Ohhh, you guys. You guys. I’m properly excited to talk about today’s film and the books that go with it. We’ve got everything this week. In fact, I’m so excited that I’ve got nothing to preamble about here and we’re gonna get right to it.
THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE: Quite a lot of people are aware of the film Pan’s Labyrinth, made by Guillermo del Toro – and well they should be, for it is a masterful piece of filmmaking – but I think fewer people are aware of his previous Spanish-language film The Devil’s Backbone, and I think that’s almost tragic. To paint it in very broad strokes, it’s about a young boy – on the border between being a child and being an adult – who is put into a small and impoverished orphanage. He is the wreckage of the Spanish civil war, as so many of the others in the film are. Really, everyone is wreckage of past and present wars here, both the kids and the adults…and the dead. There is a ghost at the orphanage. Everyone knows about it. A boy who died some time ago named Sati. What happened to him is one of the pistons in the engine driving this film…but only one. It is so complex and incredible, this film, that I could talk for pages and pages and do nothing but cover the plot.
It is a powerful character study. Not only for the brilliant work Guillermo del Toro does in capturing the nature of boys of a certain age…but also the range of adults in the film. Everyone is a film unto themselves. Beyond that, there is the work of del Toro himself, who is always genius, but particularly fine here. You can study each panel of the film and catch remarkable details (pay attention to who leaves the shadows and who does not). Also, it is a ghost story and a genuinely scary one, in places. It’s my favorite ghost story, and considering my boundless obsession with ghost stories, that’s saying something.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon – The link between the film and the book are pretty easy to spot, and pretty numerous. Both are Spanish works, set during or just after the Spanish civil war. They are both stories of young man struggling to deal not only with growing up and falling in love, but dealing with the wreckage of the past and other people’s lives and stories. Both are full of a variety of ghosts. Shadow of the Wind is the story of a young man named Daniel who discovers a book called The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax, an author who not only seems to have been forgotten but to have been deliberately erased from the world. His quest to learn about the book and its author will quickly spiral out of control and grow far too complicated and dangerous for him to extract himself without harm.
It’s a powerful novel. A quote inside my copy compares it to everyone from Jorge Luis Borges to Umberto Eco to Charles Dickens…and it’s all in there. Were we crossing media, though, we would be unable to not mention Guillermo del Toro, because they are staggeringly similar works. They are so similar, they blurred together now and then. There is a clockmaker in the novel, and I realized some time later that I had been picturing him as the grandfather from del Toro’s first film Cronos. To take The Devil’s Backbone and The Shadow of the Wind close to one another is to greatly heighten the experience, and I recommend it.
Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist – I have very little time for vampires. If they aren’t in Hammer horror films being played by someone like Christopher Lee, or a film like the very off-kilter and weird Nosferatu, then you go ahead and I’ll just be over here. People complain about the wussy sparkling Twilight vampires, and I complain about most of the rest of them. So it’s with some shock that I spend as much time as I do talking about Let the Right One In. It is a remarkably subtle and restrained story about a young boy named Oskar, a shy, smart boy who is alternately bullied and ignored by everyone around him. He has a pocket knife and a lot of impotent anger…and he has no friends until he meets Eli, who is not as she appears in a single way and is capable of unbelievable violence. The book is the story of their friendship, and really nothing more than that. It’s a stunning portrait of the hazards of youth, of friendship and love, of violence, and a sweeping view of the range of people living in a small Swedish town of no particular import.
(It’s also been made into two movies. One, a Swedish film, Let the Right One In, is as subtle and clever and brutal as the book, and is one of the very few instances where I prefer the film to the book. It’s tighter and sharper than the already-fine novel. The other is Let Me In, an American remake which can never quite decide what it wants to do and which I found entirely forgettable. Go watch the Swedish film. This has become a movie-to-book-to-movie article. We’re through the looking glass now, folks!)
I have a sneaking feeling this won’t be the last time we visit The Devil’s Backbone and recommend books based off it, because I’ve got my little list of books to mention for this movie…and I haven’t worked through it at all. I’m allowed to come back later if I want. You aren’t my mom. (Hi Mom!) Next time, though, we shift gears entirely. Same book time! Same book channel!