“People tend to forget that fairy tales, at their origin in folk tradition, were never told to kids. They were told to adults,” says screenwriter-director Guillermo del Toro. “But here and there you can still find this insane, anarchistic sense of fairy-tale storytelling, and that’s what I tried to do with ‘Pan’s Labyrinth,’ to do a fairy tale in favor of disobedience and choice.”
The challenge, del Toro explains, is how to elicit in adult auds the same kind of heightened emotional response they felt as children.
“When you’re a kid and you read about the grandmother being eaten by the wolf, your reaction to the violence and the magic is extremely visceral, but as an adult you tend to have those reactive buttons dulled down,” he says.
By taking the fantasy to a darker, more dangerous place, del Toro feels that grown-ups are more inclined to believe his fable about a young girl’s escape into her own imagination against the brutal backdrop of the Spanish Civil War.
“If you went from the harsh reality of the war to a Disney fantasy tone, then you are creating two things that will never mesh in the mind of anyone,” he explains. “On the one hand, you have a very complicated structure that needs to be solved, which is the balancing act of keeping two separate realities braiding between themselves, and on the other, you have to maintain the much-needed simplicity and streamlined logic of fairy tales.”
“Pan’s Labyrinth” is filled with rules, like putting three rocks in the giant toad’s mouth to produce the key, that are a fairy-tale convention. But the grotesque explosion that takes place when the young heroine Ofelia fulfills the task is a del Toro touch.
“It’s very hard as an adult to resist this Hollywoodesque compulsion to explain the magic away — literally you destroy it with explanations,” he says. “In fairy tales, you don’t get bogged down with psychology, because you work with types.”
The character of the captain, for example, becomes the movie’s villain. Del Toro, in turn, gave him a truly monstrous father, who “essentially castrated the guy into hating himself.” By amplifying such details, auds lapse back into almost childlike wonder. It’s a fitting allegory for Ofelia’s quest — a figurative return to the womb.
“The brave thing about telling a fairy tale is that it requires the teller to abandon a fear of looking unsophisticated by believing in magic,” del Toro says, “and I wholeheartedly believe in magic.”