Pan’s Labyrinth is one of prolific and award winning film maker Guillermo del Toro’s most loved and memorable films. He has now collaborated with German author Cornelia Funke (best known for her Inkheart series) to release a novel based on the film. Given it is now twelve years since the film’s release, this is not, like many books, a novelisation brought out to satisfy fans looking to experience something cinematic in another medium. Rather it stands alone as a modern, adult take on fairy tales and the power of myth, set in the chaos of the Spanish civil war.
Each section of the book starts with a short fairy tale. These tales link to characters and objects in the main plot and the quest that young protagonist Ofelia is sent on. Those tales involve, among other things a missing princess from the underworld and the faun who is charged with finding her, the killing of a witch and the consequences of that death, and watch that tells the time of the owner’s death.
Otherwise, the book follows the plot of the film. Ofelia and her mother have come to the forest headquarters of her new stepfather Vidal, a Spanish military officer charged with rooting out the Maqui or Spanish resistance, who Ofelia secretly calls the Wolf. Ofelia’s mother has married Vidal after the death of her husband and is now pregnant with his child. The pregnancy, much to Vidal’s disgust, is seriously affecting her health. When they arrive Ofelia discovers the entry to a labyrinth where she learns that she has a destiny and is given three tasks to carry out. At the same time members of Vidal’s household are secretly helping the Maqui and the conflict between the two sides comes inexorably closer.
Pan’s Labyrinth creates its own mythology, basing its stories on recognisable elements from other tales. There is the evil stepfather, a frog with whom the princess has to make a deal, rules that cannot be broken (and then are broken but with consequences). And it ties this mythology in with the real world action, creating a double vision for the reader of a world of soldiers and ambushes and torture overlaid with an equally unforgiving world of fairies and child eating monsters and magic doorways.
Pan’s Labyrinth is beautifully written and exquisitely illustrated. It stands alone as a stunning work of fantasy for adults. It does not require any knowledge of the movie, or even that the movie exists. But for those who have seen the movie it would serve to deepen their understanding of the themes and the issues that del Toro was seeking to explore.