A few years ago, I saw a trailer for the movie Coraline. The animation was in the style of The Nightmare Before Christmas, a style I dislike with a vengeance. That 3 minute trailer filled me with enough disgust and loathing to last a lifetime, and for hours I felt as if something evil was looking over my shoulder. For years I shuddered at the very mention of the name Coraline.
I should know by now, though, that a movie and a book can be two totally different things.
My sister got the book Coraline, written by Neil Gaiman, from the library several months ago. She and my dad read it, and to my shock, gave it a thumbs-up. They said that it was nothing like the movie and that I should try reading it. I refused. Recently, though, I decided to take their advice. By the first chapter, I realized that it had nothing to do with the Tim Burton-like film, and everything to do with some surprisingly deep truths.
Coraline tells the tale of how a young girl’s explorations of her new home leads to a discovery which nearly costs her her life. Coraline Jones is bored with her dolls, books, and games and wants real adventures. She has no friends her own age, and her neighbors – two old ladies – only want to talk about their days spent as actresses in their youth. Coraline is not interested in her own life or anything it has to offer. She wants excitement and novelty. So when she discovers a secret passage in the parlor, Coraline is eager to explore. Through the passage, she finds another world that is startlingly like her own. Every room in the house of the Other Place mirrors her own house. There’s even a woman in the Other Place who looks very much like Coraline’s own mother – except for the woman’s big, black-button eyes.
The woman is very excited that Coraline has come – she explains that she is Coraline’s Other Mother. In the Other Mother’s world, everything is just what Coraline likes. Nothing is boring, there is always something to entertain her, and it seems as if the Other Mother’s greatest wish is to make Coraline happy. In fact, she wants Coraline to stay with her forever and ever.
After a day of exploring the Other World, Coraline returns to her real home only to find that her parents are missing. The Other Mother has taken them, using them as bait to get Coraline to return. Now that Coraline knows what lies on the other side of the dark passage – and is beginning to see the Other Mother for the monster that she really is – it takes every ounce of her courage to return to the Other World to find her parents.
Neil Gaiman’s writing style is one of the most unique styles that I have ever encountered. Like C.S. Lewis, Gaiman describes people and places in a minimalist way, leaving much up to the reader’s imagination. At the same time, he calls attention to obscure details that few other authors would. In this genius way, Gaiman bypasses clichés and over-used words, avoiding the literary callouses of most readers. I was overjoyed at the freshness of this writing style, and am determined to try to implement some of Gaiman’s techniques in my own writing. (By the way, I highly recommend that you listen to the audio book of Coraline read by the author. Neil Gaiman is a fantastic narrator, and brought the story to life in a really neat way.)
The story line of Coraline closely resembles Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. The alternate universe, the significance of a certain mirror in the Other Mother’s house, and Coraline’s friend the cat all have their roots in Alice’s adventures. Coraline also reminded me strongly of the fantasy series, 100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson. Whether or not Wilson intended it, Nimiane (the witch-villain in 100 Cupboards) is very much like the Other Mother. Both women live only by sucking life from others, and are a type of allegorical Satan.
Obviously, with such an arch-villain, there are going to be dark elements in the story. Coraline does not play around with a bumbling, harmless bad guy. The Other Mother is evil. No two ways about it. Her Other World is a twisted, disturbing place. Like the Devil, she can’t create – she can only twist, copy, and mimic. Even at my age, I was shivering in horror at several scenes in Coraline. However, I wouldn’t change the lessons I learned through Coraline for anything.
Gaiman showed clearly that no matter how beautiful or appealing Evil looks, its goal is always to steal, kill, and destroy ( John 10:10). The Other Mother promises excitement, fun, and adventure: everything Coraline wants. And yet it doesn’t take long for Coraline to figure out that every promise is a lie. Each diversion or entertainment turns out to be a corrupt, empty trick with nothing “fun” about it. Satan may promise all kinds of good things, but he will always leave you empty and hurt.
Coraline Jones has several good character traits, such as wisdom, courage, and determination. But perhaps the most striking lesson that Coraline taught me is that of “wants.” In the Other World, pleasures (especially forbidden pleasures) are the rule. Dogs eat only chocolate. Coraline’s two old neighbors are young again, and are the stars in a never-ending theater act. Every toy or piece of clothing Coraline has ever wanted is hers to own. But through the course of her struggle with the Other Mother, Coraline discovers that getting everything she’s ever wanted won’t make her happy. Toward the end of the story, one of the Other Mother’s henchmen tries to convince Coraline to stay in the Other World.
“We will listen to you and play with you and laugh with you. Your other mother will build whole worlds for you to explore and tear them down every night when you are done. Every day will be better and brighter than the one that went before….The world will be built new for you every morning. If you stay here, you can have whatever you want.”
Coraline sighed. “You really don’t understand, do you?” she said. “I don’t want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really.”
Nobody really, truly wants whatever it is they think they want. We see evidence of that everywhere we look – people scramble, cheat, lie, and kill because they want more attention, more money, more fame. And yet they are never satisfied. It turns out that all of those things that they thought they wanted were mere distractions. That leaves the question: what do we humans want? And though Gaiman never gave the answer in Coraline, I am so thankful that I already know it. What we want is God. And until we’re content, complete, and satisfied in Him, nothing in this world – or any other worlds – will make us happy. Once we’re happy in Christ, then we are finally free to really enjoy everything He’s made.
Now, even though I was delighted to find such truth and depth to Coraline, at the end of the day, I wasn’t completely satisfied with the story itself. I kept expecting an epic conclusion, but the end turned out to be a bit too predictable and over-simplified. I felt that Neil Gaiman missed his audience: he made the story much too frightening for children, yet structured the story line in a way that only children would appreciate.
So my recommendation is this: readers 14 and up, if they don’t mind freaky situations, if they enjoy modern twists to old classics, if they like looking for deeper meanings in fairy tales, and if they don’t put their expectations very high, will most likely enjoy Coraline.
When I finished Coraline, I felt that I had just been introduced to a new type of fairy tale, different from any I’ve read before. I was very happy to finally have made peace with my old grudge against the story, and to have been exposed to a fresh new style of writing. And even though I was a bit disappointed in the actual story, I am so thankful for the important lessons that Coraline taught me. One of the strongest of these lessons is one which Gaiman himself highlighted in a quote by G.K. Chesterton, found at the beginning of the book:
“Fairy tales are more than true; not because
they tell us that dragons exist, but because
they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”