What on earth is a gruesome fable by Guillermo del Toro doing in the British Academy’s Literature Week programme? I ought to admit immediately that I’m to blame, and this marks the last trace of an idea we started discussing many months ago: how to demonstrate the range of ways in which ‘tales’ – this year’s theme – currently circulate, which is often on screen. In fact, film has been leading a rather shadowy life within the Academy for over twenty years, but rarely breaking surface. I was elected to the Fellowship as long ago as 1994, and since that time there’s been a steady trickle of new fellows who either focus entirely on film and newer media, or include it among their range of interests. But considering the scale of Film Studies in education today, it’s perhaps surprising that there haven’t been more.
Still, here we are with a remarkable fantasy film showing as part of the 2015 Literature Week – even though it’s not based on a book. Curioser and curioser, you may think, but the reasons for choosing this astonishing film are twofold. One is precisely that it’s not an adaptation of a classic fairy or folk tale, but an original work by one of the most talented and unpredictable of today’s young filmmakers, the Mexican Guillermo del Toro. So the second is to explore the potential of ‘tale-telling’ in a completely filmic manner.
Del Toro’s tale does have links with one of the most famous of modern fantasy tales. His heroine Ofelia, like Alice before her, does go ‘underground’. But the starting point is not an idyllic Victorian Oxford picnic: it is the Spain of 1944, where Ofelia’s mother has married a new husband, a brusque captain in the Falangist Spanish army. So Ofelia wants to escape from her present into what turns out to be a bizarre fantasy world that is every bit as grotesque as Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland. Actually, more so: while Dodgson was surprisingly unrestrained for a respectable fellow of Christ Church, del Toro grew up in 1970s Mexico on a diet of horror comics and lurid fantasies. Pan’s Labyrinth is in fact his sixth film, and he made it between two based on the ‘Hellboy’ character, who would certainly have given Dodgson nightmares (indeed me too).
But Pan’s Labyrinth is not trying to ape Alice, even if it has an intrepid adolescent heroine, nor to create a ‘new’ fairy tale. It’s an extraordinary parable about the effects of growing up under a fascist regime, imagined from afar by one of the extraordinary generation of young Mexican filmmakers who are currently making waves in cinema. Del Toro was born in the early sixties, close to Alfonso Cuaron (of Gravity and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire fame) and Alejandro Gonsalez Iñárritu (who directed the recent Birdman hit). And Labyrinth could be seen either as a real investigation of the psychic world that underlay Franco’s regime – or as a grotesquely inventive version of the new faerie.
Of course it’s both, and a remarkable stylistic achievement, which certainly rivals the creation of Middle Earth in New Zealand (although del Toro had a hand in the Hobbit trilogy scripts). When Pan’s Labyrinthappeared in 2006, cinema bookers in Britain couldn’t work out what kind of film it was, and I remember searching the London listings to find a screening I could attend. It turned out to be a busy one, because many had the same problem, and one pleasure of showing the film as part of the British Academy’s public programme is to bring it back on a big screen. Make no mistake, this is a real film which creates its own surreal world. I’ve resisted using the ‘s’ word up to this point, since it is so over-used; but if there is an argument for continuing to describe Spanish films as ‘surreal’, this is surely among the best modern evidence? It’s not surreal in the classic sense, following the promptings of chance and the unconscious, although the Surrealist movement drew heavily on English Gothic and ‘nonsense’ literature. Instead del Toro draws on ‘pulp’ and horror imagery to create his deeply disturbing nightmare world where fauns, fairies and creatures from his fertile imagination co-exist with brutal Fascists.
It has become relatively common to acknowledge the psychic underpinnings of traditional horror and fantasy cinema (and the late Siegbert Prawer FBA was a pioneer in his Caligari’s Children: the Film as Tale of Terror in 1980). But there’s now a generation who learned all this early on, and are adding their own instalments to the legacy of fantasy film. Del Toro has chosen to lead a double life, as a genre specialist with his Hellboy franchise and other outright commercial projects, and as an auteur director with The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth, both set during Spain’s Franco period. By appealing over the heads of European art cinema’s cultural gatekeepers, he has reached audiences much larger and more diverse than most European filmmakers can imagine.
I’m not at all sure what the audience on 15 May will look like, but I wonder if the British Academy’s Literature Week will ever be the same again!
Ian Christie is Anniversary Professor of Film and Media History, Birkbeck College.