11 May 2011


A friend of mine asked for my thoughts on whether you could combine Fantasy and noir. So here they are.

Film noir is a stylized form of film narrative. The central character is usually flawed and broken. Usually they are outsiders to society, possibly due to some personal tragedy.  The stories usually contain intricate plots full of deception, crime, murder and intrigue.  Central female characters are portrayed as strong, intelligent and sexually aggressive, temptresses there to lure the central character.

Film noir means Dark film, or Black film, both literally in themes and in lighting.  A lot of Hollywood film noir was influence by the writers Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett who wrote detective novels in the 1940’s.

Good examples of film noir would be; The Postman always rings twice, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, The Blue Dahlia, and more recently Brick, and Sin City.

Several essays have been written about what Film Noir is ranging from the idea of modernism in cinema through to existential philosophy. And I am not going to try and tackle it here.  To sum up they were usually detective stories where the protagonist might solve the mystery but at some cost to himself, whether it be a friend, his love interest or from society. They are, by their very nature pessimistic stories.

So can you combine fantasy and film noir?

Well I think you could definitely have a film noir story in a fantasy setting. While most noir is or was set in and around an urban crime setting, there is no reason why you could not substitute colt 45's and Tommy guns for rapiers and stilettos.
I think of the stories of Captain Alatriste, or a renaissance style fantasy; dark taverns and suspicious priests with sinister plots. The more I consider it, the more feasible it could be.  It would be pretty easy to recreate the noir look and style in a film where your principle light source was candles.

The film The Brotherhood of the wolf is not noir, but there are certainly elements. The Venetian spy Sylvia is a classic example femme fatale character. When I saw the film Black Death, with Sean Bean, the lighting and cinematography opened itself up to the possibility of the film being a horror. It didn't which is a shame. But as I watched it, again I realized the potential for a little bit of genre blending.

I know I am referring to historical period stories here, but if it's so easy to conceive of a noir narrative in a historical period setting, then it is an easy step to conceive of noir in a fantasy setting.

Is the reverse true?  I'm not so sure. Classic film noir has a certain type of protagonist. You could not really interpret them as a hero figure. I am not ruling it out, but I think if you tried to use the mythic conventions of the classic hero in a noir setting it clashes. The noir convention is that the central character is highly flawed and isolated, and there is little or no redemption for him or society. I think you risk losing one concept or the other. Perhaps a classic tragedy could be retold in a noir style? But again I think it would probably cease to be a blend of the two and simply become an interpretation of a fantasy story retold in a noir style.

But it is possible.  If you concentrate on mythic conventions and ideals I do not think it can be done. But by including a magical or paranormal aspect to a modern or period noir, you can add a fantasy element and blend the two. The popular series of books The Dresden Files written by Jim Butcher has a detective who is a wizard is a good example. While I don’t enjoy the stories myself, the concepts that Mr. Butcher writes about are a clever blend of the classic detective story with myth and magic.

So yes I think you could easily blend the two styles.

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