Pan's Labyrinth

They say that when you're a hammer every problem looks like a nail. I think that's true. And I also think that I'm slowly turning into a hammer.

You see, I've been growing increasingly weary over the last few years, not because my life is bad, but because I need a sabbatical - I've been working non-stop for well over a decade, and at a certain point the non-stop day in and day out grind of working five days a week fifty weeks a year has started to wear me down. Unfortunately, America doesn't really allow for sabbaticals, unless you are one of the few people who was born wealthy or who entered academia. So I keep showing up to work. And I keep showing up. And I keep growing a little more tired year after year.

And I'm well aware of just how much that tiredness has seeped into my writing. I've tried to restrict my cynicism to contexts where it made sense - in discussing a drama about a young woman's struggle to become an honest-to-god adult, for example. But I have definitely talked about how unpleasant adulthood can be in contexts where doing so was a bit of a stretch - like when I was reviewing a comedy about a love triangle between a personal trainer, her boss and her client. But lately I have been more and more tempted to read my pet themes into contexts where they don't necessarily make sense. For example, with Pan's Labyrinth.

In all fairness, it isn't completely insane to discuss Pan's Labyrinth as a movie about how much adulthood sucks. After all, its main character is Ofelia, a prepubescent girl with an active imagination, and her main conflict is with her stepfather Vidal, a cold-blooded army officer who is fighting for the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Ofelia wants to keep living the life of a child, meaning that she wants to spend all of her time wandering in the woods while concocting her own private fairy tales. Unfortunately, Vidal has no time for such flights of fancy; he is a blunt man whose main belief is that might makes right.

The story unfolds on two levels - as a gritty war story set against the backdrop of a real conflict and as a series of fantastic fables involving fauns, faeries and monsters. However, Ofelia's emotional journey is the same in both stories, because she starts both stories as a passive observer and ends both stories as a defiant participant. 

At the start of the non-magical story Ofelia's main way of dealing with her demanding stepfather is to hide behind her mother; she knows that many of Vidal's commands are arbitrary or cruel but she isn't brave enough to disobey him directly. However, her non-engagement strategy becomes less and less feasible as the war gets closer to their house and as her mother's health gets worse and worse. By the end of the movie Ofelia isn't just disobeying Vidal, she is openly rebelling against him - which is good, because by that point he has transitioned from a stern disciplinarian into an active threat to her and to her blood family.

Meanwhile, the fairy tale sections of Pan's Labyrinth begin as pure escapism before thematically converging with the Civil War sections at the film's climax. The fantasy story begins when a mysterious faun tells Ofelia that she is secretly a faerie princess and that if she wants to reclaim her crown she will have to  pass three magical tests: defeat an evil toad, steal a magic dagger from a secret cubbyhole in a monster's lair, and perform a blood ceremony using the dagger underneath a full moon. Ofelia follows the faun's instructions to a T on the first task, she is a little more independent about the second task, and she actively rebels against the third task when she realizes that the Faun's plans are unethical. By the end of the movie she sees that the faun is just like Vidal - he is someone who presents himself as wise, but who is secretly heartless and demanding. She ends up defying him much the same way that she defied Vidal, even though doing so means that she will never get to rule over a magical kingdom.

Now, obviously it isn't wrong to point out that Ofelia's journey from immaturity to maturity is tragic. This is a story about the death of innocence, and as such it is manifestly sad; all of the fantastic elements of Pan's Labyrinth are entertaining, and all of its war scenes are thrilling, but at the end of the day this film is not a thriller. It is a story about a sweet child whose childhood is ripped from her by a man who is trying his damnedest to increase the amount of misery, mistrust and suffering that exists in the world.

So, yes, that is one very plausible reading of Pan's Labyrinth. However, it is not the only possible reading. When I first saw Pan's Labyrinth in 2006, I mostly thought of it as a visually sumptuous fantasy story - as a mere treat for the eyes. And if I did think about its deeper meaning at all, then I thought about it in mostly abstract terms. Which is fair, because Pan's Labyrinth is very successful at merging magic and practicality, and so it isn't wrong to leave the theater thinking about the way that our fantasies impact our realities and vice versa.

But even in that context I should have been able to see this as a story about how harrowing maturity can be, because it is a fairy tale movie and fairy tales often deliver very real themes about the weight of responsibility under the guise of fantasy. There's a reason why so many bedtime stories start with one parent (if not both) dying – the little children in these fables have to learn to protect themselves instead of running towards an adult for help because the whole point of the story is for them to discover their own personal autonomy before they marry Prince Charming and start the cycle over again. I don't think children really get that – I think they just get wrapped up in the gory or silly aspects of those stories. But now that I'm an adult I find it hard to see those stories as silly; now a lot of them just seem grim to me (...in large part because people my age tend to die horribly in their opening paragraphs.)

There is some part of me that wishes I could retreat back into that bygone glibness - that I could still see Pan's Labyrinth as an engaging distraction, not as a commentary on the cruelty of the world. For better or worse, however, those days are probably gone, because I don't think it is possible for adults to ever completely shut down the adult parts of their brain; I think I'm just doomed to have to deal with a constant amount of low level anxiety for the rest of my life. In fact, I might have to deal with it more and more as I get older, because as you age you have to reckon more seriously with your own mortality.

As such, I expect that I will find myself reading the "adulthood is stressful and exhausting and unceasing" theme into more and more movies as I get older. This will be unfair to many fine works of cinema, of course, because not every movie is trying to convey the same moral - but it isn't completely unfair, either, because the difficulties of life are baked into almost every story; after all, a tale that lacks hardship or struggle isn't really much of a tale at all. So maybe I am only seeing nails everywhere because I'm becoming a hammer. Then again, maybe Ofelia's stepfather is right and the world really is full of nails.

Winner: Me (well, at least with regard to the movie)

Pan's Labyrinth on IMDB