I’m going to be a purist. I recently saw Guillermo del Toro’s “El Laberinto del Fauno” (translated badly in English “Pan’s Labyrinth”–badly because there is only one Pan, but this movie concerned one of many “fauns.” And don’t get me started on Peter Pan.) I expected a lot, not only due to the hype surrounding the film. I’ve written a novel that concerns a young girl like Ofelia: absent parents, a child who sees a ghost. Like Ofelia, she is caught in a realm that, to an outsider, might seem imaginary. As I wrote the novel, I grappled with the question of what was real. Out of respect for my protagonist, I always fell on her side–that is, I take what she sees and experiences as real. I decided that if readers needed to see her as lost in her imagination, if they needed a scrap of the rational to hang onto, fine, but as storyteller and creator, I trusted her perception.
Guillermo del Toro’s film is stunning. His inventiveness and the way he realized the piece was a treat for the senses. But I was disappointed when rationality crept in at the end…bursting the “dream” of the story, to show us what “really” happened. To me, he betrayed the beauty he’d created.
I’m always bothered when adults disparage imagination, when they dismiss anything other than kitchen sink-realism as escapism–as the adults in the film essentially did the same to Ofelia. I admit I sometimes feel haughty when talking to people who have dismissed fancy–quietly I cheer the fact that I still allow myself the freedom to believe in story. I want a creator to let the dream be the dream that it is; I love when a creator lets the story be “real.” And by this I don’t mean realism. This letting the dream be real can make something transcendent, much more than escapism. In fact, things seem more like escapism when a creator shoves your nose in the “real world,” as a contrast to the imaginary world. This usually comes at the end, thereby reigning in imagination, shoving its messy boundaries back into its proper box: childhood, or perhaps the asylum.
I took a creative writing class in high school. Our teacher had one rule: no story could end with, “and then I woke up.” “And then I woke up” is what makes something imagined turn into escapism, the acknowledgement of the serious, the real, the rational life we busy adults must get back to, come now you foolish thing!
But isn’t it better, in this nasty, brutish, and short life, isn’t it better to leave the imagination alone, let it be what it is? To let it thrive? How many inventions and dreams would not have been realized if we always have to wake up from the dream before the story is over? If we need creators to remind us that life is mundane, to pull us back from that dangerous abyss of invention.
It used to make me mad when I encountered one of those “and then I woke up” moments in film or fiction, when the cold slap of reality hit my cheek. But this time, imagining that del Toro must have felt he had to let that ugly lump, rationality, back in, I just felt sad. I felt pity for him, and sad for me.
I saw something today in this photo of a creator, peering through the window. The furrows in his brow could mean anything, but I like to think he regrets that he didn’t let Ofelia (and, by extension, his audience) feel the full extent of her mud-smeared, harrowing dream.