If, when my time is up, I’m ever asked to look back and recall pivotal moments in my life, the key writing-related moment I’d cite involves PAN’S LABYRINTH. It was 2006, and I’d just published HATER independently through Infected Books. The release had gone pretty well, and I was happy with how the book had been received. Then, out of the blue, I received an email from a production company in Los Angeles, enquiring about the availability of the film rights. Within a couple of weeks I was speaking to Mark Johnson (who went on to produce BREAKING BAD) about his vision for a film version of HATER. He asked me if I’d seen PAN’S LABYRINTH. I told him I had, and that I thought it was incredible. He said that was a relief, because he was hoping to get Guillermo del Toro to direct HATER.
Of course, as is often the way, things didn’t work out as planned. Del Toro became involved in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of THE HOBBIT and switched roles to produce HATER, only for the project to stall at a later stage. Even now, more than a decade later, I still get goosebumps thinking about how close we came to a del Toro adaptation of one of my books. And I know this post will inevitably result in folks asking questions about the current position of the HATER movie, so I’ll give you my stock answer: I had a meeting with the producer a week or so ago and the project is still very much alive and kicking. The script is in great shape and we’re just waiting for the stars to align. I’ll share more news the very second I’m able to.
Back to PAN’S LABYRINTH. It’s an astonishing film which rightly deserved the critical acclaim it received on release. Now, many years later, del Toro and author Cornelia Funke have adapted the story into a novel and, thanks to the publisher, I was recently able to read a copy. When I heard about the book I was concerned, and I struggled to understand why the story needed to be retold. Having read it, though, I totally get it. Remind yourself of the beauty of the film then read on below for my thoughts.
It’s 1944 and the Allies have invaded Nazi-held Europe. In Spain, a troop of soldiers are sent to a remote forest to flush out the rebels. They are led by Capitan Vidal, a murdering sadist, and with him are his new wife Carmen and her daughter from a previous marriage, 11-year-old Ofelia. Ofelia witnesses her stepfather’s sadistic brutality and is drawn into Pan’s Labyrinth, a magical world of mythical beings.
When I wrote about del Toro’s Oscar-winning THE SHAPE OF WATER a while back, I talked about how, in my opinion, he occupies a unique position as a mainstream director; as comfortable and successful making films with the outrageous bombast of HELLBOY I and II and PACIFIC RIM as he is telling smaller-scale emotional stories like THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE. In many ways I feel like PAN’S LABYRINTH is where the two sides of del Toro collide. You’d be hard pushed to find a film of his with more startling and memorable imagery (witness the iconic faun and the nightmarish pale man), and yet at its heart this is the tale of a young girl simply trying to survive in the kind of world no child should ever have to experience.
Growing up at the end of the Cold War in the 1980’s, I remember how the uncertainty and fear weighed heavy on everyone. As a kid, you accept it as normal because you know no different and it’s only later as an adult, looking back, that I can begin to appreciate the impact the constant fear of impending Armageddon had on everyone. I can only begin to imagine the psychological damage experienced by children in actual war zones. How does a child cope with such trauma? Do they cope at all? It’s eminently plausible that they’d withdraw into fantasy worlds where the lines between reality and dreams are indistinct, just as Ofelia does in PAN’S LABYRINTH.
If you haven’t seen the film, I recommend you put that right as soon as possible (here in the UK it’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime). It’s violent, bloody, thought-provoking, tragic, beautiful and delicate (and it’s not often you get to use all those words to describe a single movie).
And what about the novel? Well, for me it was a revelation. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Funke’s deceptively simply prose is fairy tale-like and yet it still manages not to pull any punches in its description of the horrors of war and the personal nightmare which young Ofelia’s life has become. There’s an element of horror to much folklore, fable and myth, yet here the terrors of the tasks the faun sets Ofelia to complete pale into insignificance against the backdrop of the girl’s real-life family upheaval and the ongoing struggles of a dogged group of resistance rebels fighting the Spanish army.
The novel is also able to dive deeper into the backstory of the faun and the labyrinth, with a series of interconnected short tales that add a welcome level of detail to the mythological aspects of the story. This additional material fits perfectly with the tone of the original film’s storytelling. It’s like these stories were always there, but they’re only now being revealed to us.
I wholeheartedly recommend both the film and the book of PAN’S LABYRINTH. They compliment each other, with the book adding another level of emotion to Ofelia’s beautiful, yet tragic story. It’s an unforgettable collision of innocence and sheer brutality.