After last night’s movie, we managed to snag author Meghan Brunner for a review! Megh’s well familiar with the many faces of the fae. As the tag-line for her Pendragon Trilogy states: Fairies live, Magick breathes, and Karma wants a tummy-rub. (We’ll let you figure that last bit out for yourself.)
by Meghan Brunner
The story of Pan’s Labyrinth would fit in any collection of fairy tales. Young Ofelia and her pregnant mother are moving in with her step-father, a facist captain of the Spanish army. He is, predictably, is the villain of the piece and an unabashed bully. This was no marriage of passion. Ofelia’s mother found herself widowed and agreed to his proposal because she saw no other option to support herself and her child. (It can be inferred that the captain is the cause of her widowhood, though it’s never stated outright.) Now she must make do as best she can, trying to reconcile Ofelia to her new father and make it through what is obviously a troubled pregnancy.
It doesn’t take long for Ofelia to discover labyrinth on the property’s edge – and, with it, the labyrinth’s keeper: a faun (translated as “Pan” in the English subtitles, though he seems but a distant cousin of the Pan that inhabits Greek mythos). He tells her of her heritage: she’s a fairy princess and must complete three tasks in a magic book he gives her in order to return home. Believing in fairies is one thing; finding out you ARE one is quite another, of course. She is understandably skeptical at first, but as evidence mounts and her home life worsens, Ofelia warms to the idea.
By the end of the movie Ofelia certainly must have envied Cinderella’s task to pick lentils from the ashes. The challenges she is given pit her against not only the difficulty intrinsic to the assignment, but come into conflict with what is expected of her at home.
As to the ending… whether it’s happy or sad is a matter of perspective, but it certainly isn’t clean.
That’s just the plot, though. The most striking feature of Pan’s Labyrinth is its realism. This might seem like a strange dominating feature for a fairy tale, but from the first it is utterly believable. It’s not set in some vaguely unspecified long-ago-and-far-away, but in 1944 post-war Spain. Under most circumstances this would put the movie in the contemporary fantasy sub-genre, but it feels too natural for that label. It doesn’t feel like fantasy. This is Magick, it’s real, and it has consequences. Even the film’s lighting is dark, the colors muted, adding a sense of gloom and hopelessness.
The Fae are varied in appearance, but whether beautiful or horrible (or both), they are consistently otherworldly. Even the manner in which they move emphasizes that they aren’t human – or like any other animal humans are used to seeing. Some seem happy to help; others are obviously a threat. The faun himself is mercurial, benevolent and terrifying by turns.
None of the tasks set to Ofelia are easy, all of them are messy, and there is a real sense that she might not survive them. Each requires a sacrifice, though she doesn’t always realize it initially. Nor does she pass all of them with flying colors. During the second task, in particular, she does not heed the faun’s warning and pays a high price. She might not understand the reason for the rules of this gauntlet, but they are not suggestions – and excuses will not save her.
What will strike many most forcefully, however, is that the violence is much more graphic than in American movies. This is not improbable amounts of blood spurting from a severed limb as the victim screams well past when he should’ve bled out. When someone’s face is smashed in by repeated bludgeoning, it looks like it’s been smashed in – not just bruised, a little bloody, and one eye swollen shut. When one of the less pleasant creatures begins eating the smaller Fae, it’s stringy and brutal. There is nothing subtle about any of it, and while it will make many viewers squirm… well, maybe it should.
After all, life is not Disney.
And Pan’s Labyrinth is a return to that reality.