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Mary Robinette Kowal – Need a Portal into a Fantasy World? Here Are Ten to Consider


There’s a fantasy trope that almost no other genre plays with: The magic doorway, the portal from the mundane into the magical that embarks the hero on his or her quest. These gateways can take many forms, so let’s look at the ones I would have a hard time avoiding.

1. The Drawings, MirrorMask (2005)
The path from our world to the Land of Light passes through windows created in the most ephemeral of materials. Every window that Helene (Stephanie Leonidas) draws creates an opening between worlds. The problem of course, is that all it takes to destroy paper is a match.

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2. The Tornado, The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Who could forget the tornado that carries Dorothy from Kansas to the land of Oz? I saw a restored print of this in the theater, and the moment when Dorothy (Judy Garland) steps out into full technicolor is one of the most magic on screen. It isn’t Dorothy so much as the audience — having never seen a color movie before — who stepped into the land of wonder that day.

3. The Tiny Door, Coraline (2009)
Sometimes a magic door can take you someplace not very nice. Coraline thinks the tiny door hidden behind the wallpaper in their new apartment is pretty keen. Until she finds out that to live on the Other side means trading her eyes in for buttons. You’d probably want to avoid this one, but how can you resist crawling through that neon tunnel?

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4. The Tree, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
One of the things that makes a labyrinth so fascinating is that it’s as hard to get out of as it is to enter. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is lucky because she has a guide in the form of a stick fairy the first time she goes into this ancient place. It’s creepy, evocative and fairly thrums with power. I wouldn’t want to enter it without a guide.

5. The Staff, The Forbidden Kingdom (2008)
Sometimes the gateway into another world is an item, as with the Monkey King’s staff in The Forbidden Kingdom. This is every kid’s dream: You go into a pawn shop, find a cool tchotchke and BAM, it transports you to another place where you’re the chosen one. Granted, it’d be nice if it gave you Kung Fu lessons too, but some things you just have to earn.

6. The Map, Time Bandits (1981)
Really, it seems like the most obvious choice when you think about it. What’s the best way to get someplace new? A map. But what makes this one so cool is it lets you travel through time. Granted, possessing it is cause to be chased by Evil — who seeks the map to create his own Evil paradise — but what’s life without a little danger?

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7. The Board Game, Jumanji (1995)
Every gamer on the planet has experienced getting totally lost in whatever game has grabbed them. But when Alan Parrish (Adam Hann-Byrd) starts playing this particular game, he doesn’t bargain for getting sucked into the jungle at its heart. And he certainly doesn’t expect to grow up to be Robin Williams. Still, Jumanji is one game you can at least finish. Unlike World of Warcraft. Yeesh.

8. Platform 9 ¾, Harry Potter (2001-2009)
This is an awesome gateway because it requires absolute faith that when you run headlong at a brick column you’ll pass through it. On the other side is a magical version of London that lays alongside the world we live in. I’ve tried this trick in New York’s Penn Station. It’s not to be recommended unless you know magic… which I don’t.

9. The Book, The Neverending Story (1984)
Bastian (Barret Oliver) uses the same gateway drug that I do: Books. The difference is that he can influence what’s happening in his book (which I can only do to the ones I’m writing) and then actually go inside the book (I have a strong imagination, but come on). Still, as a writer there’s nothing more inspiring than a story that quite literally comes alive. If only…

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10. The Wardrobe, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)
Give me a wardrobe and a rainy day, any day. Lucy (Anna Popplewell) has it rough when she first discovers that the back of the wardrobe drops her in a snow covered landscape. No one believes her because the wardrobe doesn’t always lead to Narnia. Which is why it’s important to always check the back of every wardrobe. One day, it just might be a little bit different.

For now, however, the best gateway you can lay your hands on is any of the movies on this list. Got any other favorites?

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Mary Robinette Kowal is the winner of the 2008 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and a professional puppeteer. Her first novel Shades of Milk and Honey is being published by Tor in 2010.

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