Guillermo del Toro and his Fairy Tales

Fairy tales have been a part of oral and literary tradition for centuries providing society with entertainment, history and ambivalent moral life lessons. These have assisted, according to those within the psychoanalytical space (Bettelheim, 1978) (Von Franz, 1995, 1996), (Cashdan, 1999), with psyche development, often in children, and the use of enchantment.[1] The cinema has been pioneering in producing film versions of these tales, the first version of Cinderella was produced in 1899 (dir: Georges Mèliés) displaying what Ridvan Şentürk calls “the transition from textual culture to visual culture and the accompanying transition in the transformation of reality”.[2] This renovation of reality does attempt to encapsulate a sense verisimilitude within this real world and if an imaginary world exists within the diegesis there is some element of mimesis. These films juxtapose the real and fantastical and while it is clear that these screen fairy tales are made for adults with their dark visuals and themes of murder, sacrifice, fear and death, the use of the child protagonist is intriguing. If these stories told in childhood do provide psychological maturity to children too immature to deal with the situations around them then what purpose does the casting of a child in an adult version serve, if any, to the narrative? Perhaps it is as Bruno Bettelheim determines that “[e]ach fairy tale is a magic mirror which reflects some aspects of our inner world, and of the steps required for our evolution from immaturity to maturity. For those who immerse themselves in what the fairy tale has to communicate, it becomes a deep, quiet pool which at first seems to reflect only our own image; but behind it we soon discover the inner turmoil of our soul – its depth and ways to gain peace within ourselves and with the world, which is the reward of our struggles.”[3]

The screen fairy tale acts in much the same way bringing together elements of the fantastical and projecting them within a social setting which will allow for an ideological reading and therefore aid identification. Some screen tales which are aimed at young children contain clearly defined adult/child relationships whereas the texts explored in this project are more ambivalent. It can even be suggested that these characters are in fact mirror representations of the other; their individual anxieties, qualities, even physical features and respective journeys are transposable (see fig1.1-4).

fig 1.1 Mirror images: Kym (Katie Holmes) and Sally (Bailee Madison) in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.
fig 1.2 Jesus (Federico Lippi) and Aurora (Tamara Shanath) in Cronos.
fig 1.3 Laura (Belén Rueda) and Tomás (Óscar Casas) in The Orphanage.
fig 1.4 Santi (Junio Valverde) and Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) in The Devil’s Backbone.

On some level these adult characters who share screen time with their counterpart have lost a part of themselves; some innocence or element of imagination associated with their youth and now have the opportunity to embrace their ‘inner child’ in order to survive their current situation. In order to do so they must allow the child or shadow to impart the wisdom forgotten through maturation. In Jungian theory, fairy tales are regarded as symbolic representations of problems associated with adults and thus describes the shadow as the part of the psyche that the individual would rather not acknowledge. The greatest power is to accept the shadow parts (or daemons) and integrate them as components of the self.[4] These relationships are prevalent in adult fairy tales, and will be referred to as the shadow-child, this article aims to look specifically at Guillermo del Toro’s oeuvre and his vision of the fairy tale.


Guillermo del Toro’s first foray into Hollywood filmmaking was with Mimic (1997) in which an entomologist (Mira Sorvino) creates a genetically modified insect-human hybrid to save the nation’s children from deadly disease.[5] This mediocre sci-fi/horror text was not a commercial success, yet it enabled del Toro to make more “personal”[6] films, those which depict recurring themes related to the concept of childhood all present and displayed with visual relish in a very obvious adult diegesis and through the juxtaposition of beauty and the macabre. These dichotomous themes become more prevalent following Cronos (1993) and The Devil’s Backbone (2001), in which these horror texts, crucially, also contain young children despite the narrative(s) aim at an adult audience. These films still contain a certain mythology associated with the adult fairy tale and the adult/child pairing. However, it is in del Toro’s later work in the guise of writer, producer or director that greater encompasses the ambiguity of the adult fairy tale specifically alongside the film texts and his directorial works Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) that the extent of the screen fairy tale and the adult-child dual relationship will be explored. These films contain individual and distinctive aesthetics which make for some of the most memorable fairy-tales-for-adults in modern cinema.

Born in Guadalajara, Mexico on October 19, 1964 to Federico and Guadalupe and raised in a strict Catholic household the young Guillermo developed an early interest in the fantastical, monsters, make-up and special effects[7]. As a child, by his own admission, del Toro became enthralled with both bible stories and fairy tales and found what he refers to as “equal spiritual illumination”[8] in both sets of parables. Interestingly, now fifty, del Toro has rendered his religion indefinable and is now a self-proclaimed “lapsed Catholic”. He does, however, still believes in fairies and continues to avidly collect books and anthologies on the subject as well as incorporate traditional tales within the mise-en-scène of the filmic frame.[9]

Visually, Pan’s Labyrinth’s palette of colours are tonally neutral and cold (greens, greys, blacks and blues) in the real world; displaying the darkness of a country following a civil war. The fantasy world’s range of colours, in contrast, are reds and gold, warm inviting and what del Toro refers to as “uterine” in shape and density; this is, after all, a tale of a defiantly imaginative girl in her pursuit of re-birth.[10] Few scenes are shot in natural light and the majority of action occurs during dusk or deep into the hours of darkness when the world is asleep and twelve year old Ofelia (Ivana Banquero) can complete her quest. At the film’s opening a blackout slowly reveals a close-up image of a child which fills the frame, blood is pouring from her nose and she is gasping for breath, close to death. Intertitles set the scene, it is 1944 and following the devastation and stasis of the Spanish Civil War, guerrillas of the resistance are attempting to regain control of their country; rescuing it from the iron fist of Fascism left in the wake of General Francisco Franco’s reign. A fairy tale-style narration begins detailing the story of a curious princess named Moanna who escaped from her kingdom to quench her thirst for adventure. Over time Moanna loses her memory, forgets her true identity and eventually succumbs to the austerity of the real world and dies. Her father, the King, believes his daughter’s soul will return incarnated in another body and will await her. There is a sense of foreboding within Ofelia’s death scene, a child’s death is difficult to comprehend, perhaps due to their free association to innocence and mythology which surrounds childhood and suggests that children are inextricably linked to purity and are therefore to remain untouched. “[Y]ou do not”, according to psychoanalyst Serge Leclaire “single them out for hatred”.[11] Leclaire argues that through the stages of “primary narcissism” the individual must unconsciously and repeatedly kill and destroy the phantasmal image of a child projected onto them by their parents.[12] Surely then, the inference of death in the child is not quite as traumatic as he suggests but a projection of the spectator’s primary narcissism. The audience could ideologically view Ofelia as the ghost child of the individual psyche; she is an embodiment of the delusion which would render her death of little consequence in the opening segment. The fact that she is dying strengthens her humanity, interpellates subjectivity and thus facilitates viewer identification. Within minutes of this, however, the blood pool reverses and begins to seep back into the child and the next shot indicates the commencement of Ofelia’s journey.

The voice-over narration stops and an inlay of a volume of fairy tales fills the frame and then Ofelia. She is sat in the back of a car with her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gill) who is incredulous at the amount of books her daughter insisted upon bringing; tales that, according to her mother, Ofelia is too old for. Carmen, having spent a number of years as a widow, did not wish to succumb to loneliness and has married Captain Vidal (Sergi Lòpez) with whom she is now expecting a child. The depiction of the older female staving off pregnancy-induced illness and the young girl’s fascination with her stories shows the distinction between adult and child. Carmen becomes exasperated by the muddiness of her daughter’s shoes while Ofelia is excitable because she believes she has seen a fairy.


Vidal is cold, calculating and unapproachable. His only interest is his firstborn son, the older female is merely a vessel for his heir and the younger is an unnecessary inheritance from his marriage; women in his world are expendable. As long as Ofelia remains impassive and invisible, he is happy to ignore her: the disdain is mutual, made evident with the child’s stubborn refusal to call the man ‘father’. While Carmen wishes for her daughter to cast aside the childish fairy tales and books the act of storytelling itself is the way in which the two siblings, who have yet to meet, bond. Ofelia tells her brother tales of wonder while he is in utero and it is during this sequence that del Toro utilises one of many visual effects to show the unborn child and the response he has to his sister’s voice which carries tales of wonder and imagination. After showing the unborn son safe in the cocoon of the amniotic sac, the filmmaker cuts to Vidal – the opposing force to his child – he is the active, experienced adult who is far removed from innocence. He tortures and murders a father and son whose only transgression is killing hares for food; the violence displayed is unflinching as the Captain obliterates the younger man’s face with a glass bottle. This dichotomy of beauty and horror is essential to the on-screen fairy tale. Not least, according to del Toro, but to instil fear while some foster hope and magical wonder. All “have a quotient of darkness because the one thing alchemy understands, is that you need the vile matter for magic to flourish”.[13] Certainly, Ofelia’s world contains an element of darkness complete with a dying mother and a wicked stepfather. Her tales have honed an already active imagination yet precipitates her demise.

Ofelia is neither adult nor child in totality, she resembles a child on the cusp of sexual maturity and yet her experiences to date are perhaps limited to an association with an adult world: endurance of hardship, upheaval, heartbreak and death are difficult for any soul to bear regardless of their age. She follows her heart and while this may be construed, at times, as disobedience it is more accurate to describe her as independent. The child is, after all provided with copious amounts of freedom. Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), on the other hand, is subservient. She continues to serve Vidal and run the household; she may occasionally sneak out at night and visit her younger brother Pedro who is part of the resistance but her true defiance only occurs after, her shadow-child, Ofelia has paved the way. Interestingly, the items which Ofelia rescues during her trials: the key and the dagger find their way into Mercedes’ possession in the real world. In a sense the girl, in her ambivalent child state completes her tasks with determination and self-sufficiency and this, in turn, enables Mercedes to gain strength and daring. The self-proclaimed “coward” then rises up to Vidal to become a hero of her own making. There is an indication that Ofelia’s presence brings about a change to Mercedes within moments of arrival. When the girl chases the cricket, the woman watches intently, perhaps the presence of a child stirs maternal instincts or there is still some dormant magic within Mercedes. When Ofelia asks her if she believes in fairies, Mercedes answers that she used to, “I used to believe in a lot of things when I was a girl”. Ofelia confides in her new friend that she has met a faun and Mercedes tells her to be wary of it, there is no attempt to oppress the girl’s imagination but a voice of experience that could perhaps hint at previous dealings with the magical creature. The duality in representation of the two does not end there as costumes and colours remain similar in cut, style and tone of the two characters and they are often shot next to or in front of each other; an extension of the body (see fig2.1-3 ). The woods also hold great significance for both. The forest is a site of indifferent nature, a place where the two worlds (real and fantastic) merge, a location to both hide and get lost in.[14] this is the place where they are safest; where they are active, princesses of their own destiny.


Pan’s draws readers’ attention to intertextual signifiers throughout the mise-en-scène and the individual instinctively associates it with a fairy tale narrative that is innately familiar[15] and continues the fairy tale tradition. These signifiers are evident through allusions to Alice in Wonderland[16] (fig3.1), specifically through the style of the silk dress Ofelia is made to wear just prior to her first trial[17]. The Wizard of Oz is hinted at during the film’s finale when the princess finally gets home[18] and knocks her red booted heels together and lastly with her alabaster skin and ebony hair Ofelia resembles Snow White[19]. It is, however, at the commencement of her second task after rescuing a key from the stomach of a giant toad when intertextual layering is displayed to full visual effect in the Pale Man’s lair.

Ofelia is warned by the faun, before she leaves her bedroom, not to touch anything. The ogre sits at the head of a decadent banquet table with his palms pressed on the table top. Although alone Ofelia is Hansel and Gretel;[20] abandoned by her parents and trapped by a blind witch (the Pale Man has no eyes or sockets). She rescues a gilded dagger from one of the lock boxes on the wall and starts to leave. Here, religion and fairy tales meet within the mise-en-scène, del Toro hinting that despite his lapse of faith there are some aspects he remembers. There are murals and paintings across the wall reminiscent of the stained glass interpretations in any church, the Pale Man, however, does not display the Stations of the Cross but stations of his repugnancy as it were; the tens of small shoes in a pile by the fire makes clear the monster’s intentions. The ogre’s stigmata is in the form of sockets on both palms his eyes sit next to him on a saucer, an allusion to St. Lucy[21] and when Ofelia gives into temptation and steals a luscious-looking grape she is evocative of Eve stealing the forbidden fruit. Her transgression facilitates the fight for her life, the Pale Man’s eyes are popped into the sockets and his fingers act as surreal lashes. This marriage of religion and fairy tales links back to del Toro’s childhood and the age of enlightenment and furthers the angelic and demonic dichotomy which is scattered throughout each of his films (fig4.1-3).


Who is more of an angel and demon amalgam than the character of Hellboy? In the second of the current franchise, The Golden Army, del Toro yet again screens the fairy tale through an adult world and repeats many of the rules displayed in Pan’s; the underworld, the king, a war with humans and all in a social setting which is identifiable and recognisable. The main character’s name is no accident – Hellboy is exactly that, a boy, albeit in an adult demon’s body. His childlike qualities are made more apparent by the fact that the audience view him as a child in the opening sequence, getting ready for bed, brushing his teeth and excitably awaiting a bedtime story from his father. These images can serve to assist with identification, after all, as adults the audience have one thing in common; they have experienced a childhood in one form or another. In later life, his love of candy, television and petulant, often simplistic way of viewing the world make him the innocent living “outside of society, pre-historical, pre-social, instinctual, creatures of unreason, primitive, kin to unspoiled nature”.[22] Del Toro describes the character as “a child [who] defines himself by choosing who he is and not who he is meant to be”[23] (fig5.1-3).


Following on from sequel and the loss of his father Professor Broom (John Hurt), Hellboy is now in a serious relationship with pyro-telekinetic Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) and they along with Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) continue to solve supernatural crime in the Bureau of Paranormal Research Defense (BPRD) and fight the creatures of the Underworld at odds with humanity rather than take their place among them. Elf-prince Nuada (Luke Goss) is discontent with humankind particularly with their treatment of his world. He is angry that his father refuses to act and that the King insists upon maintaining the armistice, signed centuries ago, between the Elves and humans. Nuada thus murders his father to initiate his rise to the throne and sets about collecting the three pieces of the crown which will grant him ruler and therefore enable him to awaken the golden army and destroy humans. Nuada’s twin sister Nuala (Anna Walton) becomes an unlikely source of resistance and seeks refuge from the BPRD to prevent Nuada’s quest. He awakens the army but Nuala ends his reign by making the ultimate sacrifice.


Nuala and Nuada are the literal double of each other with the two actors wearing prosthetic pieces to ensure their facial blemishes match. The subtle colour-difference in their make-up symbolising their juxtaposing natures, Nuala’s golden eyes and mouth soften her features, hinting at her warmth while Nuada’s severe black eyes harden him and the audience is left with little doubt who the ruthless twin is; the one with the darker soul. Like with Pan’s this duality of representation suggests that they are essentially the same person with Nuada symbolising Nuala’s Shadow which she has always accepted as a part of her personality before his murderous killing spree. Unable to fully accept her Shadow there is resistance. He awakens the army but Nuala ends his reign by making the ultimate sacrifice. Their bond is not only telepathic but biological and she drives a dagger into her heart knowing that it will surely end his life also.

The character of Hellboy is what Marie-Louise Von Franz calls a “shadow-hero”[24] and therefore offers a more complex reading. He is the aspect of the archetype which has been rejected by the collective consciousness, in this case read through literal societal rejection but also that he is “more primitive and more instinctive than the hero but not necessarily morally inferior. In some fairy tales, the hero […] has no shadow companion but displays himself with positive, negative [and sometimes] demonic traits”.[25] I would suggest, however, that there is a shadow-child within his psyche, in the figurative sense, especially in those moments when he forlornly pines his father. He displays a need to return to childhood or at the very least the return to dependency and being cared for while, in the same token, yearns for attention and general acceptance from the world he has not only attempted to save but assimilate into (as much as a six feet tall, bright red, hornless demon can). Certain aspects of Hellboy’s psyche are more complex than that of Ofelia, he is repressing the demon, his birthright, an evil he keeps at bay with religious iconography – another recurring del Toro motif – ethereal images in his abode and rosary beads around his wrist and waist. He and Liz share a similar relationship in that they have had little in the way of a regular childhood. Given their, respective, extraordinary abilities they measure each other through the how the other sees them. They too have transcended the first mirror phase and now their illusions are met with similarity and reciprocity. Most couples strive for alike-mindedness; however, Liz can control fire while it just so happens that Hellboy was born in a pit of it.

Hellboy is the embodiment of the imagination, hope, death and destruction (he is destined to destroy humankind and the world, after all) and can be read as the ambivalent, often ideological, identifier sought and found in the screen fairy tale. Or perhaps the creature is a visual signifier for the film’s author. In his 2011 interview, with Daniel Zalewski of The New Yorker, del Toro claimed that some his characters are auto-biographical and that he was not only the Pale Man in Pan’s but “I am Hellboy”.[26]

The imaginative adult screen fairy tale is a sanctuary for all shadow-children to dwell, a place where they can connect and seek hope from the brutality of reality. We should all strive to be a bit Ofelia and Hellboy.
[1] Child psychoanalysis Bruno Bettelheim conducted an in-depth study of fairy tales and used case studies of the children he was treating and applied Freudian theory to produce an understanding of the uses of enchantment and how these cautionary tales can assist with the psychological development of children.

[2] Ridvan Şentürk “Anxiety and Fear in Children’s Films” [accessed 1 April 2012].

[3] Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Importance of Fairy Tales in Childhood (UK: Penguin Books, [1978] 1991) p309.

[4] Marie-Louise Von Franz, The Interpretation of Fairy Tales, (Boston and London: Shambhala: 1996) pp114-197.

[5] The film’s premise of ‘saving the children’ culminates in the death of many adults. The hybrid continues to evolve and by the text’s conclusion resembles a human and must be destroyed. It can, perhaps, be read alongside the body of this thesis – survival of an innocent is dependent upon the sacrifice of the more experienced; the acceptance of one’s shadow.

[6] Del Toro regards his personal films as those which relate directly to him i.e. The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy franchise.

[7] This culminated in del Toro completing a make-up course under the tutelage of Oscar winning Dick Smith. Following this, del Toro worked as a make-up supervisor before creating his own production company Necropia in 1985 – see Andrea Sabbadini, El laberinto del fauno [Pan’s Labyrinth], 6 August 2011 p2 [accessed 10 March 2012].

[8] Rebecca Murray, “Guillermo del Toro Talks Pan’s Labyrinth September 6 2006 [accessed 16 Nov 2011].

[9] Daniel Zalewski, “Show the Monster” in New Yorker, 7 February 2011 [accessed 2 February 2012] p.

[10] Mark Kermode, “Girl Interrupted” in Sight and Sound, December 2006, [accessed January 14 2012] p4.

[11] Serge Leclaire, A Child is Being Killed: On Primary Narcissism and the Death Drive (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998) p2.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Murray, 2006.

[14] Karen Lury, The Child in Cinema: Tears, Fears and Fairy Tales, (United Kingdom: I B Tauris, 2011) p109.

[15] Jack Zipes, Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children and Culture, (United Kingdom: Routledge 1996) p1.

[16] See Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, 1865.

[17] Alice wears a dress underneath a white pinafore apron, has knee socks, Mary Jane shoes on her feet and a headband in her hair. While the dress is traditionally blue, Ofelia’s is emerald green in keeping with the palette of colours utilised through the real world’s mise-en-scène.

[18] Home is the kingdom of heaven where she becomes Princess Moanna once again taking her throne alongside her father and mother.

[19] Rather than an evil stepmother, Ofelia has a stepfather whose early morning shaving ritual involves staring into a mirror. In a subversion of the traditional tale, however, it is Ofelia who tries to poison him when she attempts to escape with her younger brother.

[20] This is not the only allusion to the fairy tale siblings – Pedro and Mercedes are parentless siblings abandoned following the war, making the woods their temporary home. Vidal’s food store could possibly be read as a gingerbread house of sorts.

[21] Saint Lucy (Santa Lucia) is venerated as the patron Saint of the blind. Upon her execution her captors, unable to burn her to death, plucked out her eyes with a fork. She is often depicted holding her eyes upon a plate or flat receptacle; del Toro makes reference to this statue which “freaked him out as a child” (New Yorker, 2011 p10).

[22] Marina Warner, Six Myths of Our Time: Little Angels, Little Monsters, Beautiful Beasts and More, (UK: Vintage, 1996) p57.

[23] Brent Simon, “Guillermo del Toro Talks Hellboy II” [accessed 5 February 2012].

[24] Von Franz 1996, p114.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Zalewski, 2011 p11.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s