The Devil’s Backbone: More fantasy than fact?

Guillermo Del Toro, otherwise known in the film industry as a “director of monsters” (Shaw, 2013, p.38) is known for his work on the fairytale like fantasy and horror genre (Vargas, 2014) with the most influential examples being Pan’s Labyrinth (del Toro, 2006) and the focus of this topic The Devil’s Backbone(del Toro, 2001). Throughout his films he has a pattern of historically contextualising plots and symbolising factual events in his movies. For example, in Pan’s Labyrinth del Toro uses the character of the Pale Man to reflect the Catholic Church in Spain at the time and in The Devil’s Backbone uses many significant scenes to encapsulate many emotions/symbolise the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. The film is set during the last few years of the Spanish Civil War as an orphanage finds itself confined in the middle of the dissension as well as facing a possible supernatural threat from the fantasy characters throughout the film, in this case it is a young ghost child named Santi. Throughout, I will be arguing whether del Toro uses more factual elements in the text, or if he uses a more reverie, fantasy technique.

During del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, del Toro uses many metaphorical characters to symbolise the War. He uses these techniques to form his own outlook on the history and apply it to his films. In one of the very first scenes of the film, the camera pans down on a defused bomb. You could imply that the defused bomb is used to exemplify “silenced horrors of the Spanish Civil War” (McDonald & Clark, 2014, p. 140), this symbolizes the pain Spanish civilians are stuck with, and will always remember as although the bomb is defused, it cannot be moved.bomb

Another significant example of Guillermo using facts sporadically throughout the film is through the metaphorical use of characters. Such as, Jacinto the caretaker and Santi, the child ghost haunting the protagonist of the film. Jacinto’s character is used to “personify the Fascists, who…maintained a belief in their own superiority, which in turn fed their narcissism” (Haddu, 2014, p.146) especially the leader Francisco Franco. This is because, in the film we find out that Jacinto actually murdered the ghostly child Santi in order to essentially save his wealth and protect a safe of gold. Del Toro also leaves the film with no happy ending, further reflecting the ongoing political tensions with Spain.


On the contrary, del Toro uses a great deal of fantasy conventions throughout. For example, his use of supernatural figures e.g ghosts. Santi is prevalent in the film as the opening sentence “What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps? Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.”(Del Toro, 2001) he compares the war to a ghost, using a supernatural metaphor revolving around the character. This heightens the fantasy element as it explores the qualities of surrealism, making viewers realise the film is far from the realistic qualities of a normal, factual historic film. He is known for his films of the fantasy genre. His newest critically acclaimed film, Shape of Water(del Toro, 2017) is described as “a beautiful adult fairy-tale” (Knight, C 2017).

In response to whether The Devil’s Backbone leans more towards the fantasy genre than factual connotations of the Spanish Civil War, you could argue that at first glance, viewers are led to believe the film follows conventions of his typical fantasy style. However, del Toro adds a sense of verisimilitude metaphors, leaning towards a more factual feel in the underlying messages of the fantasy elements shown(Shaw, 2013, p. 38). For example, Santi the ghost who evidently represents all of the innocent children who lost their lives during the war.



Del Toro, G. (Director). (2006) Pan’s Labyrinth [Motion Picture] Spain: Estudios Picasso

Del Toro, G. (Director). (2001) The Devil’s Backbone [Motion Picture]. Spain: El Deseo & Tequila Gang

Haddu, M. (2014). Reflected Horrors: Violence, War, and the Image in Guillermo del Toro’s El Espinazo del Diablo/The Devil’s Backbone (2001). In A. Davies, D. Shaw, & D. Tierney (Eds.), The Transnational Fantasies of Guillermo del Toro. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.(pp. 143-159). 

Knight, C (2017). The Shape of Water is a five-star adult fairytalewith a floating heart. The National Post. Retrieved from:



McDonald, K & Clark, R. (2014). Guillermo del Toro Film as Alchemic Art. London & New York: Bloomsbury Publishing Inc.

Shaw, D. (2013). The Three Amigos The Transitional Filmmaking of Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Alfonso Cuaron. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Vargas J.C. (2014) Between Fantasy and Reality: the Child’s Vision and Fairy Tales in Guillermo del Toro’s Hispanic Trilogy. In: Davies A., Shaw D., Tierney D. (eds) The Transnational Fantasies of Guillermo del Toro. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

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