Storytelling and Reality in The Fall and The City of Lost Children

The power of fairy tales and stories in childhood can impact a lifetime not least due to the bedtime story whereby the adult attempts to lull the child to sleep with tales of wonder, and aid in the creation of dreams. Dreams, according to Freud, unconsciously assist with the resolution of a conflict and will be considered later, in greater detail, through an analysis of The City of Lost Children (1995). However, it is the action itself of storytelling which is intriguing, specifically between the adult, the child and the space they commune or what Maria Tatar refers to as a “contact zone”[1], a place of mutual meeting and experience as depicted in a film like The Fall (2006).

By distinguishing between the adult and child Tatar creates ambivalence, how can these two individuals share a mutual experience when she herself sets them apart from each other? Not to mention their individual reader identification and expectation[2]. The contact zone can be said to exist but it is not more likely a mutual meeting of contradictory experience (or even be described as repellent)? A story’s narrative sets both adult and child onto different paths. Adam Gopnik suggests that “the grown up wants a comforting image of childhood”[3] and is driven by nostalgia while the child uses the tales to move beyond childish things, a way of bypassing childhood and venturing out, albeit figuratively, into the world. There is even a suggestion that this contact zone/story space may extend to the dream-world specifically when considering Jeunet & Caro’s The City of Lost Children.

Fairy tales have, over the years, been the cause of much debate. Psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim stated that the tales speak directly to children[4] while Danish Folklorist Bengt Holbek maintained that fairy tales were written for an adult audience with children occasionally listening to narratives not meant for their ears[5]. What if they were written with both in mind? After all children are small(er) adults and adults are grown up children. Why should the listener or audience miss out on revisiting an aspect of childhood by vacating the realm of youth? It is the intention of this article to examine two original screen fairy tales in relation to the dual protagonists depicted, the notion of storytelling and the distinction of the ambivalent “contact zone”. The use of this concept, has been renamed the “story space” and may be a basis for the adult/child casting, however, this doubling or duality of character representation offers other possibilities, some of which will be explored.

In Tarsem Singh’s The Fall the protagonists consist of an adult and a child, strangers brought together by accidental circumstances. The film opens with an intertitle: “Los Angeles, long long ago” and scenes from the opening sequence quickly establish the setting in circa. 1915 California. Stuntman Roy Walker (Lee Pace) is languishing on the male ward of a picturesque hospital, confined to his bed after a stunt fall ends badly. Walker is a broken man in more ways than one, he has, not only, lost the use of his legs but the love of his life to the film’s leading man. Romanian immigrant Alexandria (Catinca Untaru) is on the other side of the compound in the children’s ward, her left arm in plaster following her fall from the top of a fruit picking ladder. Neither is necessarily destined to meet but both are isolated with few visitors. One day the wind blows Alexandria’s note to Sister Evelyn (Justine Waddell) out of her hands, into an open window and onto Roy’s lap.

So begins two exposition stories, one weighted in reality the other in an alternative world where the outcome is dependent upon how the real infiltrates the imaginary. Roy’s epic tale is a story of six unlikely companions; buccaneer and explosives expert Luigi (Robin Smith), ex-slave Otta Benga (Marcus Wesley), Charles Darwin (Leo Bill), The Indian (Jeetu Verma), a Mystic (Julian Bleach) and The Blue Bandit (Emil Hostina) and follows their quest to defeat the evil Governor Odious (Daniel Caltagirone).

From the start there is an indication that the visuals are formed through Alexandria’s imagination, elements within the fantastical realm are linked to the sights she sees around the hospital. She is providing the pictures while Roy creates the words. For example, much like The Wizard of Oz (1939), characters are drawn from the real world and find their way into the imaginary, Otta Benga is played by the man who delivers ice to the hospital and Odious’ henchman are costumed to closely resemble the Radiographer Alexandria is afraid of. Often the images and description do not correspond with each other, and the Indian of Alexandria’s mind is a man from India who wears a turban and who is mourning the death of his wife while Roy’s, unreliable, narration describes the man living in a wigwam and marrying a squaw[6].

The inclusion of the villainous Odious in the form of Sinclair (Caltagirone) the actor who has stolen the heart of Roy’s actress girlfriend once again confuses the narrative and thus the cinematic narrator[7] has to take over. It is also following this first segment of story that the audience is aware of the real reason behind Roy’s affection of Alexandria’s company. He is using the story space to manipulate the small girl and will only continue the tale after she has located a bottle of morphine for him so he can finally “sleep”.


Alexandria is dark-haired and adorably plump and when she is first shot, she is framed within a doorframe, a crucifix mounted on the wall above her thus suggesting that she is inextricably linked with the divine. She has a special relationship with the hospital’s priest and even steals the Eucharist from the chapel and shares it with Roy who asks her if she is trying to save his soul. Her green eyes, missing teeth[8] and stilted English make for an engaging and naturalised performance not least because the audience can occasionally miss snatches of dialogue. Her left arm is perpetually outstretched away from her body for the majority of the film’s runtime and she is almost always dressed in a white nightgown and taupe cardigan which she cannot wear properly due to the frame of the plaster cast. The wooden box she carries, which looks like a book, contains items she “likes”, photographs of her family, a spoon, small toys; a nostalgia box of memories.

Roy is also a brunette and despite their gender difference they are often clothed the same and often mimic each other’s body language (see images below). This may be an attempt by the adult to place the child at ease or perhaps is the visual depiction of the contact zone / story space previously discussed. Roy and Alexandria’s mutual experience of a fall, hospitalisation and subsequent isolation is the meeting place for them both. The story they both appear to enjoy, whether Roy wishes to return to his childhood or Alexandria wants to surpass hers, as Gopnik ascertains, remains to be seen.


On the surface, it can be argued that the girl represents the child Roy may never have. He has lost the love of life and the severity of his injury is never fully explored. For Alexandria, he may be a replacement father-figure having lost her father in a house fire. These are easy summations to make, however, another reading may suggest that Alexandria is Roy’s repressed inner child, or as described in Jungian theory, the Divine Child[9] who has manifested through his suicidal despair. This archetype, according to Jung, is weak by design, under developed but one which can bring happiness and instil hope when it has been lost.

While this, in part, is true, Alexandria is stronger and more mature, even at six, than the infant images which are associated with the Divine Child. She is just as manipulative as Roy and changes the narrative at will, even inserting herself into the story when it looks like the original narrator is close to death. Rather than embodying the child archetype she can be read as Roy’s shadow, quite literally becoming his double once she is a part of the narrative and injects herself into the imaginary world, referring to herself as the Bandit’s daughter, stronger than ever, with two perfectly formed front teeth.


In reality, the roles have reversed in the sense that it is Roy who is now visiting a prostrate Alexandria. She has made a second attempt at getting the bottle of morphine pills, broken into the dispensary and fallen again which has resulted in a serious head injury and Roy is visibly distraught at what he has caused. It is worth noting that after her fall, Alexandria’s recovery is seen through a series of cinematic stills whereby her back-story is shown through live action images and animatronics. Her life literally flashes before her and this sequence is much darker than Roy’s beautifully invented panorama suggesting a real ambivalence between experience and innocence.

Roy admits that the story was a subterfuge to push the girl into assisting his suicide but Alexandria stubbornly refuses to believe this, even after Roy begins murdering the tale’s protagonists one by one. She begs him to stop and he tells her that it is his story, to which she answers “mine too”. Roy, who was also inserted into the fantasy after the death of the Blue Bandit and is now personifying the vengeful Black Bandit, allows Odious to drown him while his double-in-miniature looks on. Back in the hospital, both Alexandria and Roy are in tears and she begs him “Please. Don’t kill him I don’t want him to die. She loves him”.

Alexandria then makes an admission, she has known all along what Roy intended to do with the morphine pills “I don’t want you to die”. In preventing Alexandria’s despair, Roy has to save himself and in the fairy tale world he bursts through the water, re-born, and saved by his blessing in disguise[16]. This confirmation of mortality, as experienced through Alexandria, is further explained by Bettelheim “[the] psychosocial crises of growing up are imaginatively embroidered and symbolically represented in fairy tales […] but the essential humanity of the hero, despite his strange experiences, is affirmed by the reminder that he will have to die like the rest of us”[10].


In The City of Lost Children, one character who is in denial about death is Krank (Daniel Emilfork). He is ageing at a progressive rate because he cannot dream; a lack of imagination is slowly killing him and so, he kidnaps children against the backdrop of a timeless, surrealist, Paris in order to extract their dreams and manipulate them as his own. He does this without realising that in his company they too cannot dream only produce nightmares which terrorise the thief in slumber.

Visually this text is very different from The Fall, where there was a palette abundant in colours and light, here there is limited light and the dominant colours are (as in Jeunet’s later film Amélie [2001]) red and green. This lack of light is metaphorical of the disorientating struggle displayed in the mise-en-scéne; this is a place where babies are left out in rubbish bins and not missed. Krank’s “uncle” Irvin is a disembodied brain which survives in a tank and in the opening twenty minutes serves as the intradiegetic narrator and sets the scene:


“Once upon a time, there lived an inventor with a gift for giving life. […] Having neither wife nor child, he decided to make them himself. His wife’s gift was to be the most beautiful princess in the world. Alas a bad fairy gene cast a spell on the inventor so that when the princess was born, she was only three inches tall. He cloned six children in his own image, so similar you could hardly tell them apart but the bad spell meant that they all had the sleeping sickness. He needed a confidant, so, inside a fish tank, he grew a brain that had many migraines. Finally, he created his masterpiece, a man more intelligent than the most intelligent men. Alas, the inventor also gave him a flaw. He couldn’t dream […] it made him so unhappy that he grew old unimaginably fast [and then] died in dreadful agony, having never had a single dream.”

This is hardly the ideological filmic representation of hopes, wishes and desires that Jack Zipes describes when he is discussing the screen fairy tale[11] but a social commentary on the complex use of technology versus religious fundamentalism. The inventor creates his family through technology and essentially ‘plays God’ only to be worshipped by a cult of Cyclops who, in return for their sight, kidnap the children Krank requires for his dream-catching. The messianic figure of One (Ron Perlman) whose back story is linked with other fairy tales (Jonah and the Whale and Pinocchio[12]) enlists the help of an alluded-to Wendy[13], Miette (Judith Vittet) and her gang of Lost Boys/ urchins to rescue One’s little brother Denrée (Joseph Lucien). Miette and her fellow orphans work for The Octopus (Geneviève Brunet and Odile Mallet) identical twin sisters who dress, function, speak and work as one entity, conjoined at the leg.


While these dual characters are literally mirrored in their representation there are other characters which are connected subconsciously. Krank is beyond childhood without having actually experienced one and yet acts like a child, prone to tantrums and crying fits. Miette, on the other hand, is still physically in childhood but has the demeanour of an adult. Her orphaned abandonment has enabled her to mature quickly and her instinct for survival has her resorting to any means necessary to live, she is wise and tough far beyond her years. Miette and Krank are, in essence, two facets of the same person.

As described by Gopnik in his 1996 New Yorker article, Krank wants a way back into childhood while Miette wishes to embrace adulthood, even envisioning a relationship with the man-child strongman, One. When Miette and Krank come together in their contact zone/story space it is not through traditional storytelling but a dream in which they get to embrace their shadow selves and share a mutual experience.


Jung articulated this exchange in this way, “beneath the social mask we wear every day we have a hidden shadow side, an impulsive, wounded, sad or isolated part that we generally try to ignore. The Shadow can be a source of emotional richness and vitality, and acknowledging it can be a pathway to healing and an authentic life. We meet our dark side, accept it for what it is and we learn to use its powerful energies in productive ways […] By acknowledging and embracing The Shadow as deeper level of consciousness and imagination can be experienced.” [14]

Krank is dispossessed of a soul, an imagination and empathy and upon sharing consciousness with Miette – the girl who does not dream – can finally experience what he has been missing. In the same token, Miette can embrace her youth and rescue the man she loves. The child in the crib is dressed in pyjamas which are the same colour and style and the boy’s hair has been reddened, he resembles a young One, this is evidently how she reconciles the contact zone.


Interestingly, only when the child starts to morph into Krank does the ageing process begin, the Shadow selves meet. Unlike The Fall, where assumptions are made regarding Alexandria and Roy’s future selves, here Krank accepts his Shadow and so begins his regression. In opposition, Miette begins to wither and age until the demented dream-catcher is a baby. Miette must embrace her biggest fear so she can move forward and that is imagining One dead. This interchange of dreams kills Krank in reality thus substantiating the importance of imagination, use of enchantment and originality.

Fairy tales give the adult reader a re-presented imagination. Understandably, the physical child may have evolved but these screen tales enable the repressed child to re-emerge through viewer identification. Perhaps, just like the children in these texts they enforce a sense of hope, strength and resilience which has long been forgotten.

The inclusion of a child within an adult diegesis serves more than just viewer manipulation[15]. This division of realities and mirroring of locations, narratives and characterisations is an integral part of the postmodern film and more specifically this dual nature is present in screen fairy tales. While the texts that have been considered here have a very distinct separation between the real and imaginary, it would be worth considering the screen fairy tale which is based in reality and consider what purpose they may serve for an adult audience.


[1] Maria Tatar, Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood (New York/London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009). A term borrowed from Mary Louise Pratt. Tatar changes the context of the original contact zone and sets about making her own.

[2] Ibid. p242. “The power of reading together derives in part from the fact that it involves a transaction between more than a single reader and a text. The dialogue that takes place between the [storytelling] partners fuels the transformative power of the story, leaving both the child and adult altered in ways they might never have imagined. [Mary Louise] Pratt found in contact zones a process of transculturation, with colonizer and colonized entering into lively, two-way cultural exchanges”.

[3] Adam Gopnik, “Grim Fairy Tales”, The New Yorker (November 18, 1996) p96. [accessed 10 January 2012].

[4] Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, (UK: Penguin, 1991).

[5] Bengt Holbek, Interpretation of Fairy Tales: Danish Folklore – A European Perspective, (Denmark: Suomalainen tiedeakatemia, 1987).

[6] These differences can also be examples of Pratt’s ‘contact zone’ specifically with the cross-cultural experience between American Roy and Romanian Alexandria.

[7] Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film, (USA: Cornell University Press, 1980).

[8] Missing teeth as a motif are used throughout the picture. Roy tells Alexandria that power is symbolically associated with teeth and that she is currently “missing some strength”. Upon further investigation, however, teeth can be associated with illness and death and even a lack of faith (Greek) and in Chinese culture missing teeth symbolise telling lies. Some cultures believe that losing teeth can be sign that an individual has placed more faith in the word of man and has lost trust in God.

[9] Carl G. Jung, Essays on a Science of Mythology: The Myth of the Divine Child and the Mysteries of Eleusis, (USA: Princeton University Press, 1969).

[10] The movie’s tagline is quite apt here. Only at Roy’s lowest ebb did she manifest.

[11] Bettelheim, 1978 pp39-40.

[12] Jack Zipes, Happily Ever After: Children and the Culture Industry, (New York/London: Routledge, 1997) p9.

[13] One is an ex-whaler and following the loss of this job is hired by a travelling circus, of sorts, as a strongman. Aside from size he is for all intents and purposes a boy.

[14] J M Barrie, Peter Pan, (UK: Puffin [Re-issue], 2014).

[15] Jung, cited in Connie Zweig and Steve Wolf, Romancing the Shadow: A Guide to Soul Work for a Vital Life, (UK/USA: Random House Publishing 1999) p21.

[16] Karen Lury, The Child in Film: Tears, Fears and Fairy Tales (UK: I B Tauris & Co Ltd, 2010). Lury likens the child to a pet and even refers to both as ‘it’, she ascertains that the inclusion of children within a narrative is merely to serve an emotional purpose for the viewer.


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.