Book Review:

The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games, by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas

Reviewed by Amy Cummins 

University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

Review of Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’s The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games, New York University Press, 2019. 240 pp. Hardcover (ISBN-13: ‎978-1479800650). Paperback (ISBN-13: ‎978-1479806072). Kindle (ASIN: ‎B07JJGGZVG).

In The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas exposes how Blackness has been negatively represented in fantasy literature, television, and film, resulting in “the challenge of getting readers to voluntarily choose to identity with the Dark Other” (19). Many people overlook the racialized representations in popular culture forms such as books, television, movies, and fan communities despite how these shape young audience members and their literacy. Constantly seeing negative depictions can discourage willingness to read or to identify with characters of color. Black people have been unjustly portrayed as “the monstrous, the invisible, and the always dying” in fantasy media (165). New narratives and approaches are needed. While works by African American creators move global society toward improving this cultural “imagination gap” (6), this book focuses on texts that were seen on screens and completed “before the Afrofuturistic renaissance of the late 2010s” (8).

Thomas defines the eponymous phrase “the dark fantastic” as “the role that racial difference plays in our fantastically storied imaginations” (7). The “cycle of the dark fantastic” that Thomas names, describes, and applies is five stages: “(1) spectacle, (2) hesitation, (3) violence, (4) haunting, and (5) emancipation” (26). Following an introduction and a theoretical chapter, four subsequent chapters provide case studies. In each, Thomas “turn[s] the spotlight from the White female protagonist to the dark girl in the shadows, in the expectation that if we behold her presence and hear her speak, we will be able to understand more about how race shapes the imagination” (44). The four focal points are Rue from The Hunger Games, Gwen in the BBC series Merlin, Bonnie Bennett in The Vampire Diaries, and Angelina Johnson from Harry Potter. As audience reception is crucial here, Thomas quotes from and interprets online fan postings along with interrogating the primary texts. The internet and social media affect cultural productions and contribute to the collective shaping of response. 

In “Lamentations of a Mockingjay: The Hunger Games’ Rue and Racial Innocence in the Dark Fantastic,” Thomas discusses how the sacrificial death of Rue, “the first mockingjay,” enables Katniss’s revolution to happen (43). Close analysis of the 2012 film The Hunger Games supports the claim that “as much as Katniss’s story is a critique of the inauthenticity of the Capitol and its exploitation of its districts, Rue’s story, if counterstoried through a critical race lens, is a critique of Katniss’s heroism” (43). Thomas further addresses the backlash to the casting of multiracial Black actor Amandla Stenberg in the role of Rue for the film adapted from the first novel in the series by Suzanne Collins (61).

“A Queen Out of Place: Dark Fantastic Dreaming and the Spacetime Politics of Gwen in BBC’s Merlin” examines responses to the representation of a Black Guinevere who was once a servant girl. Merlin, a TV fantasy program that initially aired 2008 to 2012, reimagines Arthurian legends rather than being a direct literary adaptation. Thomas demonstrates that, “within the universe of the show, as well as in the fandom, Gwen’s race and class matter” (99). While there were viewers questioning of authenticity because Angel Coulby, who is Afro-Guyanese, played the brave Gwen/Guinevere, people all over the world were inspired, thus “writing thousands of fanfictions continuing her tale, sharing fanart on Tumblr and DeviantArt, and even cosplaying,” which helps with motivating people of all ages to “imagine better and more inclusive Camelots” (106). Although Gwen does not gain a truly happy-ever-after, the significant portrayals of Gwen and her family members in the series “provide a counternarrative to the overwhelmingly White landscape of traditional fantasy and fairy tales” (105). This chapter also explores the Merlin-Arthur (“Merther”) relationship and the use of magic “as a metaphor for homosexuality” on the Merlin program (98).

Thomas adds effectively to the limited scholarship on The Vampire Diaries, a supernatural TV series on The CW. The chapter “The Curious Case of Bonnie Bennett: The Vampire Diaries and the Monstrous Contradiction of the Dark Fantastic” considers the full run of the show (2009-2017), although not the spinoffs, and offers comparisons with the books. Bonnie Bennett, played by the multiracial Black actor Kat Graham, is a major character, close friend of Elena Gilbert, and the latest in the line of Bennett witches. Thomas emphasizes how the self-sacrificing Bonnie gets mistreated and sidelined yet underscores Bonnie’s centrality. The series culminates with Bonnie’s ancestor Emily haunting and possessing her, and the finale reveals “the return of Bonnie’s entire ancestral lineage in order to violently save Mystic Falls and the world” (118). This moment embodies a central principle of “the dark fantastic” through the “haunting of the text by an Africanist presence” (118). Thomas provides an innovative interpretation important for critical viewers of The Vampire Diaries.

This monograph in the Postmillennial Pop series from New York University Press is important for an interdisciplinary readership concerned with media studies, fan studies, young adult literature, screen adaptations, speculative fiction, and fantasy for all ages. Thomas, a tenured faculty member in the University of Michigan School of Education, writes in an accessible academic style. Both the readability and the content of this book are engaging. Thomas incorporates her own life experiences, for example comparing growing up in 1980s Detroit, Michigan, to being in District Twelve in The Hunger Games (36- 38), discussing music that has been important in her life (67-68), and explaining her early contributions to Harry Potter fanfiction culture (144-150). The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games (2019) is already becoming an influential book and a touchstone for future scholars and fans.

-27 July 2022