Pan's Labyrinth: The Labyrinth of the Faun by Guillermo Del Toro and Cornelia Funke

I would like to thank Bloomsbury for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review

Publisher – Bloomsbury

Published – 2nd July

Price - £16.99 Hardcover

In fairy tales there are men and there are wolves, there are beasts and dead parents, there are girls and forests.

Ofelia knows all this, like any young woman with a head full of stories. And she sees right away what the captain is, in his immaculate uniform, boots and gloves, smiling: a wolf. But nothing can prepare her for the fevered reality of the Captain’s eerie house. In the midst of a dense forest which contains many things: half -remembered stories of lost babies, renegade resistance fighters hiding from the army; a labyrinth, beasts and fairies.

There is no one to keep Ofelia safe as the labyrinth beckons her into her own story, where the monstrous and the human are inextricable, where myths pulse with living blood…

Novelisations of movies can be weird things. Some are simply the script with a little more description; others add additional scenes (I have a fondness for the version of Return of the Jedi that gave you a few more glimpses into the Empire and Vader eventually used in the Prequels) but sometimes you get something just as good. If you’ve not seen Pan’s Labyrinth, then you really should – its visually stunning and full of beautiful storytelling and fantastical worldbuilding. However, I can also equally recommend, and this is a rare treat, that this retelling in novel form novel that Guillermo Del Toro and Cornelia Funke have collaborated on is a standalone treat into a brilliant unsettling fairy tale that you can easily read without the movie in your head and find it just an immersive experience..

The story takes place in the Spanish Civil War. General Franco’s troops are in battle with the remaining resistance. In the forest we find the young girl Ofelia travelling with an armed escort alongside her heavily pregnant mother Carmen. Her mother has remarried after being widowed early in life. Her husband is Vidal; a Captain in Franco’s army and now they are being taken to his remote headquarters. Ofelia is already very distrusting of her stepfather (calling him privately the Wolf); she is very worried about her mother’s health and is puzzled to find herself drawn to the Labyrinth where a mysterious and ancient faun tells her she is a missing princess to an Underground Kingdom and must complete a number of tasks to return. Ofelia is about to enter a world where dangers both magical and human will threaten all she cares about while Vidal seeks to gain control not just of the forest and the rebels but also his new family.

What really stands out here is that rather than simply giving us a scene by scene remake of the film in novel form; that instead Funke and Del Toro have opted to recreate the story enriching it with a lot more depth and makes the story that itself is relatively recent now feel a much older mythic tale. A lot of this is the very lyrical narrative where our unseen omnipotent narrator gets to talk to us about all the characters we meet. This is a book that allows you to delve a lot more into the history of each character. I think three characters stood out – Ofelia’s mother Carmen, the housekeeper and resistance aid Mercedes and intriguingly Vidal. In the latter two’s case I really liked the contrast between understanding why carmen newly widowed felt she had to marry again and heartbreakingly her conflicting love for Vidal and Ofelia (both of which are genuine) while Mercedes due to her family ties is pulled towards the resistance;  but makes use of being continually underestimated by the troops as she’s a woman. I felt Funke really fleshed out these characters a bit more than they came across in the film and gives the reader a reminder of the difficult ways women were treated back in the 1940’s and how limited their choices were. In Vidal’s case it is slightly more showing you exactly how ruthless and cruel this man has become – he revels in torture, control and power and there is nothing redeeming about him. Every scene you read with him in it hangs with menace and a fear of what he might try to do next as he is more than happy to kill and injure and indeed enjoys scaring his prey. He is a terrifying villain and while we may understand how he got where he is at no point do you see him as much more than a human monster.

The other element were I think the book succeeds is that it is dotted with various tales of the Underground Kingdom and these loosely linked tales sometimes mirror the events we are now seeing in the modern age with Ofelia. Again, Funke’s ability to make these fairy tales both revised for a modern audience yet still sounding as if they are ancient myths is really impressive – you really do get the sense that the current tale of Ofelia is just another chapter in a more ancient magical tale. In the movie there were slight hints to make the tale of the magic appear to be more ambivalent if real or not. Instead Funke I think makes this more firmly fantasy but the bigger question is now if the mysterious and rather too knowing Faun Pan is really on Ofelia’s side or just playing a game for his own wicked ends? Its been a while since I have seen the film so this really made the choices Ofelia makes much more suspenseful to see if good can actually triumph over evil.

It’s a short but very immersive read and I think importantly brings a new dimension to this tale. I also must say the illustrations available in this ARC by Allen Williams really capture the eerie beauty of the original movie very well. I’ve always a huge interest in seeing how tales get retold and what they bring to the reader of today and this is a huge success. I think if you enjoy the work of Neil Gaiman, Naomi Novik and Joanne M Harris then this would definitely be a strong recommendation for you. A tale that is retold hugely successfully!