Back to Pan’s Labyrinth

When I watched the first trailers for Pan’s Labyrinth, all the way back in 2006, I was instantly enchanted by the magical realism and visual effects. The story looked dark and sincere and promising, and I thought to myself I can’t wait to see more of this.

I did see more – I watched the movie twice in theaters and received the DVD as a birthday present. SPOILERS WARNING for the film from here on out, and if you somehow haven’t seen it you absolutely must.

Until recently, the rolling of the credits has always been the end of Ofelia’s journey. But, as it turns out, the journey of Pan’s Labyrinth did not end in 2006. Guillermo del Toro and co-author Cornelia Funke published a companion novel in 2019, and I have enjoyed the surprising experience of reading Pan’s Labyrinth. The novel (arguably YA) closely follows the plot of the film, but with a much greater understanding of supporting characters and the magic of the world. More backstory is presented through a braiding of “narrative chapters” and “fable chapters” that make re-watching the film all the more engaging.

Del Toro’s film was just shy of two hours, but the novel shines light on how much lore and worldbuilding lay beyond frame. Was the Pale Man always a monster? Was the giant toad always a toad? How did Ofelia’s father, Mateo, feel about magic? In trim chapters, the novel tells you such things. Readers learn so much more about pivotal characters such as Mateo, as well as seemingly minor ones such as the not-faeries that Ofelia names faeries in the film. There’s even important information about objects like Captain Vidal’s razor that will forever change the way you understand the story.

I think this novel will appeal well to fans of Pan’s Labyrinth, but I also consider this a rare treat for writers. Here’s why:

  1. Pan’s Labyrinth the film is a fully realized, standalone story that visualizes plot for the viewer. Pan’s Labyrinth the novel is also a fully realized, standalone story – but it translates the film into word. Not merely dialogue – this isn’t a screenplay. Rather, the thoughts of every character are told from their points of view. In the novel, you get to read the thoughts/memories/motivations of characters – from Mercedes to Carmen to Death herself. You read the thoughts of the Pale Man and the Faun. You gain an omniscient understanding of all characters this way, and it gives you complete access to the story.
  2. The novel is interspersed with “fable chapters” that represent the story in short form. With the addition of this, you get to “see” what this story looks like as 1) a feature film; 2) a novel; and 3) a piece of flash fiction. You’re not just admiring a pretty house – you’re admiring the blueprints. Del Toro and Funke are deftly transforming the story in different ways and it all works. I think there is a lot to be learned by watching a scene, and then reading how they have translated that atmosphere onto the page. It isn’t often that good books are based on films, and not the other way around.

World expansion is such a mixed bag in terms of quality. Sometimes it gives me more to love – like Sigourney Weaver in Aliens. Other times I get my heart bruised – like Silent Hill: Revelations. As a companion novel, with Pan’s Labyrinth I have been given more to love. Just look at this inside illustration as well!

There are ten full-page illustrations within the book, and well as gorgeous color illustration of the Faun hiding underneath the dust jacket of the hardcover edition (Ofelia is on the other side).

I have read some negative reviews of this book, but they by-and-large seem to complain that 256 pages is too short. The final sentence of the novel perfectly answers this charge.

If your curiosity is piqued, the official Amazon page has quite a generous preview available.