A novel written by two of the greatest modern storytellers was always going to be incredible, let’s face it. The minds of Del Toro and Funke have spilled out wonderfully onto each page, bringing cult film favourite ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ to life in a way which readers understand best – via the beauty of written word. The writers bring us back to the tumultuous environment of war-torn Spain, slicing the violence with images of creatures from another realm. But do not be fooled – this is no children’s book. It is a sophisticated tale of conflict, loss and the stories we choose to believe in.
I resisted the urge to re-watch the 2006 movie before opening this book. It had been many years since I’d last seen the film, so my memory mostly consisted of dark images of the Spanish countryside, and that iconic monster with his eyeballs in his hands (which I later relearned was the child-eating ‘Pale Man’). As the novel is no doubt going to be a huge summer reading-list hit, there are already plenty of reviews on Goodreads, however I was disappointed to see readers directly comparing each medium, criticising/praising moments when the novel differed/followed the film’s plot and feel. We have to remember that this book is coming to us almost thirteen years since its cinematic release, and of course, so much has changed in the way of film-making and even literary storytelling, since then. It seemed to me slightly unfair then, to compare the book and film. They are both masterpieces in their own right, and deserve to be enjoyed and critiqued separately.
Nevertheless, the character of Ofelia is exactly the same inquisitive, kind-hearted little girl who I remember watching all those years ago onscreen. The talent of Funke (a celebrated children’s author) has assumedly been working hard here. Ofelia is a complex, well fleshed out child character, full of wonder within a place that is consistently so dark. The book was filled with those often humorous childish insights, which they sometimes reveal to us in the form of a cryptic sentence, but that we soon realise is really a profound and lyrical way of explaining the world around them:
“Ofelia hated the tenderness in her mother’s voice and her eagerness to please a man who barely looked at her. Children do notice those things, for all they can do is watch – and hide from the storms the adults create. The storms and the winters.”
In fact, in addition to Ofelia, there are range of characters who treat us to these beautifully put comments on society, cementing the novel as much more than a traditional fairy-tale. This is from Death herself (side note: how interesting for it to be portrayed as a woman!):
“Death sighed. She was used to men begging for another few years or months, sometimes even hours. There was always something unfinished, something undone, unlived. Mortals don’t understand life is not a book you close only after you read the last page. There is no last page in the Book of Life, for the last one is always the first page of another story.”
And unlike a usual fairy-tale, death features prominently in the novel, often presented in such an explicit and moving way too. Characters die when we don’t want them too, but every fatality has its place, is there for a deeper meaning to push the story along and leave the reader with such an intense rush of emotions that we have no choice but to carry on. Like the character Death says, their story doesn’t just end after they leave our page. The selfless characters continue to work together, helping to bring down injustice and the villainous Captain, given the nickname “The Wolf” by Ofelia.
Pan’s Labyrinth is a story that shows us that life doesn’t always turn out how we expect it. Ofelia, though young, believes she knows who she is, what she will turn out to be. Within just one night this is shattered, and she questions everything that she thought she knew about her existence. Similarly with her Mother – the innocent Carmen – who succumbs to the cruel complications of childbirth which, while it is still a risk during this time-period, is hardly what one imagines when they are bringing new life into the world. Even the Captain, as cruel and as hard as they come, has his own dreams and visions, which are quickly buried with the arrival of his new wife and step-daughter. In many ways, the ‘Rebels’ do eventually emerge victorious, but as the postscript tells us, there would be many more years of bloodshed and disappointment before things truly came to an end in their Spain.
I’m grateful that Del Toro and Funke do not choose to omit the violence of this time period though, even though the book can be (and has been) largely read as YA fiction. The image of blood runs heavy almost from the beginning of the novel, merging into the blackness of the surrounding:
“…he drove the shattered glass into his eye. Again and again. Let the rage have its way or it will consume you. The glass cut and smashed, turning his skin and flesh into bloody pulp.”
Nothing feels colourful, or even pretty – even the fairies in Pan’s Labyrinth are described in quite an ugly sense, and the scene where one attempts to mould itself into an image of a ‘typical’ fairy in one of Ofelia’s books, is filled with comments on false societal representation and the horrors that we often try to shield ourselves from.
The bitesize sections of the novel fit together perfectly, weaving together and revealing to us a spellbinding story that is certainly worth retelling in this unarguably magical form. I loved the interjection of the classic “Once upon a time” myths, which gave life to the present day story setting and offered insight into the curious tasks that The Faun gave to young Ofelia. The narrative unpacks itself in such a way that is undeniably enjoyable and fitting for the story being told. We get insight into every character, however small or even unlikeable, but the writers do ultimately leave a few mossy stones unturned, a few whispers left hanging on the leafless trees. After all, what good would a fable be if it didn’t leave you with musings, or questions into what you had just read?
Ultimately, Pan’s Labyrinth is a terrific masterpiece, a literary accomplishment that reaches and often rivals its cinematic counterpart.
Labyrinth: The Labyrinth of the Faun is published by Bloomsbury Books and is available here.
Guillermo del Toro
Guillermo del Toro is a Mexican filmmaker, author, actor, and former special effects makeup artist. He is best known for the Academy Award-winning fantasy film Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water, winning the Academy Award for Best Director and the Academy Award for Best Picture for the latter
For years Cornelia Funke has been one of the best-known and bestselling children’s authors in Germany. In fact, many people have called her the German J. K. Rowling. Americans, however, were not exposed to Funke’s work until 2002, when her book Herr der Diebe was translated into English and released by Scholastic Press as The Thief Lord. The response was immediate and overwhelming. Like their German counterparts, young American readers gobbled up the fantastic tale of two orphans set loose among the canals and streets of Venice, Italy. The book made every major bestseller list and won countless awards. It also established Funke as a storyteller on an international scale, since the book has since been published in nearly forty countries. In October of 2003 Funke released her second book in the United States, Inkheart. Publisher’s Weekly called it “delectably transfixing,” and readers were left clamouring for more of their favourite new author.
Reviewed by Mariah Feria
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