Oct 28, 2007

Mirrormask by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

Mirrormask the picture book tells the same story as Mirrormask the movie – the story of Helena, a young girl whose family owns a circus. While normally teenagers wish they could run away and join the circus, Helena wishes she could run away and join real life. This is what she tells her mother during an argument one evening. Later that same evening, her mother passes away and is taken to the hospital. The circus gets off the road, and Helena and her father stay at an aunt's house. The night her mother is being operated, Helena wakes up with the sound of strange music. She gets up to investigate, and ends up entering a world where fishes float in the streets, people cover their faces with masks, books fly back to the library, and cats have human faces, wings, and very sharp teeth…

My reaction when I watched the movie for the first time, a little over a year ago, was somewhat mixed. I am a big fan of Dave Mckean’s artwork, and watching it come to life on the screen was quite an experience. The way the movie looked left me in awe. But surprisingly, the one thing that I didn’t love as much as I expected was the story. Don’t get me wrong, I liked it, but I was expecting to love it, and somehow I didn’t.

I prefer books to movies. This is a personal bias I’ve always had. I do realize that movies are very powerful storytelling tools in their own right, and that some stories that work perfectly as movies wouldn’t work nearly as well as books, but… I always feel closer to the stories I read than to the stories I see on the screen. Therefore, it is not surprising that it was only now, reading this book, that this story finally clicked for me. I finally fell in love with the characters, the humour, the world it's set in and its constant eeriness.

The story is told in the first person by Helena, in the form of a diary entry or, well, just a story being written. Right at the start, Helena says, This is my story about what happened to me last year when Mum got ill and Dad and I had to stay at Aunt Nan’s and I had my weird dream.

So right away she lets us know that what we are about to be told is a dream. Now, this is a very tricky storytelling device, and I can’t think of anyone who uses it successfully other than Lewis Carroll. Until now, that is, because in this case it is also used perfectly.

For me, is works for two reasons: First of all, the way the story captures dream logic, and that very particular kind of surrealism dreams have, is absolutely perfect. And secondly, even though the story is officially a dream, it is not belittled because of it. It is not dismissed as being “only” a dream. On the contrary, we know that it is important enough to be written down, to be remembered. The things that happen in this dream, even if not strictly real, actually matter on an emotional level.

This book is illustrated using images from the film as well as more traditional illustrations by Dave Mckean. It was wonderful to see how well this and the movie work together. As I said, reading this book and actually experiencing Neil Gaiman’s words and his storytelling voice finally made the story click for me. But having watched the movie also helped, because as I read the story I could see the images moving in my head. I really recommend experiencing this and the movie together.

And since we’re on the topic of Neil Gaiman, I just want to say how excited I am about his upcoming book Odd and the Frost Giants. This is a story I hadn’t even heard about until recently, and today he was kind enough to post the start of the third chapter. I love it – I love the humour, I love the imagery, I think I love the characters already. And I love the last line in particular: The eagle fixed Odd with its one good eye. It will be so great to see him revisiting Nordic mythology. He does it so well.

Still on Neil Gaiman, those of you who read his journal know this already, but for everyone else, if you go here you can hear him reading a 30-seconds horror story, and listen to a clip where he talks about his favourite kind of ghost story. I really recommend hearing the little story before reading it – it’s much scarier that way. He has the perfect storytelling voice.

Reviewed at:
Once Upon a Bookshelf
Firefly's Book Blog


  1. i am beginning to believe that Gaiman owes his success to this group of readers that hang around Carl! lol..
    One very good thing about when a book is made into a movie.. it reaches those who won't take the time to read..and sometimes..just sometimes, it sinks in enough that they will pick up a book!

  2. I have been meaning to tell you! You know how I just thought Coraline was ok? Well, I LOVED Stardust! I just have to get around to writing the review.

    Anyway, now I want to read more Gaiman, so I'm sure I'll get to this eventually.

  3. I haven't read the little Mirrormask book yet, but I'll definitely pick it up one of these days...I always wondered what it was like, now I know! Sounds good!

    Doesn't Odd and the Frost Giants sounds great! I've been waiting for something. He's been talking and talking for so many days now without telling us what it's about...I guess we still don't know really, but it was nice to read a little bit of it and I'm so excited now! And it only costs 1 pound! Of course, I'm going to have to pay to have it shipped to me from England, but I don't mind at all!

  4. Hi Nymeth! I read this book around a year ago but never got around to watching the film. Yet. It's not as strong as Coraline. And I have to say I wasn't that fond of it as I barely remember the story (until I read your review). I loved the drawings a lot and remember thinking that the rats with instruments are the same ones in Mr. Bobo's Mousestra. Maybe I should watch the film and see if something got lost in the translation, the movie came first right? The little book was merely a companion if I remember it correctly. Oh well, I guess it's bound to happen - a Gaiman/McKean collaboration that I won't like as much as the others. Hahaha!

  5. Which came first, the book or the movie? I liked the movie, especially the wonderful images and dreamlike quality of the whole thing, which was sustained so beautifully. But I did find myself wishing for a story that was a bit more...complex? I'm not sure. It fell a little short for me, but I didn't mind too much, because it was such a visual delight. I am intrigued by the book, though, and will definitely check it out soon.

  6. Deslily: Carl and Chris and me and Quixotic and Stephanie really sound like Neil Gaiman fan boys/girls, don't we? Ah well :P In this case, the movie came before the book, but the fact that both exist gives it more visibility for sure. I have no doubt that people who enjoyed the movie are much more likely to pick this book up.

    Dewey: yay! That makes me happy. I really look forward to your review!

    Chris: Do pick it up, you'll really like it! Odd and the Frost Giants is still wrapped in mystery, but just knowing that it has a talking eagle that is Odin is enough to make me sure I'll love it! I really love the way he used Nordic myths in both American Gods and Sandman, so I'm sure this one will be great too. I'm not sure if I will still be here when it is released, but if I'm not I'll also gladly pay for shipping.

    Lightheaded: I also liked Coraline better, but I do recommend watching the movie. Yes, the book was a companion to the movie. I remember thinking back then that this was my least favourite of Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's collaborations, but I have now changed my mind.

    Darla: The movie came first. When I watched it I felt exactly the same way as you. I was surprised and a little let down that there wasn't more the story, but I loved the way the movie looked. However, reading this little book now made me see the story in a whole new light. I do recommend checking it out.

  7. Hi Nymeth, I haven't read any of Neil Gamain's books but I can see from your post I'm missing out! I'll have to look out for them.

    Thanks for your comment on my Ghost stories post. Vampire stories aren't really my cup of tea, although I did enjoy The Historian, maybe I should read Dracula at least.

  8. I won this movie and book from Carl...got them about 2 weeks ago. I've been dying to get to them, and now I'm even more anxious! Carl suggested we watch the movie before reading the book, but we just have such a hard time coming up with 2 hours to watch a movie around here that we still haven't gotten to it. Maybe tonight...

  9. Hi again. I'm sorry to bother you, but I've got a question and I thought you would the perfect person to help me. I know I've told you that Annie and I are going to be reading fairy tales later in the year for school. We've been spending the past couple months (and are still currently) reading folktales. Can you tell me what the difference between a folktale and a fairy tale is? I've been trying to research it a bit, but I'm getting a lot of different answers. One thing that seems to keep popping up is that folktales are stories handed down orally, while fairy tales are literary creations. But I thought that the Grimm brothers collected their tales from around the country from orally told stories, and if that's true, I don't see that distinction holding up.
    Anyway, I apologize for bugging you. I just hate not being able to answer the questions I'm sure Annie will have. If you don't have time to answer, I honestly understand! Thanks Nymeth!

  10. I am certainly an unapologetic Gaiman and McKean fanboy!

    I know many people had similar reactions to Mirrormask, the film, that you did. For me I guess I took something deeper out of it right away, especially since I am such a big fan of Labyrinth and the genesis of this film and its ties with Labyrinth really had me hooked from the beginning. I know it isn't a perfect story. It isn't Pan's Labyrinth good, but I really love it, and loved listening to the audio version of that picture book. It did add even more to the story for me.

    Thanks for the other Gaiman news. I haven't been to his site in awhile and will check it out.

  11. Booksplease: Do give Neil Gaiman a try! :) He's an amazing author.

    Debi: I look forward to seeing what you think of Mirrormask!
    You are not bothering me at all! I could blab about folk and fairy tales for hours, seriously :P It's not surprising that you couldn't find a single answer to that question, because those names are just more or less recent labels to classify very old stories, and not one seems to quite agree on what exactly they mean. But yeah, the most common distinction is the one you mentioned. "Folk tales" is used to refer to orally transmitted tales. "Fairy tales" is a more recent label, and it normally refers to post 18th century stories, written down by authors like Charles Perrault, Madame D'Aulnoy or Hans Christian Anderson. Of course, in many cases these literary stories were based on traditional folk tales that had been around for centuries. Also, these days most people use both terms interchangeably.
    Your doubts about The Brothers Grimms are perfectly understandable. I think their stories are referred to as both folk and fairy tales because originally they did collect stories from around the country, but later on they re-wrote them, changed them, edited out certain content so that the stories became more appropriate for children, and thus Grimm's Fairy Tales were born. I hope this answers your question! If there's anything else I can try to help with, just let me know. You really aren't bugging me! Also, I think this article by Terri Windling on the origins of the literary fairy tale will be helpful for you and Annie.

    Carl: I am also a fan of Labyrinth, but for some reason it took longer for me to appreciate Mirrormask as much. I do agree that it isn't on the level of Pan's Labyrinth, but now I can say it grew on me, and I appreciate it for what it is. I'd love to hear the audio version of the book! I need to get my hands on that.

  12. Hi, Nymeth!

    I, too, have a bias for books over movies, but recently, very recently in fact, I have started to appreciate cinema and I am going through a stage right now where if a book has been turned into a movie I will more than likely want to see it. I am going to put "Mirrormask" on my netflix queue.

  13. Hi Lotus!

    I hope you enjoy "Mirrormask". It's a visually stunning movie, so even those who don't like the story all that much seem to be glad to have watch it if only for that. I am normally curious about book to movie adaptations too, but I tend to be more picky than I should be. It's hard for me to separate the movie from the book and just appreciate it for what it is.


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