I have been thinking about Pan’s Labyrinth a lot lately. It is that kind of movie. It sneaks in your head, rattling around, raising questions, making connections and practically demanding that you pay attention to it.
What I have mostly been thinking about is what happens when creators take stories about and for children and turn them into adult stories. To be more specific, at what age would it be appropriate to watch Pan’s Labyrinth? The heroine is young girl whose heroism and imagination other young girls would certainly identify with and appreciate, but her ordeals are so horrific that it seems inappropriate to expose children to them.
My most startling response to the movie was the scene that shocked me the most. Ofelia, the heroine, is grappling with the fact that her mother is “sick with child” and she is so scared that her mother will die in childbirth that she literally begs her unborn brother to spare their mother’s life. Meanwhile her stepfather, the local Republican captain, is only concerned with her mother’s welfare to the extent that her illness may endanger his son’s life. He is also a brutal torturer.
But it is not scenes of Republican or Rebel soldiers dying, or scenes of torture that shocked me the most, although the sequence where the Captain has to stitch his face back together, after letting his housekeeper and rebel spy get the better of him, did give me pause. What threw me for a loop was the Pale Man eating a fairy headfirst.
In other words, what happened to real people was not traumatic to me, but kill one of Tinkerbell’s less articulate cousins and I go all to pieces. Why should this be?
The obvious explanation is that I am one-half callous bastard and one half-sentimental wimp, like an emotional Two-Face.
On the other hand, I think that one of the reasons may come from the structure of Pan’s Labyrinth. Because the movie alternates between moments of ugly reality and moments of beautiful (if sometimes nightmarish) fantasy, there is a tendency to emotionally relax during the moments of fantasy. No matter what during the moments of fantasy, Ofelia is safe, I assumed. When the Pale Man attacks and crunches the fairy, all of my assumptions about Ofelia’s safety are thrown into disarray. I was upset not just over the death of the fairy, but also for the revelation that even in the realm of faerie that Ofelia is not safe. Given that the movie is predicated on the idea that Ofelia is trying to accomplish three tasks in order to flee the mundane world, this death calls into question whether fleeing to the faerie world will even improve her lot.
It also leads to suspicion to Ofelia’s guide to the faerie realms, the faun of the title, and it adds resonance to the comment by the housekeeper that “Fauns are not to be trusted.” This reads originally as an adult’s casual dismissal of the world of fantasy, but after the death of the fairy, we never quite trust the faun again. (Or at least I didn’t.)
All of which is an introduction to the fact that after watching Pan’s Labyrinth, by complete coincidence I picked up a graphic novel that mirrorred my concerns about how Pan’s Labyrinth over creators appropriating children’s literature for their own purposes and our reactions to it.
Pride of Baghdad is a Vertigo graphic novel written by Brian K. Vaughn (Y: the Last Man), with art by Niko Henrichon (PT Barnum).
Based, loosely, very loosely, on the fact that during the early days of the Iraq War in 2003, four lions escaped the Baghdad Zoo, Pride of Baghdad could be described as a true story, except you know with talking animals. The gorgeous artwork is clearly influenced by The Lion King except that I strongly suspect that the artist and writer were reaching back to Osamu Tezuka’s Kimba the White Lion which it is alleged Disney ripped off wholesale for The Lion King.
Regardless of influences, the disturbing (and I would argue, intentionally disturbing) part of Pride of Baghdad is the way that it uses the tropes of children’s literature, like say talking animals, to tell a story of war which all the more disturbing for its setting.
The book follows four lions, leader of the pack, Zill, one-eyed bitter lioness, Sula, younger lioness Noor and her cub, Ali. Noor is in the process of trying (and failing) to convince the Antelope herd to join a conspiracy with her and the monkeys to kill their keepers and escape the zoo, when American bombers blow the shit out of the place making escape an undesired reality rather than an impossible fantasy.
The lions wander and have various adventures, encountering a variety of animals along the way. For most of the book, hunger is a constant theme as the lions frequently have chances to eat, but one thing or another always seems to come along to interrupt their meals.
The book makes a great deal of the fact that for Iraqi’s lions are a symbol of their nation, a symbol of their strength. (Not, perhaps, coincidentally the original anime Kimba the White Lion was very popular amongst Arabs.) The tragedy of these lions is connected to the tragedy of their country.
When violence intrudes on the world of these lions, it is all the more shocking, because we are lulled into a false sense of security because of the trappings of children’s literature. Disney himself was not above using this sense of security to set people up, most notably in Bambi which might as well be a horror film for children.
The book features a giraffe decapitated in full run by American bombing, a graphic and disturbing flashback to the rape that caused Sula to lose her eye, a wise turtle describing how his family was killed by an oil spill in the first Gulf War and an ending that is absolutely heart-breaking, if inevitable.
(Curiously, I accepted the giraffe death without qualm, but found Sula’s rape to be difficult to read. My mother fixated on the giraffe being decapitated.)
I think that the style of artwork also has an influence on how we react to the events that we are shown. When reading a work illustrated by Richard Corben or Eddie Campbell or Rick Veitch, the “ugliness” of the work prepares for the “ugliness” of the material. I am not suggesting that Eddie Campbell was not perfect for From Hell. Just that when the Ripper shows up, we are already mentally prepared for the bloodshed.
On the other hand, a “pretty” artist like say Herge or Brian Bolland or George Perez, we are less prepared for things to take a turn for the tragic, so unexpected tragedy hits us all the harder. I would argue that a great deal of Watchmen’s emotional resonance comes from the fact that we are unprepared for how dark the story is going to become, since Dave Gibbons’ artwork is so light.
That, I suspect is Vaughn and Henrichon’s intention. For all of the power of Fax to Sarajevo it is nothing that we have nor seen before from Kupert… except that this time the story is real. For all the brilliance of Joe Sacco’s various war narratives, we are mentally prepared that his stories will be tragic. Virtually the first panel tips us off.
But Pride of Baghdad masquerading as it does as a children’s story, still packs the power to shock us, to make us feel that what happened in Iraq was a tragedy, for all the casualties of that tragic war. Or as the book so eloquently puts it, “There were other casualties as well.”
(edited by Llakor on 27.1.07 2145) "Don't Blame CANADA, Blame Yourselves!"
I actually prefer "Gospel" by Wilton Barnhardt to either of these books, as a thriller/mystery devoting large sections of text to church history and conspiracy theory. There's more fun to be had in that book.