Magic Realism on TV: "Heroes" vs. "Midnight's Children"

Am I the first person to think of shows like Lost and Heroes as the television equivalent of "magic realism" in the novel? These shows have elements of science fiction and fantasy, but remain grounded in realistic narration and human relationships. As a result, they can achieve mainstream respectability and broad popularity, while true Sci-Fi remains somewhat of a smaller, niche market.

This is going to sound blasphemous, but Heroes in particular actually reminds me a little of Midnight's Children in some ways. Remember this passage from Rushdie's novel:

From Kerala, a boy who had the ability of stepping into mirrors and re-emerging through any surface in the land--through lakes, and (with greater difficulty), the polished bodies of automobiles . . . and a Goanese girl with the gift of multiplying fish . . . and children with powers of transformation: a werewolf from the Nilgiri hills, and from the great watershed of the Vindhvas, a boy who could increase or reduce his size at will, and had already (mischievously) been the cause of wild panic and rumors of the return of Giants . . . from Kashmir, there was a blue-eyed child of whose sex I was never certain, since by immersing herself in water he (or she) could alter it as she (or he) pleased. Some of us called this child Narada, others Markandaya, depending on which old fairy story of sexual change we had heard . . . near Jalna in the heart of the parched Deccan I found a water-divining youth, and at Budge-Budge outside of Calcutta a sharp-tongued girl whose words already had the power of inflicting physical wounds, so that after a few adults had found themselves bleeding freely as a result from some barb flung casually from her lips, they decided to lock her up in a bamboo cage and float her off down the Ganges to the Sunderbans jungles (which are the rightful home of monsters and phantasms); but nobody dared approach her, and she moved through the town surrounded by a vacuum of fear; nobody had the courage to deny her food. There was a boy who could eat metal and a girl whose fingers were so green that she could grow prize aubergines in the Thar desert; and more and more...

Ah, Rushdie: the old passages don't disappoint. Of course, the different magical powers don't map precisely to the characters in Heroes, but there are certain overlaps:

Claire Bennet (Hayden Panettiere), Mr. Bennet's adopted daughter, who lives in Odessa, Texas, and has a healing factor.

Simone Deveaux (Tawny Cypress), an art dealer and gallery owner whose skepticism and complicated romantic life are tested. She was killed by Isaac, who was trying to kill Peter and hit the wrong target.

D.L. Hawkins (Leonard Roberts), Once an escaped criminal, he has the power to alter his physical tangibility and phase through solid objects, both inanimate and organic.

Isaac Mendez (Santiago Cabrera), An artist living in New York who can paint future events during precognitive trances. He also writes and draws a comic book called 9th Wonders! which has also been shown to depict the future.

Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka), A programmer[7] from Tokyo with the ability to manipulate the space-time continuum.

Matt Parkman (Greg Grunberg), A Los Angeles police officer with the ability to hear other people's thoughts.

Nathan Petrelli (Adrian Pasdar), a New York Congressional candidate with the ability of self-propelled flight. He is Claire Bennet's biological father.

Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimiglia), A former hospice nurse and Nathan's younger brother. He is an empath with the ability to absorb the powers of others he has been near and can recall any ability he has used in the past by focusing on his feelings for those from whom the abilities originate. He has shown that he is capable of manifesting multiple abilities simultaneously.

Micah Sanders (Noah Gray-Cabey), D.L. and Niki's son and a child prodigy, Micah is a technopath, allowing him control of electrical signals, which gives him control of machines and electronic devices.

Niki Sanders (Ali Larter), The wife of D.L. and mother of Micah. A former internet stripper from Las Vegas who exhibits superhuman strength when her alternate personality, Jessica, surfaces.

Mohinder Suresh (Sendhil Ramamurthy), A genetics professor from India who travels to New York to investigate the death of his father, Chandra. Through his investigations, he comes into contact with people his father listed as possessing superhuman abilities. link

Mohinder Suresh, oddly enough, resembles Saleem Sinai, in that he is the person who ties it all together. And Cihlar, as the villain, resembles Rushdie's Siva. Perhaps Clair Bennett as Parvati-the-Witch? Niki Sanders as a less villainous "Widow"?

I'm not saying the quality of the show could be compared, even remotely, to Rushdie's novel. It's more the idea of a large group of people who have supernatural gifts whose broader function isn't entirely clear. In Rushdie's novel, it becomes clear that the disintegration of the M.C.C. is a metaphor for the challenges to Indian nationalism -- and Saleem Sinai's special humiliation might be the humiliation of the first generation of India's ruling elite. But what social or political message is Heroes trying to convey? It hasn't become clear yet.


Anonymous said...

i like the comparison to rushdie's novel... what about heroes and x-men... dont these have similar underlying concepts??

electrostani said...

Yes, there are definitely similarities between "Heroes" and "X-Men" -- though again, I think Heroes is trying hard to keep its supernaturally gifted characters in more or less "ordinary" situations. Also, they don't form a "team" -- they're essentially atomized individuals performing actions in parallel, without an awareness of what the others are doing.

Also, the fact that in "Heroes" the gifted people generally keep their powers a secret (or are made to forget what they've seen by the sinister "Primatech" people) is a key distinction. They live in a world, like our own, where the existence of such powers is not generally accepted. That's what tilts the show towards what I'm calling "magic realism" and away from "Sci Fi."

The Constructivist said...

Hmm, one of the things I feel I'm missing by being in Japan this year is Heroes--does it have any Watchmen or The Authority feel to it? What do you think of Stan Lee's classic claim that comics are American mythology? Your Rushdie reference made me remember that I always thought he was referencing Douglas Adams in Satanic Verses. The falling whale in the Hitchhiker's series and that falling character early in SV, in particular. Crazy?

Iqbal Khaldun said...

Interesting post. Definitely agree that these more mainstream shows enable mainstream audiences to digest allegory more easily than sci-fi.

Just goes to show, even with Ipods and jet airplanes and all, the human interest and need for myths and fables hasn't really changed over the past 1000s of years.

Derek Murphy said...

Hi! I'm a grad student writing a paper on Midnight's Children - I find this conversation fascinating because I think Rushdie actually borrowed most of his central themes from the original Xmen comics (which came out earlier, and which her refers to often even inside of Midnight's Children.)

Hope I can quote from this blog as a reference - do you know of any published work talking about this stuff?



Rahul said...

The Magical Realism does not sit well within the framework in which Deepa Mehta tries to fit it into.The movie is good in parts but its sum total is half baked.Strictly for the hard core fans of Deepa and Salman!