Creating an imaginary world is a tough gig. I’m pretty sure that’s why, when it’s done perfectly, that world becomes a beloved classic. But there are so, so many places where it could all go wrong.
We’ve already covered what happens when the mythology is too complex. (In short: It sucks.) But there’s another place where I often get tripped up as a reader or viewer, and that’s the intersection of the imaginary world and the real one.
I’m fine if the universe is entirely separate from our own. The Capitol and the Districts in the Hunger Games do not exist today, so I don’t have to reconcile what I know of reality with what’s happening in the book. Even places like Oz or Never Never Land make sense to me, since they’re physically removed from us—they’re not just neighborhoods in Kansas or London. You need some kind of magic to get in or out, which is why it’s okay if the beings there have never heard of hot air balloons or kisses or Sherlock or I, Frankenstein.
I also get it if the magical world is completely co-terminus with our own, with the magic just skulking about in places where normal folks just won’t see it. Say what you will about the vampires in Twilight, they were up on the history of human achievement. (Well, they knew Debussy, at the very least.)
What’s weird to me is when these imaginary worlds are supposedly insular communities within our own. I still wonder about why more wizards in Harry Potter don’t adopt more things from Muggle society. Really, we didn’t have one good idea that the wizards wanted to adopt? No one wanted to sneak an iPod into Hogwarts and listen to the Arctic Monkeys? (All British people love the Arctic Monkeys!) It must’ve been really hard for some of the wizards to go out into Muggle-land and see email and text messaging, then return to Hogwarts and say, “Nah, we’re good with the owls, thanks.”
Vampire Academy (there it is, finally!) blurs the line even further. (Note: I’ve only seen the major motion picture. I haven’t read the books.) The movie starts with the two main characters, Rose and Lissa, having escaped from the Academy and living on the lam. When they’re forced to return to the school, their encounters in the outside world are seen as novelties by the other students. They ask what it feels like to hold an iPhone. They’re in awe of the fact that Rose has seen Facebook and knows what hashtags are. It’s all very exotic to the sheltered students of the Vampire Academy.
The thing is, it’s not really explained why the vampires don’t have iPhones and Facebook. Their magic isn’t all-encompassing, like it is in Harry Potter, and they do have electricity and technology and closed-circuit television security systems. They also have laptops, though it’s explained that the Academy is on its own, locked-down network so that students can’t get to the real internet (like AOL back in the day).
But, fine, if the Vampire Academy wants to block Facebook, more power to it. What’s super hard to explain is how Rose, after all of that isolation, is somehow a font of pop-culture references. She…
…calls her nerdy friend “Duckie.” (This is actually a meta-reference, since the actress who plays Rose is the daughter of the director of Pretty in Pink, but still.)
…asks “Are you not entertained?” a la Gladiator.
…makes about a zillion references to Twilight.
…actually seems well versed in regular vampire lore in general.
They don’t have TV or Netflix. They never get to leave the school without being hunted down and dragged back. (Actually, we don’t know what happens when they graduate, and if they’re given keys to the real internet with their diplomas. I have to hand it to the vamps there: Cutting kids off from YouTube might be a good way to improve graduation rates.) So how does Rose put in the legwork to make all her pithy references?
The movie doesn’t answer. My best guess is that she and Lissa used their time on the lam very poorly, mainlining the past 30 years of John Hughes movies and Best Picture winners. Then, when they return, Rose starts quoting all of these things and no one understands her. She’s basically that friend that went abroad, then came back going on about Blandings and spelling things differently just to be cool. The only thing the movie is really missing is all the eye-rolling that goes on probably behind her back.