My parents and I were discussing magical realism the other day trying to pin down exactly how it might be defined. My dad hadn’t heard of it so we threw out some books and movie titles: 100 Years of Solitude, Amelie, Harvey, Chocolate (both the book and the the film with Jhonny Depp), and Rough Magic. He suggested that magical realism sounds very much like surrealism, but after throwing out some examples of surrealism including Hieronymus Bosch, Salvidor Dali, Eraserhead or Jan Svankmajer’s Alice or Brazil, we realized that they must be different genera’s.
Although all of the movies, paintings and books listed above have an element of the weird, the magical, and the strange there are some crucial differences.
Surrealistic art is realistic, while at the same time warped. In surrealistic movies there are magical elements but they are not usually real, they are often dreams or drugged visions, not reality. These stories are are all about making the viewer change the way he or she sees the world. In fact, most surrealistic movies have very clear themes, even though the details of the story can be confusing. Often society is portrayed as crushing, overwhelming and unyielding and the main characters are are stuck in their position of oppressor or victim. Sometimes they are both at the same time. Usually the protagonist fails and the themes of the story are not obvious to them.
In magical realism though the themes of the stories are often portrayed though the transformation of the protagonists. In fact transformation, physical and or emotional is a central theme of most stories of this genre. Change is central to the characters, the place that they live, and the people that they live with. Magic is used as a central tool of the plot and character narrative, but the magic is never shown to be real or imaginary. Often people debate: Is the magic real? Or is the magic just an idea that changes the world? Either way, the magic is transform-itive but the transformation is never explained because if it was, then the film would be either fantasy or a drama/comedy. Much like Schrödinger’s cat who is both alive and dead, the magic in a story with magic realism, both exists and is only an idea at the same time.
Harvey is a great example of this. Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) is a man who’s best friend is Harvey, a six foot tall invisible talking rabbit. Elwood is rich handsome and amiable thus many people think him eccentric, rather than crazy. As a man with money there are those who would like to put Elwood (and Harvey) away so they can have his money. Hi-jinxs ensue. If Elwood is insane the movie is all about him changing the world around him into a better place simply by believing in Harvey. If, in fact, Harvey exists the movie is all about a six foot high invisible talking rabbit that saves a wonderful man from being incarcerated for seeing something that no one else can. What makes this movie so amazing is that throughout the movie we are never sure if Elwood is insane or if Harvey actually exists. It’s almost as if both things are true.
I think this is what the magical means in the descriptive term magical realism.