Pan’s Labyrinth by Guillermo del Toro & Cornelia Funke
Published by Bloomsbury, 2019
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Pan’s Labyrinth is one of my all-time favourite films. More than a decade on from its release, writer-director Guillermo del Toro has teamed up with fantasy novelist Cornelia Funk to create an official novelisation. Set against the backdrop of war-torn Spain in 1944, the story follows a young girl as she gets embroiled in a dark and fantastical adventure, drawing heavily on elements of fairy tale and horror. This thread sits in juxtaposition with the very real brutalities of war, with del Toro exploring the concept of monsters both human and imagined, alongside themes of loss, grief, family, and resilience.
Sticking faithfully to the original narrative, if you like the film, it’s hard to imagine you’d be disappointed with the book. Ironically, however, my love for the film was probably what stopped me from completely adoring this; any small discrepancies or shortcomings standing out more than they likely would have to the casual reader.
The sinister and whimsical tone is translated well from screen to page. The prose is simple and very readable, but it’s occasionally punctuated by some striking imagery that serves as a nice nod to the strong aesthetic prowess of the film: “The trees anchored so deeply in the moss-covered soil they laced the bones of the dead with their roots while their branches reached for the stars.” I did think, however, that there was a tendency to repeat certain words and phrases. This could have been deliberate; a nod to the straightforward, motif-driven nature of fairy tales, but it stood out a little clumsily at times – especially the overuse of the modern phrase, ‘for sure’. I also think it was just a little too meek. Yes, it might be a fairy tale that flirts with the magical, but this story is dark and otherworldly. I wish Funke had embraced that, pushing for a lush and evocative feel, rather than pitching for what feels at times like a middle grade audience.
I love that it is, in many ways, a love letter to the power of storytelling, and the escapism if offers from the darkness of our own world: “When she opened the book, the white pages were so bright against the shadows that filled the forest, and the words they offered granted shelter and comfort. The letters were like footprints in the snow, a wide white landscape untouched by pain, unharmed by memories too dark to keep, too sweet to let go of.” This ties in nicely with one of my favourite aspects of the film; the ability to interpret it as genuine fantasy, or the imaginings of a troubled young girl desperate to escape.
The book is interspersed with short stories; fairy tales that can stand on their own, but which also serve as backstory for certain characters, locations, and events throughout the main narrative. These offer additional context not possible in the film, but I felt they interrupted the flow of the story somewhat, and threatened to push it towards full blown fantasy, rather than leaving things open to interpretation (though the stories could be read as the beloved tales that have fuelled Ofelia’s imagination, I suppose). Sometimes less is more, and I’m not sure we needed to know all of these extraneous details.
It’s hard to separate this from my love for the film, and therefore to judge it as its own piece of literature. The story, characters, setting, themes, and overall atmosphere crafted by del Toro are all fantastic – as I knew they would be. Revisiting the world he created via a new medium was at once nostalgic and fresh, and in that sense, I loved it. That said, I do think it would work best for people already familiar with the movie.
I suppose it was always going to be hard to please such an avid fan of the original, hence why this review for a book I actually very much enjoyed has come across more harshly than intended: I just wasn’t wholly convinced by Funke’s prose; a darker and more mature approach could have made this my dream read. Nonetheless, it offered a solid reading experience, and it was certainly worth picking up, even if it is a rare instance in which I’d argue firmly that the film is better than the book.
If you’d like to give Pan’s Labyrinth a go, you can pick up a copy from Book Depository by clicking here. If you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts, particularly how you felt it compared to the film!