Imagination, Reality, and the Ever-Shifting Line Between

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I relied upon imagination throughout my life to get me through tough times. Because of this, and because, as a writer, my inner life is still very rich and active, one of my favorite themes to see addressed in books and movies is the exploration of that changeable line between fantasy and reality. Recently, I read Holly Black’s Doll Bones, which deals with this issue in a way that is especially concrete. The book explores the trauma a boy feels when his dad throws out the toys that represented his best characters in an ongoing story he was playing with two of his friends. That trauma reverberates to his friends, who also suffer the loss of those characters and all the stories that remain untold. The book really resonated with me, because it was the stories I created with my dolls when I was younger that first revealed to me the addictive power of imagination. I also had an ongoing story with my sister and a close friend, so I also appreciated Holly Black’s handling of the nuances and vulnerability of sharing a created reality with someone else. (You can read my review of the book here.)

This was the main issue I was grappling with in my own middle-grade novel, Ever This Day, although Holly Black has accomplished it more directly and more elegantly than I have. In Ever This Day, a 13-year-old girl discovers an angel in the grove behind her house, and she quickly gets sucked into a world she shares only with the angel and her two-year-old sister, her strongest link to the childhood she is moving away from.

I’ve sort of kept a running list in my mind of books and movies that follow this theme, and I have a lot of books on my “to-read” list that also seem to address it.

  •  Glint by Ann Coburn. This book follows two parallel stories, one that is happening in “real life” and one that is happening in an imaginary realm. My review is here.
  • Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. This book manages to be beautiful despite its brutality. I loved it for its writing and its deft handling of the theme, and it’s an added bonus that it’s also a fairy tale retelling. Back when I was a Teen Services Librarian, I led a program where teens used Animoto to make book trailers. I made my example trailer for this book. (And you can read my review here.)
  • Lars and the Real Girl. This is one of my top-three favorite movies. It’s a comedy, but I didn’t find it funny until subsequent watchings; the first time, I was too enthralled with its handling of the subject matter.
  • Ruby Sparks. I admit it — I was drawn to this movie because the premise is so similar to Lars and the Real Girl. And any writer will appreciate the complications that can ensue when you fall in love with your own character … and find that she’s literally “come to life.”
  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? I’ve never seen this film, but the play had a lasting effect on me.
  • The Wild Hunt. This is the most disturbing of the movies listed here, and I’m not sure I’d recommend it; it’s definitely a darker “take” on what can happen when the line between reality and fantasy becomes too blurred.
  • Pete’s Dragon. One could argue that this movie doesn’t belong in this category, if one makes the case that Elliot was not imaginary. For me, that’s beside the point. I’ve found this movie to speak eloquently to the theme of needing to give up something magical and special that has helped you cope in hard times, in exchange for something more solid, real, and equally wonderful.

And of course, this list would not be complete without The Velveteen Rabbit, perhaps the true gold standard in this category: “Once you’ve become real, you cannot become unreal again.”

What books or movies have you come across that address this theme? I’d love to add them to my list!