2019 Book Reviews

Sometimes It’s Better Not to Know: What a ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ Novel Brings to the Table

In 2007, I remember going to Blockbuster Video after the Academy Awards aired, the year Pan’s Labyrinth was nominated, and getting talked out of renting the film by an employee. I was 13, the film was rated R, and I was not one to question movie ratings. Twelve years later and Pan’s Labyrinth is back, this time in the form of a novel — Pan’s Labyrinth: The Labyrinth of the Faun — by the film’s director, Guillermo del Toro, and children’s book writer, Cornelia Funke.

If you’ve seen Funke’s interview with del Toro for Criterion’s Pan’s Labyrinth DVD release, then you know that the book has been in the works for a while, but what’s more surprising is that it’s recommended for ages 14 years or older. Readers who are old enough to read the book may not be old enough to watch the movie, yet nothing’s been removed. The experience of reading Pan’s Labyrinth: The Labyrinth of the Faun is different — but, content-wise, all of the scenes that come to mind when you think of the movie’s visceral violence are there, and they’re not all that much less gruesome for not having a visual.

That’s nothing to criticize when the film’s geared toward adults. With society’s desensitization to violence a growing concern, Pan’s Labyrinth’s violence feels especially brutal because it’s hands-on. There’s no distance from the cruelty being perpetrated. There’s an honesty to how ruthless people can be.

Could a teenager handle that? Making that call as an adult (at least one untrained in child psychology) doesn’t feel entirely fair, but while it’s fascinating to look back at fairy tales and see the different versions kids were exposed to (some much darker than the versions that are popular today), that doesn’t mean a revival of the practice is necessary.

Beyond who should read Pan’s Labyrinth: The Labyrinth of the Faun, though, there’s what the change in medium brings to the text, in the form of interior monologue. In the film, Ofelia’s father’s death is the moment her life changed, but it’s upon realizing how much Ofelia thinks about him that his presence (or rather absence) is felt throughout the story. Vidal and Mercedes’ performances (as acted by Sergi López and Maribel Verdú) are quite physical because they’re both characters who, for different reasons, don’t want to let their guard down. But in the book, you have access to their inner thoughts, which for Mercedes means seeing how vigilant she has to be about keeping her cover at all times.

Yet not knowing is a big part of Pan’s Labyrinth, and when you start having access to the inner thoughts of the Fairy who first shows Ofelia the way to the labyrinth, you lose some of the film’s rich ambiguity. It’s not like the Faun isn’t a dubious character anymore, but parts of his stories are verified in a way that the film avoids, like is he who he says he is? Is there an Underworld, or is everything that comes out of his mouth a lie?

As an enticement for readers who have already seen the movie, Funke includes 10 new stories that expand upon the mythology of the world. We’re talking why does the Pale Man carry his eyes? Where did the labyrinth come from? You’ll know you’ve reached one of these stories by the appearance of Allen William’s art. A few of the tales are a bit of a stretch (Vidal’s razor didn’t need to have a backstory), but the scope of the Pan’s Labyrinth universe comes out feeling much larger than ever before.

More than Williams’ standalone illustrations, the use of trees as a border for every page shines a spotlight on setting, with the trees almost acting as a Greek chorus to what transpires. They might not be able to walk like J.R.R. Tolkien’s ents, but they can talk and bear witness to everything that happens.

While I wouldn’t necessarily call all of Funke’s changes improvements (Ofelia’s mom is worse because of a few lines of dialogue getting cut), they’re what make Pan’s Labyrinth: The Labyrinth of the Faun worth reading, so many years after the film’s release. You’re not getting the exact same Pan’s Labyrinth you’ve seen before, but one that’s been filtered through another writer’s vision. What would’ve been disappointing is if Funke hadn’t left her mark, and that makes you think about the choices del Toro made for the film.

Pan’s Labyrinth: The Labyrinth of the Faun was released July 2 by Katherine Tegen Books.

Rachel Bellwoar (@ziggystarlog) drinks a lot of Coca Cola. Her tastes fall somewhere between David Bowie and David Lynch and, when she’s not writing for Vague Visages, you can find her reviews at Comicon, Flickering Myth, That’s Not Current and Diabolique Magazine.

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