Essay: Close Analysis of the Conventions in Pan's Labyrinth

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) is a dark fantasy film set against a backdrop of the Spanish Civil War in 1944. It follows Ofelia, a young girl taken to the country by her pregnant mother to live with a fascist step father. The film contains many examples of generic fantasy conventions such as escapism, forbidden objects and the use of time within the fantastic world. Director Guillermo del Toro makes use of these themes as a canvas to discuss larger issues within the film. These issues include Ofelia’s craving for an alternate reality to escape into, away from the cruel and unpleasant real world, as well as Ofelia’s relationship with her stepfather Captain Vidal. Del Toro uses fantasy to explain these troubles because he believes “in parables more than [he] believes in political speech” (del Toro, 2006a), the use of the fantasy world to reflect the political situation and Ofelia’s place in it helps produce a “parable over more of a pamphlet political” (del Toro, 2006a). Del Toro also found that in fairy tales a common theme is “choice as a way of defining your destiny. And [he] thought this [Pan’s Labyrinth] is a way to illuminate it” (del Toro, 2006a). Choice is given to Ofelia throughout the film, often as a vessel to progress the plot as well as to visually explain a child’s emotional turmoil at the world around her. A child’s emotional mind influenced by the fairy tales Ofelia loves to read. The end scene is a good demonstration of Ofelia’s choice defining her own destiny.

The first thing to note about Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) is the significance of the main protagonist, Ofelia. In most fairy tales the main character is “generally the youngest son or daughter; they are of the oppressed, the powerless, the underprivileged” (Zipes, 2015, p.361). Ophelia holds to this as she is powerless and at the mercy of the Captain, particularly after her mother dies. She is also from a less privileged background and is brought to the mill due to how good Captain Vidal has been to her and her mother. This is stated at the start of the film by her mother, “…when we get to the mill, come out and greet the Captain. I want you to call him father, you have no idea how good he’s been to us” (Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006). The step parent figure, Captain Vidal, being portrayed as the real-world antagonist also makes use of fantasy convention. A new figure of authority coming into the protagonist’s life often with ill intent. This can take the form of an evil stepmother, such as in Cinderella (Grimm, J. and Grimm, W., 2012, p.74) or a king remarrying producing an evil queen such as in Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs (Grimm, J. and Grimm, W., 2012, p.340). Captain Vidal’s indifference towards innocence and his general fascist ideals are in direct conflict with Ofelia’s childish love of the whimsical and her innocent, free personality.

The Pale Man scene is a prime example of the use of fantasy conventions within the film. Many fairy tales have a character or element that takes on the persona of the monstrous; a being or thing in direct opposition to the protagonist. Within this scene the Pale Man fills that role. From studying the room, it can be seen that the Pale Man is a child eater. The murals on the wall depict him killing and devouring babies and children. The mound of children’s shoes, that appear to have been sat rotting for some time, signal to the sheer quantity of victims. The shoes also bear striking resemblance to images from Nazi concentration camps in world war two. This serves as a connection to fascism and thus to the fascist party that Captain Vidal is a member of, linking the fantastic world Ofelia has entered to her fears in the real world; hinting at Captain Vidal’s apathy towards innocence which has been demonstrated throughout the film. Ofelia must face these fears in the fantastical world her mind has constructed which will then allow her to face them in reality, which she does at the end of the film when she faces the captain directly. Story telling as a whole often uses series’ of three, such as the beginning, middle and end structure. Lewis and Riley Mills (2012, p.55) state that three is the smallest number of elements required to create a pattern and it is precisely the combination of pattern and brevity that allows content structured in threes to carry such punch. This applies within fairy tales and fantasy where threes are used regularly within narratives. Some examples of this are Rumpelstiltskin (Grimm, J. and Grimm, W., 2012, p.236) giving three days to guess his name, The Three Spinners (Grimm, J. and Grimm, W., 2012, p.235) with three spinners who save the lazy daughter from her lies and The Three Black Princesses (Grimm, J. and Grimm, W., 2012, p.338) with three princesses and their three brothers bound in chains. Like these traditional fairy tales, the Pale Man scene uses threes. There are the three fairy helpers sent to guide Ofelia and then three doors which Ofelia must choose between. The latter again coming back to the theme of choice within fairy tale narratives. She must choose a door to use the golden key in, the fairies indicate one but she chooses another thus taking control of her own destiny. Time also plays a role as Ofelia’s time within the fantasy world is limited by the sand within the hour glass. She must return to reality before the final grain of sand falls. Time can be seen in use in multiple tales across history. For example, Narnian time in C. S. Lewis’ novel series The Chronicles of Narnia (1998), where time within the fantasy world of Narnia is not consistent with the real world and upon leaving Narnia no time seems to have passed in reality at all. There are also time limits in fairy tales such as a limit on how long a spell can last, as with Cinderella (Grimm, J. and Grimm, W., 2012, p.74). Time is a useful element of fairy tales, particularly when combined with the rule of three, for example 3 days, as before tales were written down it allowed oral story tellers to easily remember a story and more easily progress the plot in an interesting fashion. Within this scene there is also the element of forbidden food. The instructions read from the book state “don’t eat or drink anything during your stay” (Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006), it does not clarify the reasons for this only that it is so. Whilst the merits of these various conventions can be discussed individually the scene also combines them for even greater effect. The setup in the scenes leading up to this have had Ofelia sent to bed without supper adding an element of temptation, another trope of fantasy stories. This setup leads to Ofelia eventually succumbing to the lure of the feast and awakening the monster. Ofelia also must use the key to open one of three locked doors, this combines elements of magical items, the key, the rule of three, with the doors, and also the theme of choice. The suggestion that the golden key is magical comes from it’s origins in the belly of a fantastical beast, the toad, and also through the sound used when the key is on screen. A faint high pitched ringing, almost matching the visual shine of the key. The element of a key also comes into play in the real world with there being only one key for the storage barn. The similarities here could be seen as evidence that the fantastic world that Ofelia enters into is in fact imaginary and she has actually taken it upon herself to try and obtain her supper from the stores but has inadvertently alerted the captain who she has to flee from. Hirschman (1983) stated “escapism offers the individual an avenue to a more desirable state of being than the one presently experienced”. It could be argued that the audience is shown the fantastical as this is what Ofelia pictures in her mind’s eye as a form of escapism as she strives for a more desirable reality.

Figure 1. Vidal Dining Room (2006)
Figure 2. Pale Man Dining Room (2006)

This Pale Man scene stands as a good example of the use of the fantastic to address and deal with issues and turmoil from the real world. The monstrous Pale Man presiding over his luxurious feast, a monster that mirrors the real-world villain of Captain Vidal. Smith (2007) wrote, “Pale Man (his eyeballs inserted into the palms of his hands), echoes the real-life dinner for the Francoist victors presided over by the sadistic Captain, which we have already been shown”. Smith refers in this quote to the aesthetics of the Pale Man’s dining room which is a mirror of the dining room seen earlier when Vidal is eating with his advisors and senior staff (see figure 1). The Pale Man is positioned at the head of the table with a long shot down the length of the table covered in food for a luxurious feast (see figure 2) just as Vidal takes his place at the head of the table in a mirrored long shot. The back wall with the placement of the fire and architectural curves also being visual mimicry of the mill’s dining room. This confrontation with the Pale Man forces Ofelia to confront her fears caused by Captain Vidal in order to continue on with her fantastical quest. During the scene the Pale Man kills two of the fairies who are trying to defend Ofelia by devouring them and biting them into pieces. The imagery directly mirrors that of one of Goya’s black paintings entitled ‘Saturn devouring his son’ (1819-23), this is confirmed by del Toro in an interview with Mark Kermode (del Toro, 2006b). The painting references Saturn, or Cronus as he was known in Greek mythology, who “feared, as it seems an oracle had predicted, that he would be supplanted by one of his children” (Hamlyn, 1963, p.14). This can be compared to Captain Vidal’s desire for a son and his dislike of Ofelia whom is not his child nor a male. As such he is cruel to her, like Saturn to his children, and she fears him for it. Through close examination of the Pale Man scene as well as it’s context within the film as a whole, many fantasy conventions can be seen to be in use. These conventions serve to explore Ofelia’s understanding of her new life as well as the issues that come with it. It allows the audience to look into the effect the civil war in Spain had on children through the use of parable without being overly political. The scene serves as a fantastical mirror reflecting Ofelia’s issues with Captain Vidal and how she wishes to escape. The multiple conventions of fantasy that have been discussed all aid in portraying this escapist desire. Bibliography:

  • del Toro, G. (2006a) ‘Guillermo del Toro and Ivana Baquero escape from a civil war into the fairytale land of Pan's Labyrinth’. Interview by Ian Spelling for Sci-Fi Weekly, 25 December 2006. Available at: (Accessed: 14th Dec 2015)

  • del Toro, G. (2006b) ‘An interview with Guillermo del Toro’. Interview by Mark Kermode. 25 December 2006. Available at: (Accessed: 15 December 2015)

  • Goya, F. (1819-23). Saturn Devouring his Son [Oil mural transferred to canvas] Museo del Prado, Madrid.

  • Grimm, J, Grimm, W. (2012) Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales. New York: Barnes & Noble.

  • Hamlyn, P. (1963) Greek Mythology. London: Batchworth Press.

  • Hirschman, E. C. (1983), 'Predictors of Self-projection, Fantasy Fulfilment and Escapism’ Journal of Social Psychology, 120, 1, p. 63, SPORTDiscus with Full Text, EBSCOhost, (Accessed on: 18 December 2015).

  • Lewis, C. S. (1998) The Complete Chronicles of Narnia. London: Harper Collins

  • Lewis, D. Riley Mills, G. (2012) The Pin Drop Principle. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

  • Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) Directed by Guillermo del Toro [DVD]. Spain: Warner Bros. Pictures.

  • Smith, P. T. (2007) ‘Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno)’, Film Quaterley, 60(4, Summer 2007) pp. 4-9. Available at: (Access on: 05 December 2015)

  • Zipes, J. (ed.) (2015) The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales. 2nd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


  • Figure 1. Vidal Dining Room (2006) From: Pan’s Labyrinth, Directed by: Guillermo del Toro [Film still] Spain: Warner Bros. Pictures.

  • Figure 2. Pale Man Dining Room (2006) From: Pan’s Labyrinth, Directed by: Guillermo del Toro [Film still] Spain: Warner Bros. Pictures.

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