Imagination, Reality, and the Ever-Shifting Line Between

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I relied upon imagination throughout my life to get me through tough times. Because of this, and because, as a writer, my inner life is still very rich and active, one of my favorite themes to see addressed in books and movies is the exploration of that changeable line between fantasy and reality. Recently, I read Holly Black’s Doll Bones, which deals with this issue in a way that is especially concrete. The book explores the trauma a boy feels when his dad throws out the toys that represented his best characters in an ongoing story he was playing with two of his friends. That trauma reverberates to his friends, who also suffer the loss of those characters and all the stories that remain untold. The book really resonated with me, because it was the stories I created with my dolls when I was younger that first revealed to me the addictive power of imagination. I also had an ongoing story with my sister and a close friend, so I also appreciated Holly Black’s handling of the nuances and vulnerability of sharing a created reality with someone else. (You can read my review of the book here.)

This was the main issue I was grappling with in my own middle-grade novel, Ever This Day, although Holly Black has accomplished it more directly and more elegantly than I have. In Ever This Day, a 13-year-old girl discovers an angel in the grove behind her house, and she quickly gets sucked into a world she shares only with the angel and her two-year-old sister, her strongest link to the childhood she is moving away from.

I’ve sort of kept a running list in my mind of books and movies that follow this theme, and I have a lot of books on my “to-read” list that also seem to address it.

  •  Glint by Ann Coburn. This book follows two parallel stories, one that is happening in “real life” and one that is happening in an imaginary realm. My review is here.
  • Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. This book manages to be beautiful despite its brutality. I loved it for its writing and its deft handling of the theme, and it’s an added bonus that it’s also a fairy tale retelling. Back when I was a Teen Services Librarian, I led a program where teens used Animoto to make book trailers. I made my example trailer for this book. (And you can read my review here.)
  • Lars and the Real Girl. This is one of my top-three favorite movies. It’s a comedy, but I didn’t find it funny until subsequent watchings; the first time, I was too enthralled with its handling of the subject matter.
  • Ruby Sparks. I admit it — I was drawn to this movie because the premise is so similar to Lars and the Real Girl. And any writer will appreciate the complications that can ensue when you fall in love with your own character … and find that she’s literally “come to life.”
  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? I’ve never seen this film, but the play had a lasting effect on me.
  • The Wild Hunt. This is the most disturbing of the movies listed here, and I’m not sure I’d recommend it; it’s definitely a darker “take” on what can happen when the line between reality and fantasy becomes too blurred.
  • Pete’s Dragon. One could argue that this movie doesn’t belong in this category, if one makes the case that Elliot was not imaginary. For me, that’s beside the point. I’ve found this movie to speak eloquently to the theme of needing to give up something magical and special that has helped you cope in hard times, in exchange for something more solid, real, and equally wonderful.

And of course, this list would not be complete without The Velveteen Rabbit, perhaps the true gold standard in this category: “Once you’ve become real, you cannot become unreal again.”

What books or movies have you come across that address this theme? I’d love to add them to my list!

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11 Responses to Imagination, Reality, and the Ever-Shifting Line Between

  1. Jnana Hodson says:

    I, too, love crossing that line, and the list of excellent works (we could even add opera) would be very long, indeed. But Woody Allen’s recent Midnight in Paris would be at the top of my current tally.

  2. Horror movies abound in this topic, actually, but I doubt you want to add a bunch of those to your list. Ghosts, haunted houses, psychological problems creating an environment where you don’t know what to believe. But for your list in particular, Pan’s Labyrinth for sure. And a lot of others made by the same director.

    • I was pretty sure Pan’s Labyrinth made the list, but I only included movies that I had seen. I’ve been thinking, though, that I’m “ready” to handle Pan’s Labyrinth now. Also, psychological horror is usually OK, as long as there’s not a lot of gore. 🙂 Thanks for your comment!

  3. G says:

    The Velveteen Rabbit is the best kids’ book EVAR.

    I was surprised/disappointed to see some feminist hostility towards Ruby Sparks; I felt you could easily have swapped the genders and told the same story with no complaints from anyone.

    • I hadn’t heard about feminist hostility toward Ruby Sparks, so I just did a quick search to read some of it. Although one review in particular regarded it as flat and shallow, I would disagree; I think it’s one of those movies that can be read on a lot of different levels, and you could make both a feminist and an anti-feminist case for it. But I know that I tend to be pretty sensitive to that sort of thing (I’ve worked in feminist media for 10 years), and it didn’t pull any of my triggers at all. I think that the criticism of it being merely a “male fantasy” is a little short-sighted, since of *course* it is a male fantasy; but it evolves beyond that as Ruby becomes more a “real” person and eventually even breaks away completely, which can be read as a feminist transformation. Sometimes the mark of a good movie is how vehemently intelligent people disagree about it. 😉

      • G says:

        I got in an Internet Argument with someone insisting that Calvin shouldn’t have had a second chance with the real Ruby–he should’ve found her independent and unreceptive and just wistfully resigned himself or something. The End. I think that would have been a terrible ending. The story sets up an error, salvation and reward. Ruby is his true love and reward. If he learned his lesson yet was still punished you’d have a hopeless and spiteful story. To just hint that he learned his lesson and could theoretically move on to someone else would ignore the One True Love symbolism and not convince as a redemption/reward. It would be unsatisfying.

        When I tried to tell all this to the other person, I was accused of “mansplaining”. I had to look that up.

        People just project their demons onto others online (and in real life, but it’s easier online) and it can be extremely annoying. This person appeared intelligent enough to reason with but could not have been more wrong about my perspective/attitudes.

        Anyway, this person was not alone in her view; I think it must be dispiriting sometimes to have made something good, with good intentions, then you see all this bloody Internet froth about it, and it’s too big and irrational to engage with, like The Blob.

  4. G says:

    Yeah, I just saw Lars and the Real Girl last night–“enthralling” is right. Couple of things I especially appreciated: the delicate balance between realism and the almost unbelievable goodness of the townsfolk; and the way the shrink character helps you to understand and follow Lars’ psychological progress. Patricia Clarkson should get all the Oscars.

    You’re into fairytales? Don’t watch Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013). Meaningless, superficially postmodern gore-fest. Fourteen percent on Rotten Tomatoes, but The Great Unwashed give it 60%–depressing. A film made from spliced together death scenes from 80s action movies and the video diaries of a psychotic cat-killer would deliver similar thrills without the pretensions and faff. Actually, it has a weird amount of women getting beaten to a pulp–it’s really unsparing yet is pitched at the panto level, intellectually.

    Actually, watch it, just to be amazed at how these things get made. Great scripts are wasting in limbo as we speak…

    • I agree with you about the delicate balance and the Patricia Clarkson character. I actually used Lars & the Real Girl as a “Litmus Test” with men I dated — if they were sympathetic toward Lars, they were worth keeping around; if they were derogatory, I knew it wouldn’t work. Needless to say, my husband passed (we watched it on our 3rd date). My dad failed, but luckily I don’t need to date him. He said he didn’t “believe” the townspeople would be as decent about it as they were. But it’s nice to see an optimistic take on trauma and mental illness once in a while, not to mention its symbolic appeal.

      I am into fairy tales, but I haven’t seen Witch Hunters — very much because it looked like just an excuse to spew violence, which I’m not really into. Didn’t see “Jack the Giant Killer” for the same reason. That’s one downfall about one of my interests going “mainstream” — then you get all the crappy interpretations, too, just trying to cash in. Ugh. Usually, any movie that has folks in black leather holding weapons on the poster doesn’t get my cash … even if it does have fairy tale characters in the title. 😉

  5. Jenna says:

    A book that comes to mind is one that you recommended and lent me years ago: “Ariel” by Stephen R. Boyett. “Ariel” is more of a coming-of-age story, but it fits in with this theme of giving up something magical to live in the real world. It fits for the same reason that “Pete’s Dragon” does.

    • You’re totally right. The break at the end makes an even stronger case for this theme than “Pete’s Dragon” does, I think. No wonder I was so heartbroken. Such a good book. Thank you!

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