use hunger as a weapon, and first and foremost to
me - the issue of war. (Interview with Collins by Margolis, 2008:
parenthesis mine)
The screenwriter, when marrying the fantasy genre with the war genre, removes
the pointed reality of a narrative; the audience is not directly asked to face past or present
authentic situations of lethal hatreds, misinterpretations, greed, aggressive world-building

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and other events that led or may lead to massive destruction of safety and community.
Allegory, metaphor and fairy tales are all narrative engines that, as we know, often
convey meanings or points of view without direct focus on hardcore realities that may
feel too threatening for a wide audience to face. I will get back to the attraction of this
film genre hybrid, but first, an explication of two broad forms of fantasy.
The fairy tale and the alternate plane
For the purposes of this investigation I would like to touch on the fairy tale as
defined by J.R.R. Tolkien and focus more attention on another form I refer to as the
alternate plane narrative. Tolkien, sometimes referred to as the father of modern (or
high) fantasy (Mitchell, 2009), in his essay, On Fairy Stories, wrote:
The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many
things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and
stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril;
both joy and sorrow sharp as swords. (Tolkien, 1947; italics mine)
The fairy tale fantasy is removed from the ordinary life of the audience. In
viewing a fantasy/war film in the fairy tale realm (as in Alice in Wonderland (2010) or
the recent films in The Hobbitt franchise) the audience can gain comfort knowing that
whatever war-related difficulties that arise in the film narrative will not be directly met
outside the theatrical experience. Fantastical worlds and powerful villains, tribulations of
elves, hobbits, unicorns or other supernatural creatures engaged in battle are not part of
our reality once the viewing experience is completed.
However, alternate plane narratives are very different and, in most cases, feel
closer to reality. They bring to mind the experiments/ideas of renowned scientists such as
Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawkings, Kip Thorne, Leonard Susskind and others regarding
the existence of parallel (alternate) planes and multi-universes. In 1895, American
philosopher and psychologist William James coined the term multi-universe to refer to
the physical possibilities of versions of life existing in the same time but on different
planes of existence. Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, in his book Parallel Worlds: A

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Journey Through Creation, Higher Dimensions and the Future of the Cosmos (2005),
writes of the other universe (or universes) floating just a millimeter away on a braine
(membrane) parallel to our world. This universe cannot be directly viewed because it
exists in hyperspace, beyond the four dimensions (length, width, height and time time
being not just seconds, hours, minutes or days - but a sense of space in the space-time
continuum) of our everyday reality. Kaku suggests that our multi-universe is made up of
11 dimensions and.6
It is time to remind the reader that this author is not a physicist and can only enjoy
these ideas as an academic in an artistic (as opposed to scientific) field and as a
screenwriter. In other words, to enjoy these theories as a creative contemplating the
imaginative possibilities they suggest.7 Oxford Universitys Dr. David Deutsch puts it
like this: a copy of you (or me) could be reading this article or one very much like it on a
near or far plane or planet in another universe identical to ours except this copy of you
(or me) may have a slightly or majorly dissimilar backstory or circumstance and thus
have a dissimilar present state (Pelletier, acc 2014). The hypotheses are part of the string
theory concept that has fascinated creatives such as John Nolan and Chris Nolan to
create the narrative for Interstellar (2014), the Wachowski siblings to come up with The
Matrix (1999), Jim Uhl to pen Fight Club (1999) and Jaco Van Doermel to create Mr.
Nobody (2009) and Chris Nolan to write the screenplay Inception (2010).
How does a person travel from one fantastical uncanny plane to another? Einstein
theorized something called an Einstein-Rosen bridge; this is also popularly referred to as
a wormhole (Wheeler, 1957). In screenwriting parlance, we most likely refer to this
bridge or wormhole as a portal. Screenwriters create a portal for a character to traverse
in order to gain access to this other plane or braine. Consider the portals in Lewis
Carrolls Alice in Wonderland (the 1951 adaptation credits thirteen writers, the 2010
adaptation credited to Linda Woolverton), Being John Malkovich (1999, written by
Charlie Kaufman), Wizard of Oz (1939, eighteen writers are listed on the adaptation) and
Coraline (2009, written by Henry Selick based on the Neil Gaiman book).

6

( http://bigthink.com/videos/the-multiverse-has-11-dimensions-2)
is an interesting sidelight to note that the motivation for noted scientist Kip Thorne work - to come up
with his now widely accepted theoretical solution to travel through wormholes - was a request from
Professor Carl Sagan who was writing a science fiction story (Contact 1985). Sagan was stumped and
wanted to explicate a safe interstellar passage for a character (Mendez,
7 It

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The screenwriter of the fantasy genre (set in the fairy tale world or in an alternate
plane narrative) intends, in most cases, for the viewer to be inspired by the ideas,
possibilities and worlds of the fantasy narrative. The intent of the screenwriter may also
be for the audience to ponder the imagined civilizations or worlds in ways that the
narrative choices may reflect or comment on the ills or strengths of the contemporary
world. This latter provides the opportunity for the screenwriter to examine desired themes
and points of view regarding intentions (including the varying inciting indications
proposed by Peirce and Dewey), actions and repercussions of war narratives while
suggesting the potential for the former point: ideas concerning implementation of exploits
of war and an investigation of possibilities for alternate actions.
One might ask, do these alternate plane narratives reside in science fiction or are they
relegated to fantasy? The sci-fi genre and the fantasy genre (both live under the term
speculative genre) (Selbo, 2014) are often explored as one or used interchangeably
without a fine look at their very distinct differences. 8 Langford and Grodal, who have
much to offer the screenwriter in terms of film genre history and theory, do not spend
time on the marked differentiation for the screenwriter in the constructive phase of work
of these distinct film genres. In simple terms, the sci-fi narrative emerges from a
scientifically proven fact or science-based hypothesis and adds fiction to the mix. In
contrast, fantasy springs from the imagination and does not have to have, at its base,
scientific tenets that must be extrapolated. I propose, at this time in our evolution, that
although theorists and practitioners in physics have proven the scientific veracity of
wormholes, the actual interstellar travel and the actual worlds that are not yet found are
still stuff of imagination. Thus the screenwriter, constructing a story on an alternate
plane, is building in the fantasy realm. And these realms, I suggest, are where the
audience feels more comfortable and receptive with narratives focused on issue
concerning war. Eric Christensen, in his article Why is Fantasy so Popular (2012), in
relation to the sci-fi genre vs. fantasy genre notes:


8 The sci-fi genre and the fantasy genre are also often used as a strong hybrid genre and this also adds to
many analysts non-clarification of their conspicuous individual elements.

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10

My argument is that people are looking for escapism, but they do not want
to turn to science fiction. People (now) get enough science fiction in their
daily lives, and many are uncomfortable with that fact. Indeed, 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. (Christensen, 2012; parenthetical mine)
Fantasy has the ability to move the audience into a more complete sense of wonder
because, by definition, it is based on imaginative world building and is not held to the
higher standard of plausibility as is the sci-fi genre. Christensens point that
contemporary audiences will continue to favor the more removed-from-reality narrative
for entertainment and commentary on the human predilection or observations concerning
war can be informative for the screenwriter who wishes to explore the tales of political
and social conflicts that rise to the level of dominance or annihilation of others.
The attraction of adding fantasy to the war genre
What is it about adding the fantasy element that attracts the wider audience to the
war genre? Raphaelle Moine points out in her book Cinema Genre (2008), that the
audience has a desire for a sense of reassurance (comfort) as a narrative component - and
she points to the audiences penchant for reaffirmation of normative social values.
(Moine, 2008:74) Many real war films from the past and I would argue virtually all
contemporary real war films - cannot promise that sense of reassurance - for the horrors
of war seem to be with us on an on-going basis. According to Peace Pledge researchers:
Since the end of the Second World War in 1945, there have been some 250 major wars
in which over 50 million people have been killed, tens of millions made homeless, and
countless millions injured and bereaved. In the history of warfare the twentieth century
stands out as the bloodiest and most brutal three times more people have been killed in
wars in the last ninety years than in all the previous five hundred (years). (Peace Pledge

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Union, 2014). In the fantasy/war genre, the screenwriter is able to imagine and construct
a world where villainous invaders or empire builders can be thwarted.
Another element to consider: the classic war genre protagonist is constructed as a
hero who believes in large-scale justice and one who is willing to fight (and even die) for
the sake of the everyman. The audience is inspired by as well as comforted by (to use
Moines term) the idea that a person will take on the mantle of the hero and risk all to
fight for others beyond his or her personal sphere. Robert Murphy, in The British Cinema
Book (2009), referring to the British experience in World War II, notes, for many
people the war was a high point of intensity and excitement when things seemed possible
which werent normally possible. (Murphy, 2009:233) Murphy goes onto remark on
characters portrayed in this eras war films as those that wrestle with difficult moral and
physical problems, and when they win, it is at some cost (there is) the transforming
effect of the war, turning timid, ineffectual civilians into warriors and war workers, as if
the war were a blessing which enabled people to realise their potential. (Murphy,
2009:233) When these character traits and character journeys are moved into the realm of
the fantasy tale, the real and painful memories and/or experiences of actual circumstances
in war can be displaced and thus move towards a more non-threatening reception. Due to
the prevalence of a world at constant war, the Freudian theory of displacement
(unconscious defense mechanism employed by the mind to substitute more acceptable
perceptions for ones that are dangerous or unacceptable) can be considered to be in play
in fantasy/war narratives.
In 2004, well-known fantasy writer, Ursula K. Le Guin, gave a talk where she
described what she sees as the function fantasy serves in contemporary society.
Fantasy is a literature particularly useful for embodying and examining
the real difference between good and evil. In an America where reality
may seem degraded to posturing patriotism and self-righteous brutality,
imaginative literature (fantasy) continues to question what heroism is, to
examine the roots of power, and to offer moral alternatives. (Daniells,
2010) (parenthesis mine)

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Le Guins observations are also directly linked to an investigation of the war genre for
the war genre, as mentioned previously, often examines extreme heroism and the roots of
and desire for power. What Le Guin is suggesting is that by using displacement of
fantastical worlds and characters for the more real world and pointing to moral
alternatives while questioning the fascination with or the accepted elements of heroism,
fantasy narratives may benefit the acceptance of new ideas of human interaction.
Differences in approach in the fantasy genre
In the construction of the fantasy genre, there are two other categories to consider:
Franco-Bulgarian philosopher Tzvetan Todorov, in his book The Fantastic: A Structural
Approach to a Literary Genre (1970, translated by Richard Howard) defines fantasy
as any event that happens in the known world that seems supernatural. He focuses
on the ambiguous that contrasts factors related to reason and those outside the purview of
human reason. What is of interest in Todorovs observation is how this conflict of reason
and non-reason can push the perception of possibilities and engage an audiences thought
process. To extrapolate this concept: war, being in the forefront of everyday life, is
relatable as any event that happens in the known world; however moving war into the
supernatural where events are removed from everyday experience opens up
possibilities that encourage new perceptions of events. Grodal points to audience
reception in fantasy, he notes that the attracting elements of the fantasy genre include an
audiences desire to explore agency, morality and social exchange (Grodal, 2009:20, 45).
By moving realities of war into fantastical realms, the audience is able to more
comfortably assess the reasons and realities of war.
Todorov suggests that once a supernatural event takes place or a supernatural
being is presented, the human experiencing the abnormal must make a decision: Does this
experience fall into the fantastical uncanny? Or does it fall into the fantastical
marvelous?
The fantastical uncanny and the fantastical marvelous
German psychiatrist Ernst Jentsch in a 1906 essay, On the Psychology of the Uncanny,
defines the uncanny as being a product of human uncertainty an event or happening

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that exists in a question we must ask ourselves: Is the experience real? This constant
question as to what is and what is not real dominates. This is very much part of the idea
presented in string theory that there are different planes of existence and the main
character goes through a portal of some sort and the character is amazed (along with the
audience) at the fantastical world in which he or she is now experiencing. The audience
and character or characters experience a sense of wonder together.
Fantastical marvelous refers to the worlds that just are. Characters exist as if it
is their ordinary world (consider Star Wars Luke Skywalker does not go through a
portal to his world on Tatoooine, it is his reality and the audience accepts it as the given
fantastical story world of the narrative). The audience may experience a sense of wonder
at viewing this fantastical world but the characters do not it is their reality.
Using Todorovs observation on the basic tenant of fantasy, both the fantastical
uncanny and the fantastical marvelous approaches are valid narrative entries. In many of
the fantasy/war stories in recent years, the fantastical marvelous tactic is utilized,
introducing the audience to characters that live in alternate worlds.
Invasion - and the alternate plane
What is most important in the fantasy genre is that the screenwriter is intent on worldbuilding; he or she must build the perimeters and rules of the domain that the characters
inhabit. One of those possible worlds could be an alternate plane of existence. As
mentioned, the term alternate plane is sometimes used interchangeably with multiverse
(or multi-universe) or parallel plane however the inclusion of the word alternate often
is accepted to refer to a reality that is a variant of the accepted existence. In other words:
an alternate reality. I would like to look at two commercially successful films in relation
to this: an American film, Red Dawn (1984) and World War Z (2013). World War Z is
not as close to a clear alternate reality however I would argue, in todays world, in a
strange way, it feels almost as close.
Both of these films embrace the idea of invasion, one of the major story elements
of the war genre. Narratives concerning invasion can be approached from different
points of view: the aggressors movement into anothers territory or conversely,

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communities being invaded by the aggressive other: the other being the different, the
unfamiliar and the unwelcome. The other attempts to install some form of dominance
physical, spiritual or psychological and the populace must react. By using the event of
invasion, in a fantasy narrative
Invasion Literature is a specific literary genre that uses fantasy and the alternate
plane as one of its main elements. Invasion Literature gained popularity between 1871
and the First World War as the world heated up politically and new technology,
specifically the hot air balloon, made invasion via the sky a notion and a reality. British
author George Tomkyns Chesneys The Battle of Dorking (1871) is often pointed to as
the work9 that cemented the birth of Invasion Literature; it is an alternate reality story of
the invasion of Britain by a fictional dominance-seeking European country. The story
uses the fantastical marvelous approach; the alternate world is not entered through a
portal it just is. H. G. Wells work, War of the Worlds (1897), another tale told in the
fantastical marvelous fashion, was another huge seller - it featured Martians invading and
seeking dominance of Earth. By 1914, there were hundreds of books in this genre
available to the reading public (Reiss, 2005:106) and in 1915, the American fantasy/war
alternate reality film The Battle Cry of Peace, written and directed by J. Stuart
Blackton, was released. Perhaps inspired by The Battle of Dorking, it explored the
possibilities and consequences of a successful European invasion of the United States.
A more contemporary film narrative related to the scenarios put forth in the novel
Battle of Dorking and the film The Battle Cry for Peace is Red Dawn (1984 and remade
in 2012).
The original draft of Red Dawn, in 1984, was written as a spec screenplay by then
University of Southern California film school student, Kevin Reynolds10, who grew up a
son of an Army officer. It found its way into the hands of bad boy, bigger-than-life
National Rifle Association (NRA) member and screenwriter John Milius. Milius, from
an early age, thrived on survivalist games real and imagined. He volunteered for Viet

9

The Battle of Dorking was first printed in Blackwood Magazine, UK and then re-printed as a book and
became a best-seller.
10
Kevin Reynolds is a writer/director. Writing credits include Red Dawn (1984), Fandango (1985), Rapa
Nui (1994), Clavius (2015). Directing credits include Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), Waterworld
(1995) and Count of Monte Cristo (2002).

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Nam but was disappointed when turned down because of asthma. In the 1970s and 1980s
he was a gun-toting screenwriter; when asked to do a fast draft of Evil Knieval (1971)
by movie producer George Hamilton, Milius agreed - as long as he was provided a
writing haven in Palm Springs, California stocked with plenty of guns and girls for
inspiration (Figueora, Knutson 2013). Milius became infamous for placing a firearm on
studio executives desks that might give him unwanted notes on his screenplays
(Figueora, Knutson 2013). Milius was endured because he delivered nuanced and
exciting scripts; his writing and co-writing credits include Dillinger (1973) The Life and
Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), Jeremiah Johnson (1972), Magnum Force (1973), The
Wind and the Lion (1975), Apocalypse Now (1979) and Conan the Barbarian (1982).
Milius earned fame for writing lines like I love the smell of napalm in the morning...
(Apocalypse Now), and, as an uncredited writer, adding lines to the Dirty Harry
franchise: "This is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world. It can take
your head clean off. So, you gotta ask yourself, 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do ya punk?"
(Dirty Harry, 1971)
When Milius read Reynolds draft of Red Dawn, he was excited; this was a movie
he wanted to direct because, as he said: "We were promised, when I was growing up, this
war with Russia We were promised World War III." (Patterson, 2009)
Red Dawn, an alternate reality tale told using the fantastical marvelous method,
takes place in a small town in Colorado (a state in the western area of the United States).
Russian-backed forces land at a rural high school in a surprise invasion and they attack
with the latest Soviet weaponry. The overall intent of the invaders is a massive invasion
of the United States. Most of the adults in the Colorado community capitulate, however a
group of high school students move into the mountains and take it upon themselves guerilla warfare style with rifles, grenades, single and multiple fire handguns and
carbines - to bring down the invaders.
As noted, the screenplay takes place in a fantastical marvelous world. The
prologue (large type on the screen) sets the fantasy - the alternate plane - for the viewer:
The Soviet Union suffers the worst wheat harvest in 55 years
labor and food riots in Poland. Soviet troops invade. Cuba and

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Nicaragua reach troop strength goals of 500,000. El Salvador and
Honduras fall Green Party gains control of West German
Parliament. Demands withdrawal of nuclear weapons from
European soil Mexico plunged into revolution NATO
dissolves. United States stands alone. (Red Dawn, 1984)

Red Dawn is a fantasy very close to reality. Audiences responded to it, putting
it in the top 20 moneymaking films for the year. However, it received negative reviews
and was deemed ludicrous by most critics. Red Dawn stalled Milius successful career,
for his jingoism and war mongering were not in sync with Reagan White House years.
However, seventeen years later - after the 9/11 invasion of America - these types of
stories based on physical invasion of aggressive other forces re-surfaced with a
vengeance in the United States and continue to enjoy great box office success:
fantasy/war films that exist close to a possible reality - on an alternate plane of existence
that is understandable and relatable to the audience - but just far enough removed from
reality so as to provide a comfortable viewing experience.
American films White House Down (2013), Olympus Has Fallen (2013), and G.I.
Joe Retaliation (2013) exist on alternate planes but are also built in understandable and
relatable worlds. Can these films be termed escapism? Yes. Do they fulfill the desire for
war stories that do not hit extremely close to home (reality): yes. Does their popularity
speak to a form of displacement, an unconscious defense mechanism that the mind uses
to substitute fear or an anxiety towards a reality that may be deemed dangerous or
unacceptable? Yes. Screenwriter and director Roland Emmerich (director and producer of
White House Down)11 notes that, to him, they serve another purpose: he sees fantasy/war
films as an alert (for) the audience to pay attention. (Gilchrist, 2004) Emmerich feels
that by creating these possible (what if) disastrous (albeit fantastical) scenarios he is
increasing awareness of possibilities of devastating consequences that could be caused by
government or citizens who are not diligent in sensing conceivable perils.

11

Other Roland Emmerich projects include: Independence Day (1996) 2012 (2009), Godzilla (1989) and
more

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The 2013 film, World War Z, also makes use of the fantastical alternate plane
and is told in a fantastical marvelous approach. However this story is a massive step
removed from narratives like Red Dawn and White House Down that feature very human
and realistic characters, for it adds fantastical creatures: zombies. And yet the narrative
exists in a very understandable and relatable world and its message of a need for diligent
awareness is the same. World War Z is about a global community that faces the threat of
viral contamination. Science has gone wrong a virus has not been contained properly.
Even a search for patient zero is not of concern for the initial ghoul zombies
contamination is spreading at an amazing pace. Any bite of an infected person (now a
zombie) can turn others into flesh-eating, ravenous monsters; twelve seconds after a
healthy host is bit, he or she has become zombie-ized and can attack healthy other
hosts.
Kyle Bishop, an English professor at Southern Utah University in the western
United States, argues that our modern concept of zombies is actually a product of film. In
his article Raising the Dead, Bishop wrote:
The zombie genre does not exist prior to the film age because of its
essentially visual nature; zombies do not think or speak they simply
act, relying on purely physical manifestations of terror. (Bishop, 2013)
The terror created in World War Z hits close to home; the threat of biological warfare is
ever present in the world, bringing with it thoughts of an apocalypse or mass
disfigurement or assault on mental capacities or other forms of harm. Displacing this
human concern with the fantastical turning into a zombie (and at times using very black
humor) allows the audience to contemplate the idea but keeps it removed from everyday reality. Thus, the entertainment value of the narrative is assured and allows for a
strong box office.12 The zombie is a character found in fantasy it is a grotesque and
supernatural creature. Zombie movies today often reflect many common fears that

12 Contagion (2011) a narrative focused on biological contamination, posted domestic gross of nearly
$76 million on initial release. World War Z, in 2013, posted domestic gross of over $202 million on
initial release. (box office mojo, acc 2015)

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impact audiences around the world: fear of our own death, the fear of the monster, fear of
infection, fear of technology and even the fear of other people.
World War Z takes place on an alternate plane. Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his
family are embarking on a new phase of life; Lane has just left government service to
concentrate on his wife and children. Lane is called back into service when the biological
catastrophe is made known; people are being infected and turning into rabid zombies.
Lane enters the fray to thwart this global epidemic while most of the military are behind
closed doors watching computers or in helicopters above the combat zone. He partners
with an Israeli female soldier, Segen (Daniella Kertesz) and they eventually discover that
only the unfit can survive. This is a scenario that audiences can relate to today for it
has real components, however, as noted, by putting it in the fantasy genre in an
alternate plane - and employing the unreal monster the film narrative is kept squarely in
the entertainment mode.
Zombie stories give people the opportunity to witness the end of the world
theyve been secretly wondering about while, at the same time, allowing
themselves to sleep at night because the catalyst of that end is fictional.
(Brooks in Barber article, October 2013, bbc.com)
Conclusion
This investigation is targeted at the screenwriter interested in the fantasy/war
genre. I have explored why audiences are attracted to the war genre; war is a constant
reality in the world and whether it is a daily physical concern or not, the mental toll of its
existence is felt, either subliminally or overtly. The theories of C.S. Peirce and John
Dewey regarding the reasons human engage in war are of interest for the screenwriter, for
the writers points of view of characters, the set up of situations and actions are important
and an understanding of underlying reason for the human predilection for battle may
effect narrative choices. The stakes are high in war stories; they often concern life and
death circumstances for societies and/or human existence, point out the reality of neverending conflict due to human desire for dominance and, when approached in a realistic
manner, can raise anxiety in the audience. By wedding the fantasy and war genres a

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displacement occurs, the screenwriter can develop a narrative where audiences can
engage in an investigation of fears and concerns regarding the state of the world but
displace the real concerns by constructing battles where a hero can fulfill the audiences
hopes, engage in moral arguments that can sway a populace and shape a satisfying end
that massive conflicts and clashes that could decimate nations, generations, entire worlds.
By employing fantasy in the war genre, screenwriters can address Raphaelle Moines
observations regarding the desire for reaffirmation of normative social values and an
audiences longing for reassurance to heart. Audiences want to believe that the world is
safe and that the good guys will protect and save us but they also realize that a world
an actual world in constant war - is the reality and it resonates on a subliminal or
conscious level. Michael Atkinson, in his article War and Popcorn (In These Times,
April 30, 2012) writes: Being involved in endless low-grade wars that dont impact our
daily lives, we seem to have acclimated to war as a form of entertainment we can either
savor or ignore. (Atkinson, 2012) It seems that audiences have decided to savor it, but
through fantasy.

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http://www.dailykos.com/story/2010/03/23/849593/-Red-Dawn-and-Teabagger-Fantasy-Land#
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Dewey, John, Changing human nature, Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social
Psychology, New York: Modern Library (1922) 106-124

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Den Of Geek (acc 2014) Kevin Reynolds, the Den of Geek Interview
http://www.denofgeek.com/movies/13508/kevin-reynolds-the-den-of-geekinterview#ixzz3686TtlgO
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Jule Selbo Ph.D.


California State University, Fullerton
jselbo@fullerton.edu