The Fantastic Geography of Fictional Places

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The boat settled on the water and the guide pointed.

“Around that corner lies a world of dragons, fire, and lava. If we turn down the next path, we’ll find ourselves in a land of snow and ice monsters. That next corner is a path leading to technological marvels and killer robots. And over here’s the way to an old west saloon, but watch for stray bullets. Behind the waterfall, you’ll find a place of fine gowns and fancy manners. Just watch for handsome men with dastardly intentions. They’re the most dangerous.

“Wherever you’d like to go, just say the word, and we’ll find a way to get there. That’s the magic of these waters.”

“But are they the real places?” said a guest.

The guide laughed and tilted back his hat. “No one’d want to go if they were really authentic. These are the versions without the smells, discomforts, and other distractions. You’ll go, have a bit of adventure, and then be back in bed with your feather pillow. No need to trouble yourself with reality.”

Television and film have the power to take us to far off worlds, mysterious planets, and places of wonder. In an instant, we’re carried into space, and then to the center of the Earth, or the depths of the ocean. No place, real or not, can remain unknown with the help of cameras, CG, and studio lots.

With all the wonders of technology available to create a fictional world, it’s fascinating to see the use of one place to substitute for another.

For example, I present Psych, a fun comedy about a private detective in Santa Barbara, CA, but filmed in Vancouver. While both California and Canada start with “CA”, they are not exactly the same.

Most people won’t notice the geographic, topographic, cultural, or architectural anomalies in Psych’s version of Santa Barbara, I attended and then worked at The University of California Santa Barbara for a total of six years. As someone more familiar with the area, the magic of show gets a little lost as I notice details.

For example, here is the beach in Santa Barbara Psych:

Psych Beach:

While, here is the real Santa Barbara beach:

 :

Credit: Kurtis Garbutt

Santa Barbara Beach:

Credit: Rafał Próchniak

Here is Psych’s version of a golf course, complete with pine trees:

 :

Santa Barbara’s version of a golf course, complete with views of hills and the ocean:

Golf Club:

Credit: Sandpiper Golf Club, Santa Barbara, California

 :

Credit: Dan Perry

I find I enjoy the show a lot more if I just imagine it is set in an alternate reality version of Santa Barbara, where the topography of the Pacific Northwest has somehow transferred to California’s central coast area. I’ll also hand this to the showrunners – filming in Santa Barbara itself would have been highly challenging due to high-traffic, narrow one-way roads in the city, and the high cost of living. So, even though the show doesn’t capture 100% of the architecture of the city, and is lacking in spas, new age aficionados, and hippies, filming in Vancouver makes a lot of sense.

Another show with a curious sense of geography is Bunheads, the short-lived series on ABC Family run by the creator of Gilmore Girls, Amy Sherman-Palladino. The first two-thirds of the one-season show is spectacular, with a lot of the spunk and spitfire dialogue which makes Gilmore Girls so great (you can watch the whole series here). However, I’m unsure where the show is supposed to be set.

Bunheads Cottage 01

The town is similar to Star’s Hollow, in its small town where everyone knows each other sort of way, but should geographically be somewhere along the Pacific Coast Highway between Los Angeles and Ventura, based on the day trips mentioned. However, the only communities in that section of the coast are in Malibu, and are incredibly expensive. The middle class may live there, but would be in apartments, not in full houses. Also, the flora and fauna are more similar to the Morro Bay area, where there are more ferns and redwoods. Yet Morro Bay (at the top left of the map) is too far for a day trip to LA.

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As a note, the Southern California sense of space and time – using time to measure distance instead of actual miles – springs from the fact that actual distance is never a good measure when in the throes of LA traffic. Five miles at 10 AM is very different than five miles at 6 PM.

Do these geographic discrepancies ruin these shows? While a bit more authenticity would be nice, these are both still good shows with strong story telling.

I’d take good storytelling over accuracy in a world where…

The redwood forests outside of Monterey, CA are the same as the forest moon of Endor

 : Various deserts can stand-in for Tatooine and Arakis

Desert of Mexico:

And the natural wonders of New Zealand can double as Ancient Greece, Shanarra, and Middle Earth

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If you look closely enough, there’s an elf in this forest. You just have to guess which franchise it is from.

So, when you are watching a movie or television and the geography is puzzling, just remember this is either an alternate universe or a far-off planet which resembles Earth.

Readers:

  • What television shows or movies have you noticed have a curious geography?
  • What is your favorite real location for a fantasy or sci-fi world?
  • Which television show or movie is the most accurate?
  • Which alternate reality of television or movies would you want to live in?
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4 thoughts on “The Fantastic Geography of Fictional Places

  1. If i’m noticing background detail, then for some reason I haven’t been brought into the story. But, I’m still more likely to complain (aloud or silently) about illogical character reactions than the background.

    • For me, I had many friends in Utah say, “You have to watch Psych because it’s set in Santa Barbara!”, and that’s the main reason I looked at the background.
      However, character inconsistencies and story problems are much more distracting. I hate shows that have a character progress one episode, and the next episode they’re back to their previous state.

  2. I never realized that traffic is why we tell distance by time – something not done much in Idaho. I’m sure this is cliche, but when it comes to setting in film, I love seeing gorgeous woods and the wild in general. When I know it’s a real place and not just good propping and effects -Lord of the Rings being a good example- it’s inspiring to see what nature has done up to this point, and that some areas are still wonders.

    But I’m a lot more interested in the plot and characters, unless the setting is Dickensian and is interweaved into the story itself.

  3. Great post!
    I think of New Zealand, Ireland, and Scotland when I write some of my fantasy stories.
    I always laugh when I watch shows supposedly set in Chicago that might show an old shot of the L train but show houses or landscapes that couldn’t possibly be anywhere in Chicago.

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