I spent the past weekend watching three classic ’eighties fantasy movies, all of which I’d seen at least once as a kid: The Dark Crystal (1982), Legend (1985), and Labyrinth (1986). These films and others like them have definitely shaped fantasy writing here in the West; the way we tend to imagine other worlds and creatures in our fiction has a certain shared, familiar quality to it. And not just that; these stories are loved. Author Holly Black and her husband, artist Theo Black, named pets after characters in The Dark Crystal. Poetess and author C.S.E. Cooney admits she learned how to make delicious, eerie goblin poetry from the rhyming goblin in Legend. And on and on.
Since these movies remain cult favorites, and if you’re a reader of this blog, you’ve probably seen at least one of them, I thought it might worth taking a look at what keeps people watching twenty-some years later, and what we can learn from them as writers in 2014.
First off, all three can be classified as quest stories: something is taken/lost/destroyed and must be regained/found/restored, or else there will be dire consequences for the world or at least the main character. As a plot line, it’s pretty linear. Go off on an adventure to get the MacGuffin, and all will be well. Fail, and disaster ensues. In The Dark Crystal, it’s the broken crystal. In Legend, it’s the severed alicorn. In Labyrinth, it’s the main character Sarah’s baby brother Toby. We as observers know what’s at stake, and we want to see our heroes succeed and set things right again.
(It’s interesting to note that in the latter two movies, a main character is responsible for setting the chain of events into motion: in Legend, Lily touches a unicorn, which is forbidden, and in Labyrinth, Sarah unknowingly offers her brother up to the Goblin King. They must then atone for their mistakes. In The Dark Crystal, it’s a little different; responsibility for saving the world is thrust upon Jen’s shoulders, but he wasn’t the one to break the crystal.)
There’s a strong end-of-days motif that runs through all three: the world as we know it will be over if the character doesn’t succeed. In The Dark Crystal and Legend, if the heroes fail, darkness will destroy everything forever. But in Labyrinth, it’s a more intimate ruin on the horizon: Sarah’s baby brother will be changed into a goblin, and her family will be shattered. These are still big stakes, if not global.
Some kind of lesson is learned during the quest, or to put it another way, the inner journey of the main character mirrors the outward, physical one. Whether it’s Jen the Gelfling finding his own strength in The Dark Crystal and coming to trust Kira, the only other living Gelfling, Lily and Jack in Legend learning that there can be no light without darkness, or Sarah in Labyrinth realizing that nothing is as it seems (and possibly also that she might want to be careful what she wishes for in the future, because you never know who’s listening!), we want to see our heroes grow and change.
The individual (with the help of friends) has the power to overcome dark forces and triumph. Even though our heroes are underdogs and don’t have the same sheer power as the antagonists, they are plucky and courageous, and they work together to come up with solutions. Sometimes, as with Sarah in Labyrinth, they trick out the answers they need to continue. But no matter what happens, they never give up.
Balance is another thread that runs through all three movies, the idea that there should be balance, and if that balance is disturbed, things go badly. The Dark Crystal does this subtly, showing us the race of evil Skesis and the race of noble Mystics and letting us put the pieces together the same way Jen does as he restores the shard to the original question. We then discover what the clues have been pointing us to all along: when the crystal was broken, the whole, complete people known as the UrSkeks split into two. They had to come back together, flaws and virtues both, for the world to survive. In Legend, which sadly tells us at the beginning what it wants us to know in a block of text rather than showing it, balance between light and darkness is paramount. When the forces of darkness attempt to destroy light forever, they must be stopped. Even in Labyrinth, the Goblin King’s minions learn that they can have friends and be kind and selfless despite their origin.
Temptation plays a big role in the films, too. In Legend and Labyrinth, the villains grow attracted to the heroines’ light and try to woo them. Lily and Sarah find their virtuous natures tested again and again, as they are shown beauty, given jewels and fine black gowns and dream-inducing peaches, and offered eternal love as a queen of the night. Both times, our heroines do not succumb and remain true to their mission (and in Lily’s case, to her love Jack).
So what does all this mean? I think it says a lot about the elements we as a genre like to see in our fantasy, and it’s definitely something to consider in our own work. Not every story has to be a quest story, not every story has to have a MacGuffin, and not every story needs to spell out its message (in fact, I’d argue no story should!), but it does have to have characters and stakes we care about. And hey, a unicorn never hurts, either!