Getting Lost in Pan’s Labyrinth

A guest post by Megan Grey.

Pan's Labyrinth CoverI love movies of all kinds-cheesy romantic comedies, popcorn action flicks, musicals, epic war stories, you name it. But if asked which movie I think inspires me most as a writer, I’d have to say Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo Del Toro’s fantasy drama. Of all the movies I’ve seen, this one has haunted me the most, and has inspired the most vehement “Holy CRAP, I want to write something this incredible someday” reaction after watching it.

Pan’s Labyrinth is a movie I think every writer (and particularly every fantasy writer) should watch. That being said, I must warn you that it’s rated R for a reason. There’s some pretty graphic violence in this movie. It’s no Saw, but a dude does get his face bashed in with a bottle. Repeatedly. So keep that in mind for the squeamish among you.

Pan’s Labyrinth is about a young girl named Ofelia who, along with her pregnant mother, go to live with her new stepfather, Captain Vidal, a ruthless leader in the new fascist Spain of 1944. Ofelia discovers a mysterious labyrinth on the captain’s property, and encounters a faun (who is far creepier than the jolly Narnian-type satyr usually portrayed in films and books) who tells her that she is really the princess of the underworld. He assigns her three tasks to prove her worthiness to return to her true realm. The movie moves seamlessly between the two parallel worlds of myth and reality as Ofelia attempts to both fulfill her quest and survive under the Captain’s oppressive rule.

The thing I love about this movie is that this is no Disneyfied fairy tale. Del Toro brings to the screen a fairy tale dark enough to haunt the Grimm brothers (and having read some of the original Grimm tales, I can assure you the parents in those days weren’t afraid to scare the bejesus out of their kids to keep them on the straight and narrow). And truly, a fairy tale this dark is the only kind that could provide Ofelia (and through her, the viewer) the tools to deal with the darkness of the war-torn world in which she lives. As a writer, particularly as a writer of fantasy, there is much to be learned about the art of storytelling from watching this movie.

First off, this movie is deep. The kind you can watch repeatedly, and every time catch something new, a different nuance that aids in a greater understanding of the whole. In my first attempt at writing this blog post, I got about three paragraphs into an analysis of the various layers of symbolism Del Toro employs before: 1.) I nearly bored myself to sleep. 2.) I realized there are far smarter people than I out there who have written amazing essays and even masters’ theses analyzing every nook and cranny of this film, and I have very little to add to their research.

What I do have is one of the main lessons I learned from watching this gorgeous, brilliant film that I have tried to apply to my writing ever since. It’s not groundbreaking writing advice, but it certainly makes for a good reminder on occasion, and it is this:

To bring the world of your story to life, to make it feel real and all-consuming to your reader, the use of vivid, sensory details is crucial.

From the very moment the film begins, with the haunting lullaby being hummed in the background, viewers are pulled into this dark, lush fairy tale, and Del Toro wisely never lets them go. From the moss-covered, crumbling ruins of the labyrinth, to the snap of the brutal Captain’s leather gloves to the beads of moisture clinging to the forbidden grapes on the Pale Man’s feast table, this movie is a sensory marvel. Every sound, every image, and yes, every meaningful symbol that Del Toro employs draw the view deeper and deeper into this dark world.

As writers, we have a slightly different toolbox than filmmakers. We don’t have musical scores to inform the reader just how villainous the antagonist is, and we can’t sum up the forbidding forest by showing an actual picture of the creeping vines and clawing branches (unless, of course, we’re writing graphic novels, but right now I’m speaking on behalf of writers like myself for whom drawing a decent stick figure is a challenge).

We have words. Loads of glorious words we can use to set the scene, to enhance the mood, the tone, that we’re trying to draw the reader into. Specifics are key here. You may have a scene in which two characters are talking in a car. What kind of car are they in? Are they in a beat-up old truck or a fancy new Porsche? Is the road they’re on a path winding through the mountains or a city street jammed bumper to bumper with taxis? What’s on the radio? Is it night or day? Does the air smell like wildflowers or exhaust fumes? Each choice adds up to setting the overall tone of the scene, or even story as a whole.

Description has always been difficult for me as a writer. I used to focus so intently on the character’s inner struggles and outer witty banter that I would forget to do more than a cursory description of the world around them. Pan’s Labyrinth taught me otherwise. It showed me that the ticking of a pocket watch in a villain’s gloved hand or the putrid stench of a sticky pile of massive toad innards (in one of the movie’s most memorable and gag-reflex-inducing scenes) is every bit as important to a truly brilliant story as the dialogue and character development.

When Ofelia first encounters the ancient archway leading into the labyrinth, the housekeeper Mercedes warns, “Better not go in there. You might get lost.”

The Take Home: As writers, we’d do well to follow Del Toro’s lead and use every tool possible to ensure our readers lose themselves, utterly and happily, in the labyrinth of our worlds.

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Megan Grey currently lives in Calgary, Alberta with her husband, two kids, and two yappy dogs. Her story “To Be Remembered” won the Editor’s Pick Grand Prize in a fiction contest for the Animism: The God’s Lake animated TV series and will be featured in an upcoming anthology. She has received two honorable mentions and a semi-finalist award for short stories in the Writers of the Future contest.

2 responses on “Getting Lost in Pan’s Labyrinth

  1. Gregory D. Little

    Great post about a great movie! But you didn’t mention all the nightmares the Pale Man surely gave you. Or… was that just me?

  2. Megan Grey

    Thanks, Greg! And it wasn’t just you…the Pale Man is one of the scariest creatures I’ve seen in any movie/TV show/book EVER.

    Yet another reason I adore this movie.

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