Saturday, January 7, 2012

Pan's Labyrinth and the value of fairy tales

I have a difficult time watching stories that are violent and sad. In fact, I tend to avoid them at all costs. But sad, violent stories with magical creatures and young heroines?

The first time I watched Pan's Labyrinth, I was intrigued. The second time I watched it, I was captivated. These days, I am in love.

Why? Well, there are many reasons. But I'm just going to focus on the most important one: 

In Pan's Labyrinth, the fantasy is just as real as the reality. Equal weight is given to both storylines, and you’re never quite sure if Ofelia is making things up in order to deal with her really shitty circumstances, or if she actually just sees things that other people don’t see.

I think this is the reason why I can watch the horrific and devastating scenes. At the very end of the movie, while [spoiler alert] little Ofelia lies there dying, it’s the end of her life in the real world, but just the beginning of it in the fantasy. She has had three tests to prove herself, has had to face every one absolutely alone, and has passed every test. In doing so, she steps into her inheritance. Or, if you see it as a coming of age tale, into the next part of her life.

The story isn’t complete without the fantasy. If the labyrinth and the faun, the monsters and the fairies weren’t there, the story wouldn’t be as beautiful, as hopeful, as dark, or as complex. Del Toro weaves two narratives into each other - one real, one fantastic, both beautiful and brutal. But for someone like me, the fantasy allows me to face the awful reality head on – the Captain, the torture, the war, death. All of it.

G.K. Chesterton said once, “Fairy Tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

I’ve always been kind of ashamed of taking things like fairy tales and magic seriously. Fairy tales, we’re told, are silly. They are things that you should grow out of, things you should leave behind in childhood.

But Del Toro takes fairy tales very seriously. In Pan’s Labyrinth, he uses them to weave an incredibly powerful story. And in doing so, he ask the questions: Are those who believe in magic just making things up, in order to deal with the horror of reality? Or are they seeing things that other people aren’t? Seeing the world in a different way?


  1. I think you would love Del Toro's "The Devil's Backbone", which is a kind of ghost story.

  2. Gary said that too! Supposedly, Pan's Labyrinth is a kind of sequel to Devil's Backbone. I'd like to watch it.