In childhood, there is a sense that everything is whole. Everything is in its right place. Ideally, Mom and Dad and aunts and uncles and grandparents try to ensure that a child’s world is a good one, without a malignant piece or impulse to upset the order of things, which is why for much of a child’s early life the world is a pastel and candy-colored one.
At some point, though, things go wrong. It begins with a parent, who up until a certain time was infinitely solicitous of a child’s needs and wants, saying “no.” It continues with other children who don’t want to give you what you want. Eventually the church or mosque or temple teaches you about evil. I remember being told that Christians are supposed to love everyone, and asking my aunt on the way back from church if we were supposed to love the devil too. The answer was obviously not.
In time, we also learn that our parents are not quite perfect, and the world can be a chaotic and evil place. This is the indelible sentiment of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”— that of a jejune young person coming into an anonymous and unfriendly world, with its seedy, grinning street characters who say, “Do you want to make a deal?”
Art and literature have long charted this quintessentially human journey from naiveté and innocence to hard-earned maturity—the tradition of the bildungsroman, from Candide to Catcher in the Rye. This youthful encounter with the bewildering adult world has been represented in allegorical form by many beautiful films, and three very different movies capture this theme in surprisingly similar ways: The Shining, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Beasts of the Southern Wild. While these pictures seem to have very little in common, ranging from a classic of clinical horror to a rich fantasy of the Spanish Civil War to a recent, post-Katrina indie favorite, each film depicts a young person coming to terms with an alien reality, an ugly adult world that can only be mediated through myth, magic, and fantasy. Each depicts the stories one must tell oneself to cope with all that is scary and unknown, and they draw on a deep well of mythology to help their young characters navigate frightening new territory.
Notably, both The Shining and Pan’s Labyrinth touch on the classic story of the minotaur and the maze. In Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film, young Danny is a precocious, small child who must deal with the fact that his parents have brought him to an isolated, haunted manse where the ghosts of past trauma seem to overtake his father and imbue him with a maniacal, psychotic impulse. Very little can possibly be as frightening as the idea of the people whose sole purpose has been to love and protect you suddenly turning into a vicious, destructive force. Danny must protect his mother and himself from his rampaging father, a failed writer who sinks deeper and deeper into fanaticism. He ultimately does so by luring his father into the hedge maze near the ornate and eerie hotel where the family is staying; as in the Greek legend of yore, he must trap the monster in the labyrinth, and he succeeds in stranding his wounded and ultimately frozen father in the maze.
Pan’s Labyrinth follows a similar pattern. It tells the story of a rebellious young girl whose mother has married a fascist military leader during the suppression of the Republican resistance in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. To escape her morbid reality, Ofelia immerses herself in a mysterious demimonde in the forest, haunted by grotesque and fanciful creatures that have little to do with the world of the war and her brutal stepfather, who is a sort of archetypal villain—the platonic ideal of a fascist obsessed with efficiency, order, and patriarchy. Advised by the faun (Pan) who lives in the labyrinth, Ofelia tries to complete the tasks that will allow her to return to the Underworld, where she, the lost princess Moenna, will be able to take her rightful place—far from the horrors of war and adolescence. Pan’s Labyrinth is a story about the capacity of the human imagination to help people escape, to find hope in even the most brutal reality, much like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Ofelia’s mother warns her to give up on magic, just as she has—a resigned adult whose only hope is for a pinched security in a scary world. “You’re getting older,” she says. “Soon you’ll see the world is not like your fairy tales.” Ofelia refuses to give up on her fantasies of hope, though she tells her unborn brother in the womb, “Things aren’t so good out here.”
In the end, when the hidden rebels in their midst rise up against the local fascist authorities, Ofelia comes into direct conflict with her stepfather and flees. She too lures the monster into a labyrinth, and although she meets her end at the hands of the fascist, he also does not make it out of the maze alive. After her murder, Ofelia is shown being welcomed into the magical underworld as a princess—not just as a fulfillment of her fantasy, but in a vast and slightly scary new world, one that is far more foreboding than any simple imagining of paradise.
The world that Hushpuppy, the tiny protagonist of Beasts of the Southern Wild, grows up in is strikingly different from the young heroes of The Shining or Pan’s Labyrinth, but she must face up to challenges just as harrowing and just as fantastical as the children in these other stories. Hushpuppy is a six year old girl growing up in a subversive society somehow set apart from mainstream America, in a swampy Louisiana milieu called the Bathtub. The locals relish community and drink and party heavily, living far from the world of TurboTax and picket fences; her father, a mysterious and tortured character, looks after her with alternating flashes of tender concern, inchoate anger, and baffling neglect. In what passes for a school in the Bathtub, Hushpuppy learns that the melting of the poles may release ancient beasts called Aurochs that have been trapped in the ice.
As the community’s idyllic life is increasingly impinged upon by the outside world, and the father Hushpuppy depends upon falls into the grip of illness, she must face the coming of the primitive Aurochs, giant prehistoric beasts loosed by environmental degradation. Hushpuppy stands up to the monsters and turns them away. For some reason they’ve come all the way from the Antarctic right to the Louisiana bayou, to the Bathtub; to the extent that they’ve come to this remote and obscure place, they’ve been led into a labyrinth, but Hushpuppy does not need to trap them, like protagonists of The Shining and Pan’s Labyrinth with their mazes. The courageous young girl stands in their path, and the repressed remnants of the Earth’s id dutifully depart.
Hushpuppy has come of age in her own way, facing a world of monsters, disease, and deception that she never knew about in her innocent world of the Bathtub. Early in the film, she says, “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece… the entire universe will get busted.” Realizing that some of the pieces of the world are busted is part of the hard education of becoming an adult—whether it’s a violent father, a fascist dictatorship, or a community threatened by poverty and marginalization that reveals the world’s not-fitting-together. Rectifying or reconciling these broken pieces is something everyone must face with their own solutions and strategies as they grow up, and these three films depict the courage and imagination that young people can summon to come to terms with a world that can be more than a little scary at times.
“Sometimes you can break something so bad,” Hushpuppy realizes, “that it can’t get put back together.” She has come by a truth that is difficult to accept. Growing up isn’t easy—an understatement, to say the least, in the Overlook, the Bathtub, or Franco’s Spain—but these stories enchant us by showing the ingenious ways in which it can be done, and the immense symbolic and figurative reserves that human beings can draw upon to comprehend the stories of their own lives.