Both of these movies are fantasy films, made by two of the best directors of our day–and even now, they are collaborating together to put J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit onto the silver screen. Here I’d like to compare two of their finest movies–Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, a film about a young girl living during the reign of Francisco Franco in Spain, and Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring, the first installment in the moving picture translation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings.
First of all, there are many, many differences on the surface of each of these movies. Pan’s Labyrinth is set in 1940’s Spain, and in it historical events as well as magical ones occur. The audience knows the places, recognizes the medical techniques, and may know the language spoken by those in the film–Spanish. The Fellowship of the Ring, on the other hand, takes place in Middle Earth, where there is an entirely new set of places, events, languages, and technology (or lack thereof) to deal with. Plots for the two films are comparable, however, though still dissimilar in many ways. The Fellowship follows the journey of nine different people, many of whom are from different species, to destroy the One Ring and save their homes, families, people, and countries from falling to the forces of Sauron, the quintessential evil would-be conqueror. Pan’s Labyrinth follows the journey of one small girl as she attempts to complete the three tasks that will let her join her mother and father, and reclaim her place as Princess of the Underground Realm . However, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether or not Ofelia, the main character of Pan’s Labyrinth, is really interacting with faeries and fauns and the Pale Man, or if she is escaping her tormented life into a no less terrible, but at least alternate, fantasy world.
Each movie delivers a different message as well. Del Toro, through Ofelia’s journey and its (possibly) tragic ending, asks the audience **if** they believe her. Captain Vidal, her stepfather, cannot see the Faun, but Ofelia can. And if her mother dies when the mandrake is removed, well, do we know for sure that the mandrake was even the cure? After all, they are more renowned for their deadly screams than the healing properties the Faun tells Ofelia of. In addition, Ofelia faces trials that are vivid, dangerous, and downright revolting–trials that we wouldn’t like to dismiss as merely imagination. Everything that happens to Ofelia we see, and yet, in the end, her fate is up to us. Did she die “for real?” Or did she merely move on to the Underground Realm, to rejoin the family she left behind? While at the same time making important statements on the nature of escapism and the fantasy inherent in not only Ofelia’s mind, but the dream of the rebels, Pan’s Labyrinth asks if you believe Ofelia. There is no asking “please,” nor compromising–either what she saw and did was real, or it only existed in her mind.
The Fellowship of the Ring, on the other hand, does not ask the same question of belief that Pan’s Labyrinth does. Far from taking place in our world, where such questions can impact the audience profoundly, Fellowship takes place in an entirely different world, and so belief that the events depicted in the movie happened is not the question. Instead Fellowship asks you to believe in the characters, and in how they reflect the weaknesses and strengths, the longings and the desires and the deeds of men in this world. Boromir has many weaknesses, but also many strengths, while Frodo and Sam make sacrifices aplenty when they leave the only home they’ve ever known so that they can save it. You feel the bravery of the Hobbits when Pippin and Merry distract the Orcs so that Frodo can escape, and you cheer when Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas undertake the perilous journey to rescue them. Through these characters and their commitment to destroying the ring, despite their differences and flaws, you are asked to believe in the power of good–that, though the Free Peoples whine and argue, they can band together and fight the evil trying to conquer and enslave them, and not only fight but emerge from the battle victorious.
Though both films are clearly of the fantasy genre, they cover very different ground with their stories and their characters. Ofelia’s story is a small one, that, if it happened, would go unnoticed by everyone, while Frodo’s tale is epic in scale and affected every single being that lived in Middle Earth. But both the Fellowship of the Ring and Pan’s Labyrinth ask the audience to involve themselves in some way in the story being told–to know Boromir’s pain and Frodo’s quite strength, and see them in the world you live in, or to simply believe Ofelia’s tale of magic. Both, however, are amazingly good movies, and are a testament to the excellence that fantasy films can achieve.