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.
A fairly predictable film recommendation from me today. I make no secret of the fact that I owe GUILLERMO DEL TORO big time. I’ve never met the man, never even spoken to him directly, but it’s no exaggeration to say that he changed my life. His endorsement of HATER and the movie he almost produced helped propel my gruesome little book from its modest indie roots to a worldwide release which exceeded my wildest expectations. I was trawling through some old clippings the other day and I came across an old interview with him where he talked about it: “…what I love about the premise is that there is a righteousness. It’s not a viral situation, not a contagion, it’s a situation of a social disease. That we can road rage into murdering someone at any second. That it’s a social epidemic is what attracted me. It’s not a zombie movie. The people that kill the people can rationalise why they did it. That’s what is scary about it.”
You can understand why this was such a big deal, but what made it an even bigger deal was the fact I was a huge Guillermo del Toro fan even before this happened. I happened upon a copy of his first movie, CRONOS, shortly after it was released in 1993, and I’d followed his career with interest since then. Or was that his careers? He seems to occupy a unique position whereby he alternates big budget crowd pleasing movies like HELLBOY and PACIFIC RIM with more personal films such as THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE and PAN’S LABYRINTH. His most recent movie, for which he picked up the best director and best picture Oscars at this year’s Academy awards, seems to have brought both of these strands of film-making together.
The premise is simple, the film is outstanding: At a top secret research facility in the 1960s, a lonely janitor forms a unique relationship with an amphibious creature that is being held in captivity.
I was saddened to hear today about the death of Sir John Hurt. I don’t usually write about individual actors on this site, but his impact was such that I couldn’t let his passing go unnoticed. He was one of those rare actors who, to me, seemed both recognisable and unrecognisable at the exact same time. His face (and voice) was immediately familiar and yet he completely inhabited the roles he played to such an extent that any familiarity quickly disappeared. When I see Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks or Johnny Depp on screen (something I try my best to avoid doing), I know I’m watching Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks or Johnny Depp, albeit in a different setting and with a different haircut. With John Hurt, however, I was only ever watching the character he was portraying. Does that make sense?
There are three particular roles he played I wanted to mention. When I was nine and was rapidly discovering my love for all things horror, ALIEN was released. I’m assuming anyone reading this will know that his character, Kane, has one of the most famous death scenes in movie history. Of course, as a bloodthirsty kid, all I was initially interested in was the chest-burst and the gore. It was only when I later learned more about how the scene was filmed – how he knew what was going to happen but the rest of the cast didn’t – and when I watched the film again (and again and again) did I realise how smart and clever Sir John’s performance was.
A couple of years later he starred as the titular ELEPHANT MAN in David Lynch’s adaptation of the life of the hideously deformed John Merrick. I rewatched the film recently and was again spellbound by his performance. Despite being unrecognisable and with limited movement under Christopher Tucker’s ground-breaking makeup, he succeeded in playing Merrick in such a way that the character’s pain and suffering was abundantly clear.
But my favourite John Hurt performance is as Winston Smith in Michael Radford’s film adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984. I’ve already written about the film here so I won’t go into much more detail, other than to say that the physical and mental transformation of Smith is remarkable. It’s a superb adaptation of a book which in these days of ‘alternate facts’ and the like, continues to feel increasingly relevant.