Sunday, July 22, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

I've commented several times about fairy tales and particularly how individuals like C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and others who prefer initials over first names have argued that fairy tales function best for adults. Tolkien suggested that adults in fact have more need of fairy tales than do children in large part because adults are more aware of the confusion, fear, and uncertainty that comes along with the world. Whereas the child may fear the imaginary monster under the bed, adults often have to contend with things that are truly fearful and not imaginary at all. (Unfortunately, increasing numbers of children today are forced to do the same).

So I find it interesting that Hollywood has taken in recent years to providing fairy tales for adults. I think of M. Night Shyamalan's tale Lady in the Water, an adult fairy tale addressing the need for faith and community. Or more recently, Pan's Labyrinth. This is a Spanish film that has garnered significant attention here in the US. It is very much a fairy tale movie, but in no way suitable for children -- even though the main character is a young girl.

The movie is set against the back drop of the Spanish Civil War and deals with a young girl whose life is in disarray. She has been moved to a military camp because her mother recently married the leader of the camp. This girl (whose name in the film escapes me) has to contend not only with the violence of the war but with a step-father who is cold and violent. What helps her cope is a fairy tale. She believes that a fairy has visited her and led her to a labyrinth where she learns that in fact she is the daughter of an immortal fairy king, the lost princess, who must complete a series of tasks and prove her worthiness before she will be allowed to return to her father's wonderful kingdom.

The movie is moving and tragic, but what captivates is the intriguing interplay between the real world with all its horrors and the fairy tale world that only this girl can see. Is her fairy tale world real or imagined? The movie is somewhat unclear on this, but what it presents in a crystal clear fashion is the importance of stories and fantasy. It illustrates how fantasy stories can function to help us cope with the harsh realities of life.

There is also an interesting parallel, whether intended or not, between the story of this girl's struggle and the gospel story. She believes she has a loving, immortal father in a kingdom beyond this world. If she shows herself to be faithful, she will join him in that kingdom. Does she make it? Well, you'll have to watch the movie for that. Be forewarned though: as in the best fairy tales and also as in life, not everyone lives happily ever after.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Samson or Spider-Man?

This morning I was reading America's newspaper of choice and it informed me that Wal-Mart will soon be selling religious action figures. For a mere $7 your child (or yourself for that matter) can soon be reenacting Daniel not getting eaten in the lion's den. Or for $20 you can purchase a 14 inch Goliath or Samson action figure in case your child wants to exercise his or her latent He-Man or Power Rangers muscles.

I find myself bothered by this on many levels. As a whole there is a lot of American Christianity that is fairly shallow to begin with and this just drains a few more inches out of the pool. This is troubling enough. But when David Socha, CEO of One2believe, stated that the purpose of these biblical action figures is to provide a faith-based alternative to the likes of Spider-Man, they crossed the line.

The article states that they want to offer options for parents who would rather have their children play with a Samson figure than Spider-Man because "parents want to give kids wholesomeness." I will pause for a moment and let that sink in. If nothing in that statement bothers you, then perhaps you are not familiar with the Samson story.

Let's compare Samson and Spider-Man for a moment. Spider-Man is driven by a profound sense of moral responsibility; Samson is driven primarily by the need for revenge against anyone who has slighted him. Spider-Man's motto is that "with great power comes great responsibility"; Samson's motto essentially is "I did to them what they did to me" (Judges 15:11). Samson violently slaughtered over a thousand people, often with no more justification than that they ticked him off. Even at the end, Samson's prayer to God to help him kill all the Philistines is mainly a prayer for God to grant him revenge for his eyes. Spider-Man by contrast has always refused to kill anyone -- no matter what the cost to himself. Samson was a notorious womanizer known to dally with prostitutes, while Spider-Man, throughout his comic-book marriage to Mary Jane, has remained faithful to her through thick and thin. Is the model that Samson provides really the one we want our children to emulate?

So what is really going on here when people argue that a Samson action figure is preferable to a Spider-Man one? I suggest that it derives from a naive assumption that anything biblical, merely because it is biblical, is preferable to anything that is not. The fact is that Samson is certainly a more biblical figure than Spider-Man, but Spider-Man is easily the more moral figure. Spider-Man embodies certain biblical values; Samson is just mentioned in the Bible.

The other problem I have is that I see all this as a distortion of the Samson story. By turning Samson into an action figure on par with GI Joe and Superman (and by the way Superman was initially modeled on Samson and Hercules), it puts the focus on Samson. It attempts to turn Samson into a hero worthy of emulation. The point of the biblical story of Judges, however, is not to hold Samson up as a model of virtue and faithfulness. The point is that God faithfully works his will through the people he has chosen, regardless of their character or moral failings. God is the hero of this story, not Samson. Of course, this idea might not be popular with the religious action figure crowd as an action figure of God might seem a bit inappropriate -- although it wouldn't surprise me. They already have talking Jesus dolls available for $15.

Of course, seeing as today is my son's birthday and I bought him a Ghost Rider action figure, maybe I am not the best person to judge.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The King of Horror

I lament that my summer theater-going experiences have been sub-par this time around. I don't mean in terms of quality but quantity. I blame it on my kids. What movies I have been able to see in the theater have been along the lines of Shrek 3 and Nancy Drew. I did get to take my son and daughter to see The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, which was a good time although it resulted in my being blasted with a string of questions that I found myself profoundly incapable of answering. "Why is the Thing made of rocks? Why are the rocks orange? Why does Ben Grimm's voice change when he becomes the Thing, but Johnny Storm's didn't when he turned into the Thing?"

But I did get to see one movie recently that I enjoyed immensely: 1408. I am a big fan of Stephen King and this film is based on one of his recent short stories. It is a horror movie in the old-school tradition -- big on atmosphere, suspense, and subtle chills -- that creeps one out in a much more effective way than the recent spate of "can you top this" gore films like Saw 8 or whatever number they are up to now.

Movies made from Stephen King writings are a curious lot. The quality scale ranges from outstanding to embarrassing. But when it works, it works well. So seeing 1408 got me thinking about other great adaptations from King's stories. Now when many people think about the best Stephen King movies, they often point to the more highbrow fare: Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption, or The Green Mile. I, however, would not include them on my list, not because they are not great movies, but because they lack one essential feature of a great Stephen King adaptation: they don't scare you. At least not in the nightmare-inducing way. For my money, the best adaptations are:

Misery: This film certainly captures the claustrophobic fear of the book, although it does tone down some of the horrors that the woman inflicts on her favorite author.

The Dead Zone: A relatively faithful and effective thriller about the responsibility one has if one can see the future.

The Stand: King's magnum opus translates into a very effective and very creepy meditation on faith.

It: This book scared me more than any other I've ever read, except perhaps for the directions to the 2006 Federal tax return. The movie does not quite capture the excellence of the book, but seeing Pennywise the clown come to life on screen is a treat. What could be scarier than a clown?

I also have hopes for the future. One of Stephen King's best short works and a personal favorite, a novella called The Mist, is currently filming.