Why the West Loves Sci-Fi and Fantasy: A Cultural Explanation

The world's largest film industry—that'd be India's—is largely barren of the superhero and spaceship films that dominate Hollywood. What, exactly, accounts for the difference?

Warner Bros.

Hollywood's had a long love affair with sci-fi and fantasy, but the romance has never been stronger than it is today. A quick glance into bookstores, television lineups, and upcoming films shows that the futuristic and fantastical is everywhere in American pop culture. In fact, of Hollywood's top earners since 1980, a mere eight have not featured wizardry, space or time travel, or apocalyptic destruction caused by aliens/zombies/Robert Downey Jr.'s acerbic wit. Now, with Man of Steel, it appears we will at last have an effective reboot of the most important superhero story of them all.

These tales of mystical worlds and improbable technological power appeal universally, right? Maybe not. Bollywood, not Hollywood, is the largest movie industry in the world. But only a handful its top hits of the last four decades have dealt with science fiction themes, and even fewer are fantasy or horror. American films in those genres make much of their profits abroad, but they tend to underperform in front of Indian audiences.

This isn't to say that there aren't folk tales with magic and mythology in India. There are. That makes their absence in Bollywood and their overabundance in Hollywood all the more remarkable. Whereas Bollywood takes quotidian family dramas and imbues them with spectacular tales of love and wealth found-lost-regained amidst the pageantry of choreographed dance pieces, Hollywood goes to the supernatural and futurism. It's a sign that longing for mystery is universal, but the taste for science fiction and fantasy is cultural.

Cultural differences are fascinating because even as we learn about others, we learn about ourselves. As an anthropologist, I want to flip this conversation: Why are we so into science fiction and fantasy? Nineteenth-century German sociologist Max Weber had a useful theory about this: The answer may be that we in the West are "disenchanted." The world in which we live feels explainable, predictable, and boring. Weber posited that because of modern science, a rise in secularism, an impersonal market economy, and government administered through bureaucracies rather than bonds of loyalty, Western societies perceived the world as knowably rational and systematic, leading to a widespread loss of a sense of wonder and magic. Because reality is composed of processes that can be identified with a powerful-enough microscope or calculated with a fast-enough computer, so Weber's notion of disenchantment goes, there is no place for mystery. But this state of disenchantment is a difficult one because people seem to like wonder.

And so we turn to science fiction and fantasy in an attempt to re-enchant the world. Children and childhood retain mystery, and so one tactic has been to take fairytales and rewrite them for adults and here we get the swords and sorcery of modern fantasy. Another strategy was to reinsert the speculative unknown into the very heart of scientific processes. But just because we have mined myth for magic—and, remember, even what we define as myth would have been called religion two millennia early (and the very fact that we think those two terms equivalent is also cultural)—does not mean that this fills the same need for wonder elsewhere.

India has developed many of the same features as America: a capitalist economy, an enormous bureaucratic government, and cutting-edge scientific expertise. But its intellectual history is different. Weber's argument is much more nuanced and substantive than the cursory description I have given here, but, in sum, disenchantment is rooted in the intellectual tradition of the 18th-century European Enlightenment with its struggles over the place of religion versus rationality. The aftermath of that contest in the West was to relegate the supernatural mysterious to a lower position than material-based reason. The key point is that this is a particular moment in cultural history, not some necessary and universal stage of human societal "development." Similarly, for that reason, I'd guess Japan's vibrant tradition of the supernatural in its anime, and China's recent taste for American FX spectacles, results from those countries' specific cultural contexts rather than from disenchantment. (And some of the ways the West looks to the non-West for re-enchantment are another, Orientalist can of worms best left for a different day.)

Anyone looking to debunk cultural explanations for the American/Indian sci-fi gap might point out that Hollywood has had the big-budget, dragons-and-droids market flooded for years. Perhaps Bollywood, for commercial reasons, doesn't want to jump in. Average production costs for American superhero blockbusters hover around $200 million these days, and audiences have come to expect the computer-generated spectacle that kind of money buys. But... Star Wars was made for $11 million in 1977 (less than $40 million now) and 25 percent of Iron Man 3's $200 million budget was Robert Downey Jr.'s salary. Surely there's enough technical expertise and financial muscle in India to digitize a realistic Mars landing when the country's space program is on track to launch a real spacecraft (unmanned) to the red planet this upcoming November.

What about the fact that American blockbusters make tons of money worldwide? For films like Avatar and The Hobbit, foreign sales equal or exceed domestic U.S. sales. But India, the world's ninth-largest economy and second-most populous country, does not even rank in the top 12 foreign markets for the genre. The list of those markets reads like the attendees of a G-8 summit (plus some key trading partners): the United Kingdom, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Brazil, Spain, South Korea, Russia, Australia, and China. Avatar (2009) set the high-water mark for India, where South Asian audiences purchased $24 million worth of tickets—about 10 percent of foreign ticket sales worldwide. But for most science fiction, countries with smaller GDPs than India (Australia, Mexico, South Korea) are higher consumers. Of Avengers' (2012) $888 million worldwide, $12 million came from India; Iron Man 3 is on track with similar numbers; and, to their credit, Indian audiences contributed a paltry $2.8 million to Transformers 3's $434 million. Fantasy fares much worse. The Hobbit (2012) made $714 million worldwide; it took home $1.8 million in India. That is barely more than Croatia's $1.4 million.

The simplest conclusion to draw from this is that Bollywood doesn't produce science fiction and fantasy because Indian audiences aren't as keen on it. Local cultural production doesn't just result from economic wherewithal; desires and needs also matter. And desires and needs are cultural. This sometimes feels hard to accept because desires and needs feel so natural. Often we think that the way we live is normal and not cultural; this is what anthropologists call "tacit ethnocentrism," when we are not trying to be prejudiced, but we have unquestioned assumptions that somehow we are the normal human baseline and others somehow deviate from that.

Hollywood continues to make science fiction and fantasy movies because disenchantment creates a demand for these stories, but disenchantment predates Hollywood. We were journeying ten thousand leagues under the sea or scarcely surviving a war of the worlds before the film industry began. If the uptick of Hunger Games-inspired archery lessons and the CDC's humorous-but-practical Zombie Preparedness Guide are any indication, this is not going away any time soon. Re-enchantment delivers something more important than escapism or entertainment. Through its promise of a world of mystery and wonder, it offers the hope that we haven't seen all that there is.