Naturalism and the Fantastic in Snowpiercer

I’m continuing my tradition of writing about movies long after they’ve been released.
I was lucky enough to see Snowpiercer in the theaters this summer. It was, refreshingly, not a typical summer blockbuster. I expect no less from the always-interesting Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho. Actually, I first heard about this movie because of Bong’s feud with Harvey Weinstein, the producer who bought the U.S. rights to the movie. Weinstein wanted to cut twenty minutes out of Snowpiercer to make it more appealing to American audiences. Bong felt the movie should stand as it is, and so did many of the fans who’d already seen it in its international release. In the end, the twenty minutes stayed, though the movie got a more limited release.

Now, I don’t know exactly which twenty minutes were on the chopping block, but I can understand why a big name producer might want to fiddle with this story. Snowpiercer worked for me, but it’s an odd movie and definitely not for everyone. Even my genre friends were pretty divided about it. To me, the main difficulty that this movie faces is one that affects genre storytellers more than others.

I believe it has to do with science fiction and fantasy’s tricky relationship with naturalism in storytelling. According to the dictionary:

“The term “Naturalism” was given to a 19th-century artistic and literary movement, influenced by contemporary ideas of science and society, that rejected the idealization of experience and adopted an objective and often uncompromisingly realistic approach to art.”

Great genre stories often employ naturalism. In science fiction, outrageous premises and alien worlds, when rendered in a naturalistic style, gives the fantastic elements a sheen of believability. It’s a literary of sleight of hand. When it works no one complains, when it doesn’t the audience will find the story “unrealistic” and pick apart every detail exclaiming, “But that’s impossible!”

Great fantasies are often grounded in naturalism, too. The Lord of the Rings and A Game of Thrones are drenched in naturalistic details of our physical world and grounded in modern theories of social behavior. This backdrop makes the magic and strange creatures that populate these worlds seem immediate and possible. The fantastic elements are given the weight of reality by details that we recognize, objectively, as part of our world.

The use of naturalism in science fiction and fantasy stories often works without us really noticing. But stories like Snowpiercer are different. On one level, Snowpiercer is a grim dystopia and an action flick with a social agenda. It also stuffed with many strange, scenes and elements that don’t immediately make sense. The movie employs gritty, naturalistic effects, but the story is not realistic, it’s symbolic.

I was just getting around to this realization when I came across a post examining Snowpiercer as an allegory. Go check out Michael Hughes’ excellent: How an Obscure Second Century Christian Heresy Influenced Snowpiercer.  Later, in an online discussion about the movie, Ted Kosmatka, wrote: 

 “Here’s the deal I made with the movie: Spin me a good parable, and I won’t hold you to reality.”

Allegories and parables are both species of metaphor. In the case of long works, like Pilgrim’s Progress, they are extended metaphors that reveal hidden meanings and illustrate concepts.

Symbolic stories like Snowpiercer that employ naturalism risk creating a kind of cognitive dissonance in a viewer who takes naturalism as a cue that the movie is realistic. As I watched Snowpiercer, I quickly realized that I needed to decouple the idea that the movie’s naturalistic detail had anything to do with reality. Once I did that, I was free to enjoy the story on its own terms.

This is a challenge particular to speculative writing. Not only must the storyteller tell a compelling story, they must make clear to the audience just what type of story they’re telling. Of course, success also depends on active participation from audience. I have no real solution to this aspect of the genre, as I think the best stories; the best art pushes exactly these boundaries, forcing our brains and hearts to reach for new levels of understanding and connection.

Many of my favorite stories fall along these lines: KarenRussell’s novella, Sleep Donation, which I read (among other things) as an allegory for the cost of giving set in a fantastic tale of modern day epidemiology; The movie, Gamer, which I saw as a dark, inverted fairy tale. These layers of meaning double the fun for me, because every scene, every action, every line of dialogue has one meaning while other meanings move along underneath, underpinning and obverting every moment.

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