Pan’s Labyrinth: Real or Imagined?

To me, the power of Pan’s Labyrinth derives from the fact that Ofelia’s world must be imaginary, that she uses her imagination to escape the horrors of reality (civil war and a bad stepfather), and this makes the ending all the more tragic: her stepfather kills her, and she can only imagine herself going on to a better place to reign as a princess. There are points in the film where it seems obvious that Ofelia is imagining things as a child would. Her stepfather can’t see the faun she’s talking to; her “fairie” friends are really grasshoppers; etc. Her adventures come across as an eleven-year old’s way of coping with misery and loneliness.

But on the whole the issue is kept ambiguous, so that viewers can interpret things how they wish. Take Ofelia’s mother. She has a rough time with her pregnancy until Ofelia hides a “magical” mandrake-root under her bed; her health then begins improving remarkably. When the root is later discovered (by the stepfather, who flies into a rage) and thrown into a fire, she goes into miscarriage and dies. The audience is left to ponder whether the miscarriage came about from stress (her daughter being threatened by Vidal) or because the mandrake was killed. This is filmmaking at its best, teasing viewers, allowing them to draw conclusions without forcing conclusions.

But ultimately it’s all for naught, because the story does shove a conclusion down our throats if we look carefully enough — that the fantasy is real. Del Toro says he planted three clues to remove the ambiguity. From the interview:

Michael Guillen: This is the dispute going on among people who have seen your film. Was Ofelia in her fantasy world? Was it a real world? I keep saying such questions pose a false dichotomy.

Guillermo Del Toro: Yes, of course. And it’s intimate. If the movie works as a piece of storytelling, as a piece of artistic creation, it should tell something different to everyone. It should be a matter of personal discussion. Now objectively, the way I structured it, there are three clues in the movie that tell you where I stand. I stand in that it’s real. The most important clues are the flower at the end, and the fact that there’s no way other than the chalk door to get from the attic to the Captain’s office.

Guillen: Yes, and again referring back to the dynamic of their dyad, Mercedes notices the chalk door; they aren’t just in Ofelia’s imagination.

Del Toro: Objectively, those two clues tell you it’s real. The third clue is she’s running away from her stepfather, she reaches a dead end, by the time he shows up she’s not there. Because the walls open for her. So sorry, there are clues that tell you where I stand and I stand by the fantasy. Those are objective things if you want. The film is a Rorschach test of where people stand.

But I think the “first” clue is obtuse. In the final shot of the film, we see a flower unfolding as the narrator tells us Ofelia “reigned with justice and a kind heart for many centuries… and left behind small traces of her time on earth visible only to those who know where to look” — whereupon a grasshopper pauses and stares at the flower. But grasshoppers (“fairies”) were part of her fantasy to begin with. I thought the narrator was simply the muse for Ofelia’s imagination. I don’t think the flower really counts as a clue. It could mean anything.

The “third” clue is a more valid one, though hard to spot. I assumed Ofelia found another way around the dead-end, just as her stepfather ended up doing. But if you watch carefully, it’s a rather long cul-de-sac, and she would have had to retrace her steps a considerable distance — going right back into the hands of her stepfather hot on her heels. So I suppose the hedge-walls must have magically parted for her to escape.

The “second” clue is the clearest one, and there’s no getting around it. Ofelia couldn’t have escaped the locked attic, but she did. So her chalk door really opened a magic portal. The fantasy — the labyrinth, the faun and fairies, her noble heritage — is all real.

Learning this diminished the story for me. If Del Toro wanted to tell a fairy tale for adults (his stated intention), and with a heavy political message, what’s the point of a child’s imagination being real? That fantasy can prevail against fascism? Sounds like a tale for kids after all.

Well, not really. Pan’s Labyrinth is definitely not for kids, given all its refreshingly honest darkness and brutality. And despite my complaint, I still love the film; by the standards of most fantasy, it’s a serious achievement. I just wish Del Toro had let us take his “Rorschach test”, as he puts it, without imposing his own interpretation of the inkblots on his viewers — a most unwanted interpretation, in my view, to say the least.

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14 thoughts on “Pan’s Labyrinth: Real or Imagined?

  1. I’ve been looking for discussion re the ‘real’ versus ‘imaginary’ possibilities in Pan, and this was the first posting I’ve found that does a good job of aggregating and analyzing the various clues. Nice work!After I watched the movie, I spent about 24 hours thinking about was it real or not. I concluded that all of the fairy tale/magical moments were in the imagination of Ofelia. I thought the biggest clue of all was when her stepfather could not see the faun. That clinched it and I was glad to see you agreed. Furthermore you summarized exactly what I believed was one of the emotional elements of the movie, “Her adventures come across as an eleven-year old’s way of coping with misery and loneliness. But on the whole the issue is kept nicely ambiguous, so that viewers can interpret things how they wish.” I was very happy.Then I read the rest and was very disappointed by Del Toro. He broke the cardinal sin of explaining what he meant especially when there will always be discrepancies that push things one way over the other. He even knew that when he said, “But on the whole the issue is kept nicely ambiguous, so that viewers can interpret things how they wish,” which is what makes me disappointed ever more! He ruined the Rorschach test he spent so much energy creating.Let’s look at the clues you mentioned and some more that I noticed. Warning this is long-winded, meandering, and defensive;-)Clues that indicate the fairy tale/magical stuff is in Ofelia’s imagination:1) The stepfather does not react to the faun. Heck, the stepfather does not even see the faun! That’s the biggest one of all in my book and I thought it was supposed to be The Clue the director left for the audience. Until Del Toro addresses this one, this story is unequivocally imagination.2) How does the faun get into Ofelia’s room. Twice? 3) Again at the end of the movie, when Mercedes leans over Ofelia as she is dying…Ofelia drifts off into her ‘new kingdom”…but the point of view shifts back to the real world and Ofelia’s smile turns sardonic as she passes away. It’s obvious to me that the kingdom and crowning was among her last thoughts, a dreamlike experience that people dying could realistically perceive (those who have come back from being nearly dead have described such events and convinced they were real). If her ‘soul’ had really traveled to this other kingdom, I don’t think she would have been smiling back on earth at the same time.4) She has only a handful of days to complete her tasks, and yet she just arrived from a long trip, etc… Sounds like imagination to me, that she feels she has to rush to leave this despicable place. Otherwise how much of a coincidence is that.5) Nobody else reacted to the burning mandrake except Ofelia. And the stress and movements of fighting with Ofelia could certainly have triggered the events that followed.Rebuttals to the clues that point to the story being real:1) The flower. Huh? I don’t get why that’s a clue. I clearly agree with your reasoning that it could mean anything.2) The chalk door being the only way to get to the Captain’s office. I like the fact that Mercedes saw the chalk door drawn on the wall. (The Captain finds chalk earlier so the chalk itself was real and not in Ofelia’s imagination which is why we can see the chalk outline.) It reinforces the fact that Ofelia really did draw on the wall as part of her creative imagination. In fact Ofelia drew two door outlines during the movie and Mercedes could have seen either one of them. But I disagree that it forces us to believe the story is real. The chaotic events during the movie convinced me that mistakes such as forgetting to lock doors to a child’s room could easily have been made. In fact if you look closely at when Mercedes and the soldiers burst into the room you could easily conclude that the key was already in the lock, and that the door itself was not locked. (When she bursts in she does not use the handle to open the door as you would if you had to unlock the door first.)3) The walls that open up for Ofelia. I appreciate how this looks on the screen and what people think, but I still prefer to think of it all as Ofelia’s imagination. The first point is that this is a labyrinth. There will be many forks, turns and different ways to choose. It would be easy for them to have separated and for each to have traveled to different “dead ends”. In fact when he stopped to take his breath there was more than enough time for them to take different paths. (It is more than just a breath as he is even disoriented from his wounds and wobbles heavily at this point.) So she could easily have retraced her steps without having to run into him on the way back. Now on to the walls moving. The adrenaline and anxiety of running a long time with a child away from someone you are convinced will kill you is enough, in my mind, to explain what we saw visually on the screen. Imagine the disorientation people sometimes feel when they are frantically looking for something in a very big hurry, their keys, or more realistically an inhaler pump for asthma. My experience is that you look around, then faster and faster, your eyes darting here and there, your anxiety and inability to concentrate rapidly mounting as you are convinced that they have to be right there and yet you can’t see them. Then poof! You see it amongst the clutter on your table, right in front of you, you can’t explain why you didn’t see it in the first place. It feels almost like it appeared out of nowhere despite the fact that deep down you know it was there all along. Now imagine Ofelia’s situation. She’s panicking because she thinks it is a dead end, she’s looking around. On the second look she sees a passageway that she missed the first time, one that in the dark could easily be missed. Seeing that passageway would cause such elation in that situation that I believe it is a plausible seeing the opening and the corridor beyond it that it would seem as if the walls were opening up for her. If the stepfather does indeed go down the same corridor, he could easily miss the passageway as she did, especially in his disoriented state.—I really liked this movie, so I don’t want people to think that my rant is an indication otherwise. I prefer the story to be ambiguous from the point of view of the author despite the fact that I have my own personal belief and will vigorously defend them.I think it is a stronger message that this fairy tale stuff is in her imagination. The juxtaposition to the events surrounding her is more poignant in that version. She cannot do much to fight the evils around her, so she imagines her own challenges, her own tests. Her success/sacrifice (in her mind) is mirrored by the success/sacrifices of those revolting.That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Csaba.Please reply to internet@csaba.com if interested.PS I think the debate here is similar to those movies with real/imagined subplots such as Total Recall, Vanilla Sky, where ambiguous clues actually add to the story in a substantial way. (My belief is that Total Recall was the dream/vacation that the protagonist purchased, while in Vanilla Sky I believe that the explanation on the roof top was the correct one.)

  2. I just saw the movie, and I was really bothered by the ending. She’s supposed to be this princess who is reunited with her heritage, but she dies in the real world, and the royal court seems to be nothing more than her imagination. Read that way, the movie was hugely disappointing. So, I’ve been thinking. My conclusion is that both worlds are real, just that adults who have accepted that fairy tales aren’t real don’t see them anymore. Ofelia’s mom and stepdad both tell her to forget her fairy tales and books, they tell her to grow up, in effect. But Mercedes… she knows. My main proof of this is the chalk door. When she saw it, she knew exactly where Ofelia had gone. How did she know, unless she “knew”? I bet she could have seen the faun if he ever appeared to her.

  3. mercedes knew where to find her as well … first instinct was to go and get everyone and bring them to the lab. the hallucenations were real.

  4. The flower at the end wasn’t just any flower it’s an “Ophelia” flower that’s what’s special about the flower. I thought the whole movie was pretty much a fairy tale telling the story of the Ophelia flower and where it comes from and why it’s called that etc.

  5. The flower that grows on the tree branch in the end is a symbol of the tree’s life reviving. Remember, in the beginning when Ofelia had to feed the toad three magical stones so that he would die? Where did the toad live? He lived in the same tree that blooms a flower in the end of the story. Also, if you notice in the movie there were actually more than 3 tasks. The first task, was to kill the toad so the tree would once thrive again. Second was to retrieve the golden key from the toad. Third was to retrieve the sword from the non-human child slayer. Fourth, was to escape with her infant brother from the mill to the labyrinth. I wonder if the author put more emphasis on the key and neglected to portray four tasks in the story, so that when the flower did appear our memory would not be toggled to remember what the true meaning of the flower meant. The author is very clever indeed; his story is a very nice piece of abstract art. The author himself created the masterpiece to be real, but he wanted his viewers to ponder his story and decode it as if it were hieroglyphics. From reading the comments above, I believe he has successfully created this effect.

  6. Of course the labyrinth is real, for one the dad did see her taking to the faun but he was too doped up to even know it. 1. I mean 2 drops of that stuff is suppose to put you to sleep, she put like 10-20 in there! 2. Also that faun is a Mythical creature, If it can give chalk that can give access to a room im sure it wouldnt be that hard to get in for himself. 3. Also you must relize as she dies in the real world she went to the kingdom, shes leaving her mortal body, so as she leaves it she would appear as dead to any other mortal.4. It was obviously stated that she must do these tasks till the time reaches full moon to make sure she isnt still a mortal!5. Of course no one else noticed the faun except for her, her mom was too arrogant to believe her in the first place and she didnt have time to relize it because once it burned she died!6. The flower is the main clue that proves her story was real. For one, that flower bloomed in a split second so that must have been in some relation to her death! That tree was dying from the frog, so if the frog was in her imagination, then she would have never saved the tree in the first place so how could a dead tree produce a flower that fast in a very fast rate if it was all in her head?Oh one last clue, as she read the story about the tree, she knew exactally where it was because the book told her, how could she have found that tree if it was all in her head, and also she went a deeeeeep way in such a small tree so if it was all in her head how did she get so muddy?If anyone agrees aor disagrees heres my email: Kyo_kun121@yahoo.com

  7. I saw the film again yesterday and was undecided if the fantasy aspect was real or imagined

    The only part of the film in my mind that seems to be affected by the mystical part is the fact that Ophelia's mother seems to get miracurously better when the mandrake is put under her bed and of course goes into labour and dies when it is destroyed.

    The fact that ther stepfather did not see the faun is not proof of anything. I'm sure the faun is capable of being invisible to who he pleases. The chalk on the wall also does not prove anything.

    Despite what Del Torro has said I think the film is very much up to how the viewer perceives it.

  8. If Del Toro said that the fantasy was real, then it's real.
    He wrote the movie after all…and directed it in such a way that would express his point of view.

    There's really no two ways about it.

  9. I agree that from an adult point of view, the film is empty and meaningless if the faun is real. The beauty and power of the film derive from us being invited into the world of the child's imagination as she struggles with the cruel situation she finds herself in. The fact that she is murdered and her last thoughts are of her imagined world of escapism is beautiful and tragic in equal measure. If we assume that it was all real, then where is the beauty or tragedy? It then becomes a meaningless story of magic defeating evil. I think what Del Toro is saying though, is that he stands with the child. To him, the child's imagination is more important, more precious and more powerful than reality (even if it is just imagination). That to me is what the movie is all about, and that is why he leaves the clues in the film, because he personally is taking the side of the child.

  10. As David above says “I think what Del Toro is saying though, is that he stands with the child. To him, the child's imagination is more important, more precious and more powerful than reality (even if it is just imagination). That to me is what the movie is all about, and that is why he leaves the clues in the film, because he personally is taking the side of the child.”

    I agree; Del Toro knows the fantasy was imagined but believes in its strength to help the child cope with her suffering. One clue that this is imagined is that when her stepfather comes upon her and the faun conversing in the labyrinth, the faun doesn't look up at the stepfather. Notice that Ofelia's back is also turned to her stepfather so since she couldn't see him, her imagined faun couldn't 'see' him either. Surely, the creature would have helped her out if he'd seen him, what with her making the right choice and being nobility and all?

  11. Also, Ofelia was very trusting of the faun and it was shown to us as being harmless until Ofelia confided what she saw to Mercedes who told her 'My mother always told me to be wary of fauns'. Only after this thought was planted in the child's head did the faun begin to manifest himself as being possibly evil and having some hidden agenda.

  12. I think we better respect Guillermo del Toro’s interpretation of the movie, it is his move after all. If there is anyone who has the right to give the actual meaning of the film it is him. But this does not mean we should merely believe what the director says, as he has said, when a film becomes true art, it takes a life of its own and able to make itself known to those who look, whatever interpretation might that be.

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