From the author: Thoughts on depicting martial arts in fantasy stories. Article originally published in SFX Magazine in 2017.
Martial Arts & Fantasy – More Please, But Better
by Fonda Lee
I hold a black belt in two different martial arts, am the author of a gangster fantasy saga that’s been described as “the Godfather with magic and kung fu” (Jade City) and a previous novel that’s been called, “MMA in space” (Zeroboxer). I count Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix among my all-time favorite movies. In short, I love it when the action genre and speculative fiction collide, and when, despite the presence of magic or advanced technology, heroes with killer martial arts skills get to use their fists to wallop the living snot out of villains.
So I have thoughts about what separates a good martial arts fantasy from a bad one, what makes Into the Badlands eminently watchable and Iron Fist a flat out disappointment, why Avatar: the Last Airbender is such a fantastic television show and such a travesty of a movie adaptation.
The first thing to remember is that martial arts aren’t magic. They appear to be magic because the most dedicated practitioners train so long and diligently they’re able to do things the average person has a hard time believing is possible. The awe of, “That can’t be…” happens when you watch Olympic gymnastics, see a world class magician perform sleight of hand, or observe a master chef at work. In fact, the word, “kung fu” refers to any discipline that requires patience and hard work (such as writing). Even in a fantasy world, this fundamental reality of martial arts ought to be acknowledged. If a character instantaneously gains fighting power from a magic item or event, he or she is not a martial artist. You can make the art itself magical, the world magical, the people magical, but don’t take away what it means to be martial artist. It is damned hard to identify with a character who can defeat others without having put in time, blood, and sweat.
In martial arts stories, the action scenes are character scenes. They are crucial to the story and the character’s development. Which means the actors must be able to express themselves through the physicality of the fight sequences. This starts with casting actual martial artists, and/or making sure actors have enough time to train to be able to perform the action scenes themselves. There is a simply too noticeable a world of difference between watching the long, uninterrupted takes in a fight scene starring Jackie Chan and the dozens of quick cuts necessary to make Finn Jones look good when the work is done by stunt doubles. An equally egregious sin: an over-reliance on CGI and wire-fu that destroys the raw effect of fists on flesh, of bone smacking bone.
Ironically, many a martial arts story has failed to excite me because there was too much focus on the fighting. A convincing fantasy story enables the reader or viewer believe in magic by making it a natural, accepted part of the world. The characters don’t go around exclaiming upon magic to each other and they don’t spend eighty percent of the time showing off dangerous spells for no reason. So why are there still scenes of characters standing in dojos spouting mystical Orientalist claptrap (another problem altogether) or getting into perfectly avoidable fights that don’t impact the story? The fights that exist ought to be necessary and spectacularly good, but please keep the focus where it needs to be: on the characters and their journey. Cool martial arts scenes are no substitute for good writing, but when you combine the two? It’s badass. And magical.
This article originally appeared in SFX Magazine.
Book One of the Green Bone Saga. The World Fantasy Award-winning modern-era epic fantasy novel of family, honor, martial arts, and magic. The powerful Kaul family faces clan war for control of the magic jade that will determine the fate of their island country.
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