← Back to Reviews

In the Realms of the Unreal

In the Realms of the Unreal (2005 - Jessica Yu)

Fascinating stranger-than-fiction documentary about Henry Darger, a loner who hardly ever talked to another living soul but upon his death it was discovered in his small room that for much of his life he had been secretly writing and illustrating a 15,000 (fifteen-thousand!) page novel. Only three photos exist of Darger, who was born poor at the end of the 19th century in Chicago. His mother died, his father was destitute, little Henry was believed to be crazy (or at least a troublemaker) and sent to an asylum for slow and broken children. He eventually escaped, walking over a hundred miles back to Chicago, where he took whatever work he could find as dishwasher or janitor and such. Joined the army for World War I though he was never shipped overseas. After the war he returned to Chicago and had a job as janitor until forced to retire, he died in 1973 at the age of eighty-one.

A quiet, withdrawn man who wouldn't carry a conversation with anybody except for minute detail about the weather, he spent most of his free time alone in his small room. His neighbors said he didn't sleep much, and he talked to himself in a variety of voices. Those few people he did have contact with - neighbor, landlord, the Nun who supervised his janitorial duties, were all shocked to see after he died that quiet Henry had amassed tens of thousands of handwritten pages and hundreds of paintings and drawings, many of them ten-feet long and double-sided. His two chief works were an autobiography and perhaps the longest novel ever written, In the Realms of the Unreal, a bizarre epic tale of children fighting their slave masters with the help of angels in a series of massive battles in an imaginary land.

The film juxtaposes readings from Darger's biography with his novel (autobiography voiced by Larry Pine, the novel by Dakota Fanning), sprinkled with brief interviews of those few folks who "knew" him. Truly fascinating. Sad, odd, and fascinating. As his landlady says, if nothing else it's proof of what one can accomplish without the distractions of friends, family or television.