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Fantasy Land

Harry Potter and the Secret to Selling Sci-Fi

It's difficult to sell a show with hard sci-fi or fantasy elements. It doesn't matter that the biggest summer movies (Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Transformers, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) and book (Harry Potter again) are sci-fi or fantasy, or even that "Heroes" was the highest-rated new show on TV. Try pitching a purely sci-fi/fantasy show with a spaceship or an elf and see how it goes over. Put an elf on your spaceship and you might never recover. Even the SCI FI Channel seems reluctant, as they look toward a post-"Battlestar Galactica" era, to dive too deeply into Asimovian or Tolkienish waters. Non-cable networks are even more wary. And their reasoning isn't terrible. Networks are still in the business of broadcasting, not nichecasting. You simply cannot make a hit show by attracting only viewers who also attend Comic-Con, no matter how hard it is to move down a San Diego sidewalk in late July.

And yet, there is a certain kind of fantasy story that seems to be able to reach beyond the edges of the normal fandom. It seems to be able to cross the boundaries and appeal so strongly to people that they sometimes don't even notice that they're enjoying fantasy. Harry Potter is an example of that kind of story. The people who don't like Harry Potter seem to be the ones who haven't tried it yet. It's universally appealing, like pie and Anderson Cooper. That means, of course, that Harry has something to teach those of us who want to write, create, air or sell sci-fi/fantasy television shows.

When I tell people what I like about Harry Potter, I usually start out by saying something about how thoroughly-imagined the world is. And for a while I thought that this was why Harry Potter appealed even to people who don't like sci-fi and fantasy, that it is set in a world that seems as real as our own. But it's not a satisfactory explanation. I could cite lots of sci-fi and fantasy shows that constructed seamless imaginative worlds but didn't lure viewers to walk around in them once a week. In fact, the detailed creation of other worlds can sometimes be part of what puts a lot of people off fantasy! They don't want to know the histories of fictional tiny races and their fictional languages.

I have an intelligent well-read friend, confusingly also named Jane, who says this about why she doesn't like sci-fi and fantasy: "The reason I don't like those books is [that] I don't understand them. I miss the metaphor; I can't remember who's who and what the androids and robots are called and what, for that matter, it even means to be an android versus a robot. And I also kind of don't care to." And yet, she also admits that as a child: "I was a big, big fan of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach and I think the Harry Potter books touch on that sense of longing and sadness and looking to pull yourself out of a bad situation."

Yeah. That's it right there. Charlie and Harry and the emergence from a bad situation. That's what it is. It's something about the actual Harry Potter narrative that makes it cross the boundary. It's a very specific type of Hero's Journey, the most potent sub-case. It's told over and over again, and it works, over and over again. Dorothy Gale, Buffy Summers, Harry Potter, Charlie Bucket, Luke Skywalker, even Peter Parker, they all fit a very specific pattern. They're living a life, sometimes a fine one, often a troubled one, but certainly one governed by ordinary rules, when suddenly the curtain is pulled back and a whole new world, or a new set of rules of this world, is revealed. And what's more - and this is the important part - in that new world, they are something special. They are The Chosen One.

I would argue that these stories have a more universal appeal then, say, "Star Trek" in its various incarnations, or "Firefly," or "Battlestar Galactica," as much as those shows all own my heart (and to some degree, pay my bills). And it's no wonder. The Chosen One paradigm is the most positive, most comforting, most affirming metaphorical version of change, of growing up, that I can imagine.

It has obvious inherent appeal to children. They know that they're going to have to move into new worlds as they grow up, and they're scared. A story that tells them that when they arrive they're going to be recognized for the extraordinary person they hope they are, and that they're going to overcome all obstacles even if they're scared? Wow. That's like one of those brain probes they can hook up to lab rats so they can zap their own pleasure centers.

And, of course, the big secret is that grown-ups are every bit as terrified of change as kids, and even more eager to imagine that the ordinary world might be replaced with somewhere in which their specialness is suddenly obvious. In fact, we might even need it more. Kids have potential. Adults have accomplishments. Which of those feels more magical and limitless?

So here's what I think we need to do if we want to write a sci-fi or a fantasy show and give it appeal way beyond the normal boundaries of sci-fi/fantasy fandom. We need to start with an empty page of notebook paper, write "The Chosen One" across the top and start brainstorming. At least, that's what I plan to do.

By Jane Espenson