Fantasy Genres in Film. High vs. Low Fantasy Explained

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Fantasy is a genre that explores worlds, characters, and narratives beyond the confines of reality. It often incorporates magical elements, mythical beings, and supernatural events, creating a realm where the impossible becomes possible. When the fantasy world is set in an entirely fictional world, it is called high fantasy. When the fantasy world is mixed with the real world, it is called low fantasy. Each of these has several subgenres or related genres.

Below, you can see an overview of the primary subgenres of fantasy supported by movie examples.

High Fantasy

high fantasy

High Fantasy, also known as epic fantasy, is characterized by its setting in an entirely fictional world with its own rules, geography, and, often, languages. These stories frequently involve a grand quest or struggle between good and evil.

High fantasy features complex world-building, a large cast of characters, and a narrative that often revolves around a hero’s journey.

Key Elements of High Fantasy

  • Fictional Universe: High fantasy is set in a completely imaginary world, meticulously detailed and distinct from the real world. This world often includes unique geography, languages, and cultures.
  • Epic Scope: The narrative usually involves large-scale conflicts with high stakes, often encompassing the fate of entire worlds or civilizations.
  • Heroic Characters: The protagonists in high fantasy are typically larger-than-life heroes who embark on significant quests or journeys. These characters often undergo substantial personal growth and development.
  • Magical Elements: Magic is a fundamental aspect of high fantasy, and characters often possess magical abilities or encounter magical creatures and artifacts.
  • Mythical Creatures: Dragons, elves, dwarves, and other mythical beings are common in high fantasy worlds.
  • Moral Dichotomy: High fantasy often portrays a clear distinction between good and evil, with the heroes representing virtuous qualities and the villains embodying malevolent forces.

Movie Examples

  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) – Set in Middle-earth, this film epitomizes high fantasy with its detailed mythology and epic quest.
  • Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (2023) – Set in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting from the larger D&D Universe

Low Fantasy

low fantasy

Low Fantasy introduces magical elements into the real, mundane world. Unlike high fantasy, the setting remains recognizably earthbound, and the magical aspects are often more subtle or hidden.

The contrast between the ordinary and the fantastical is a hallmark, often leading to a sense of wonder or disruption.

  • Real-World Setting: The story is usually set in a world that closely mirrors our own, often in contemporary or historical settings.
  • Limited Magic: Magical elements are present but are usually more subtle and less ubiquitous than in high fantasy.
  • Character Focus: The narrative often centers on ordinary characters who encounter the fantastical rather than on epic quests or battles between good and evil.
  • Moral Ambiguity: The genre often explores complex moral and ethical issues, with neither good nor evil characters.

Movie Examples

  • Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) – This film contrasts the harsh reality of post-Civil War Spain with the protagonist’s fantastical encounters.
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) – Partially set in the real world of the Muggles and combined with the extensive magical universe of Hogwarts and beyond
  • The Green Mile (1999) – Here, the supernatural powers of a death row inmate bring a mystical dimension to an otherwise realistic setting.

Table 1 below shows a summary of the differences between high fantasy and low fantasy:

AspectHigh FantasyLow Fantasy
DefinitionHigh fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy fiction set in an alternative, fictional world distinct from ours.Low fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy fiction where magical events intrude on an otherwise normal world.
Key ElementsHigh fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy fiction set in an alternative, fictional world distinct from our own.Magic exists but is less prevalent.
Everyday settings with fantastical elements.
Focus on ordinary characters.
Ambiguous morality and motivations.
SubgenresEpic Fantasy
Heroic Fantasy
Historical Fantasy
Urban Fantasy
Dark Fantasy
Superhero Movies
ExamplesThe Lord of the Rings (2001-2003)
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (2023)
Harry Potter (2001-2011)
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
The Chronicles of Narnia (2005-2010)
Table 1: Differences between high fantasy and low fantasy

Now, let’s move on and look at some of the related subgenres of high and low fantasy.

Dark Fantasy

Dark Fantasy blends horror elements with fantasy, often creating a foreboding or grim atmosphere. This subgenre explores the darker and more sinister aspects of magical worlds.

Themes of terror, fear, and the macabre are prevalent, often accompanied by morally ambiguous characters.

Movie Examples

  • The Dark Crystal (1982) – This film features a dark, dystopian world filled with mythical creatures and a struggle between good and evil, making it a prime example of dark fantasy.
  • The Witch (2015) – Set in 17th-century New England, this film merges folklore with horror, creating a dark and unsettling narrative.
  • Crimson Peak (2015) – A gothic romance with supernatural elements, this film emphasizes haunting atmospheres and dark themes.

Urban Fantasy

Urban Fantasy situates magical elements within a modern (sometimes contemporary) urban environment. This subgenre often features contemporary settings where mythical creatures and magic coexist with everyday life.

The juxtaposition of the modern world with fantastical elements is key, often leading to conflicts between the mundane and the magical.

Movie Examples

  • The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010) – Set in New York City, physics student Dave Stutler must learn magic to prevent the return of the evil enchantress Morgana le Fay.
  • The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013) – This film depicts a hidden world of demons and shadowhunters within modern-day New York City.

Historical Fantasy

Historical Fantasy integrates fantastical elements into historical settings. These films reimagine historical periods through the lens of magic and mythology.

Authentic historical details are combined with mythical or supernatural elements, often leading to an alternative history.

Movie Examples

  • Stardust (2007) – Set in Victorian England, this film combines historical elements with a magical quest.
  • Sleepy Hollow (1999) – Set in 1799, the film blends historical settings with supernatural elements, fitting the historical fantasy genre.
  • The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) – Set in an alternate Victorian era, the film features historical characters and fantastical elements, blending history with fantasy.
  • The Brothers Grimm (2005) – Set in 19th-century Germany, this film combines historical settings with fairy-tale elements, making it historical fantasy.

Summing Up

Low fantasy films are set in the real world but with magical elements, like “Harry Potter.” High fantasy films, like “The Lord of the Rings,” take place in entirely fictional worlds with their own rules and histories. Subgenres include dark fantasy (mixing horror), epic fantasy (grand, often with quests), and urban fantasy (modern settings with magic).

Up Next: Horror subgenres you should know.

Author

  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns filmdaft.com and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

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