Movies: The Flight of Dragons

I learned about The Flight of Dragons from doing a google search for movies about dragons. I was surprised to discover one that so many people had such fond memories of, and such a high opinion of, that I had never even heard of. Some comments did mention that it was people of about their age – in their thirties – that remembered seeing it as children and loved it so well. As I was graduating from college the year it came out (direct to video), I suppose that probably explains it.

I got it by interlibrary loan, and we watched it this morning. My younger son, impatient for something to do, started it while I was still in the shower. Taking a look once I was dressed, I decided it didn’t look like something I had to drop everything to see. It rather reminded me, in some ways, of the animated adaptations of The Hobbit and The Return of the King (which were pretty disappointing when compared to the books).

I guess it shouldn’t be surprising I got that impression. After the movie finished, I had my son restart it so I could see the beginning. (He said he would be happy to watch the entire movie again with me. So I guess he liked it.) An ad at the beginning of the tape promoted Warner Brothers’ series of animated adaptations of eight great stories, including The Hobbit, The Return of the King, Watership Down, Oliver Twist, The Nutcracker, The Flight of Dragons, and I forget the last one. (Of the eight, Watership Down is no doubt the best and is now out in collectors editions.)  The Hobbit, The Return of the King, and The Flight of Dragons all used the same Japanese company for the animation.

As for the movie itself, I wasn’t really expecting a lot, despite the high praise I had read about it, so I wasn’t disappointed. I knew (from learning about it through online reviews) that it was very loosely based on Peter Dickinson’s The Flight of Dragons, with characters borrowed from Gordon R. Dickson’s Dragon and the George. I had read some of Dickinson’s early books when I was growing up, but remembered nothing of them except that they dealt with people who were feared and hated machines. And I was pretty sure I hadn’t read The Flight of Dragons.

I had, however, read – and greatly enjoyed – Dragon and the George. My husband and I both enjoyed science fiction and fantasy before we met, and since marrying have had the opportunity to read each other’s books. He has a lot more than I do, so mostly I get to read his books. I particularly enjoyed this one because it combined science, magic, dragons, time travel, and medieval England. I couldn’t quite imagine how its characters could be successfully imported into someone else’s story, however.

The explanation – as I learned from reading Dickinson’s own website, is that his book The Flight of Dragons doesn’t have a storyline. He describes it as a “Ppeudo-scientific paper on dragons as nature’s only attempt to evolve lighter-than-air flight.” He had originally envisioned it as a short comic pamphlet, but his publisher had grander ideas. His publisher apparently was given to dreaming big but falling short on fulfillment, and went bankrupt. Prior to that, however, he had sold the concept of this book to a company making animated cartoons (I am guessing this is Rankin-Bass, best known for their Christmas specials).

They bought it sight unseen, without apparently realising that there was no kind of a story or plot in what I’d written. Undeterred they went ahead and bought the entire plot of The Dragon and the George from its author, Gordon Dickson. …. Scraps of my theory crop up here and there, and the hero is named Sir Peter Dickinson (nobody asked me, of course) but that’s all I have to do with it.

Some viewers who wish it would be put out on DVD speculate that Dickson may have been unhappy with what they did with his book and/or not having received sufficient financial compensation from the movie, and has blocked having it re-released. If I hadn’t read his book previously, I wouldn’t be motivated to do so by watching this movie, so I can see his point, if he does in fact object to it.

The fact is, the basic premise of the movie comes from neither book, but apparently from the scriptwriter’s own imagination. It sets up a conflict between science and magic, with magic weakening because mankind is turning away from it in favor of science. The wizard Carolinus says that mankind needs magic, and makes the odd argument that this is so because it is magic that inspires technological developments. (Chain mail and battleships are imitations of a dragon’s armor; airplanes are an attempt to emulate the flight of fairies; telecommunications emulate the far-seeing powers of a wizard with a crystal ball.)

Sir Peter Dickinson, the hero of the movie, has studied science but loves stories of dragons and magic. Yet when transported into a past where magic is still powerful, he is always trying to find scientific explanations, such as how a dragon can fly. (This, by the way, is pretty much the essence of Dickinson’s book – an attempt to find a scientific explanation for the widespread stories of dragons and their powers.) He eventually defeats the evil wizard by denying the power of magic and affirming the power of science (by listing the many branches of science). Then he is transported back to his own time, where magic is absent and science reigns. (Magic is preserved in a protected place of its own, where people may visit only in dreams.)

Dickson’s book, in contrast, has its hero (who is not named Peter Dickinson) choose to remain in the medieval period with its dragons and magic, its knights and their code of chivalry, and the lack of creature comforts that have yet to be developed. He uses his knowledge from the future to make some minor improvements in his castle – mostly dealing with a much higher standard of cleanliness and personal hygiene than people of that time are accustomed to. But he appreciates the code of honor (when it is not being taken too ridiculously far), the openness and honesty of people, and the adventure of life in that period. Science is not pitted against magic.

I’m not too sure why so many people seem to consider the movie so brilliant. I suppose part of it is having seen it first as children. No doubt part of my affection for A Charlie Brown Christmas is that it was my favorite movie as a child. But at least one comment with high praise came from someone who saw it as an adult. “When I saw this film at a local cinema, I was expecting a simple child’s fare. What I got was a most profound experience.”

There are certainly scenes that intend to be profound. The wizard Carolinus says, “As evil is a part of all things, evil is a part of our world of magic. And the irony of all existence is that good would be totally impotent without the contrast of evil.” I know this is sometimes given as a suggestion answer to the Problem of Evil. I did a paper on this topic for a philosophy of religion class in college, and decided the argument was deficient. I don’t know why God allows evil, but I do not think that God, who is the essence of good, would be impotent without the contrast of evil.

I suppose I can be grateful to the movie for motivating me to reread Dragon and the George. (Unfortunately the D shelf of my husband’s carefully alphabetized collection of sci-fi/fantasy books is currently inaccessible, due to the work we had done in the basement last year, with one room still not put back together as the contractor who will do it for us went on vacation for the winter.) In the meantime, however, I plan to read Peter Dickinson’s book The Flight of Dragons, which also turned out to be available through interlibrary loan.

 It is apparently a fascinating attempt to account for all aspects of dragon physiology and behavior, by analyzing the myths and legends coupled with the knowledge of modern science. According to one comment on this review, Dickson’s attempted explanation of the chemistry involved suffers from having been written prior to the most recent advances in biochemistry. With that exception, however, it is well written and very logical, and can serve as a good example of how to approach a subject to see what light science can shed on it.

It will be interesting to see how it compares with my copy of Dragons and Unicorns: A Natural History.

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