This is going to seem goofy as all hell that I even think about these things, but believe it or not, Olivia Newton John’s frothy roller-disco movie, Xanadu (41% Rotten Tomatoes rating) and the dreadful M. Night Shyamalan’s “Adult Fairytale” The Lady in the Water (24% Rotten Tomatoes rating) are basically the same film, and I love them both, God help me! Both films feature a Muse who returns to earth to inspire a young artist/author to create a great work: In Xanadu, that great work is to build a pleasure palace (read: tacky 80’s roller rink) and in The Lady in the Water, to inspire Vick Ran (played by the ego-bloated M. Night Shyamalan himself) to write The Cookbook, which will inspire a future president to change the world for the better. Both films also feature a group of sisters (The Pleiades, or Muses) who assist the lead character on his journey, a common folktale motif.
Anyone familiar with my writing will know that I incorporate many different mythologies into it. I have always been fascinated by myth and legend and continue to be. I am a sucker for a good fairytale! But one must know how to present one’s story CORRECTLY, m’kay? Tipping one’s hat means doing one’s homework. What I love about Xanadu is the fact that it is based in the Greek myth of the Nine Muses (plus the title is taken from Coleridge’s poem, “Kubla Khan,” POETRY BONUS: 25 points to Xanadu). Although Olivia Newton John’s character is called Kira, and not her real name, Terpsichore (Muse of Dance), probably has more to do with the average American’s ability to pronounce words than the mistake of the novice scriptwriter.
Even Shyamalan’s film has all the elements and motifs of world mythology. It was clear to me from the very first minutes of the film that Shyamalan, like me, was enamored by fairytales. The Lady in the Water employs these common folk tale elements: an explanation of world origin (we came from the sea), human strengths are glorified (kindness, generosity, bravery, team work, healing abilities, etc.), the help of guardians/mentors/guides must be sought (The mermaid, aptly named “Story,” after she inspires Vick Ran, can only return to her oceanic world with assistance of The Healer, The Interpreter, The Vessel, The Guardian, and The Guild members) monsters (the wolf-like Skrunt, the ape-like Tarturic, and the great eagle, Eatlon), a quest or impossible task (which is the plot of the film, for “Story” to inspire the writing of The Cookbook and return then to the sea), and a struggle between light and dark, good and evil (ahh, Hollywood, where would you be without that one?)
Both films also revolve around Freudian and Jungian mythological archetypes, even perhaps, Feminist archetypes (but I won’t go into that here, dear me, no. That is a doctoral thesis in itself! Try pulling apart L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz books if you really want to know about Jungian archetypes.)
BONUS PARABLE: Guillermo Del Toro’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (61% Rotten Tomatoes rating). Guillermo Del Toro knows his fairytales – that is clear from the Hellboy films. But what I loved about his remake of the 1973 ABC made-for-TV movie Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is he moves the plot into the literary world of mythology by having his young female lead character, Sally, step into a “Fairy Ring,” a ring of mushrooms left behind where fairies dance, in the beginning of the movie.
Anyone who reads a lot of folklore knows what a Fairy Ring is to a mortal: a dangerous place to enter. Humans can be trapped forever in the fairy ring or lose an eye, or suffer another punishment from the fairies for trespassing (SPOILER ALERT: the punishment in the movie involves someone’s teeth being pulled out and eaten by the fairies, and then the hapless human dragged kicking down a grated shoot into an filthy ash pit where he is turned into a fairy himself. Ouch!) In the movie theater, I almost cried out, “Don’t step into that Fairy Ring!” It wouldn’t have been the first time I did something like that, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering partner (17 years we’ve been together), Peter. But I knew that this invasion into the fairy realm would have its consequences for the young girl character, Sally. In fact, it sets up the plot for the rest of the film. Del Toro’s use of this simple folklore element raises his movie from common horror, to universal myth. And, I, for one, am glad he’s such a smarty-pants.
Andrew Demcak is an award-winning author & poet. His new book of poetry, Night Chant, is was published by Lethe Press in 2012. Check out his other work here: http://www.andrewdemcak.com & here: http://www.theandrewdemcak23.com He is listening to Wire’s awesome new album Red Barked Tree right now.