Jack the Giant Slayer: Someone’s Been Reading My Spenser!

We love fairy tales around here, as I suppose everyone knows. I have an author friend who evaluates people’s personalities based on their favorite fairy tales (hers is Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”; mine is “Cherry the Frog Bride,” in case you are wondering). I have to confess, “Jack and the Beanstalk” has never really been one of my favorites, even in its Appalachian incarnations of “Jack and the Bean Tree” or “Jack and the Giants”; perhaps goofy Jack just always seemed like too much a klutz for my taste. Maybe I just never approved of his kleptomania. But I’ve gained a different perspective, after finally seeing Jack the Giant Slayer (2013). Join me after the jump for more on how Hollywood got some things really right with this one, and how someone did some good reading, particularly from the works of some of my favorite tellers of tales: the immortal Edmund Spenser and his protégé, C.S. Lewis.

Even with a lighthearted tagline like, “If you think you know the story, you don’t know Jack,” this film surprised me with its enormous (sorry; beware of many bad puns to come) symbolic and literary chops. Of course, everyone knows the story of Jack and the Beanstalk (I suspect even Ron Weasley, who thinks Cinderella is a disease, knows this Muggle story, probably because of its “poor boy gets the gold” appeal), but the filmmakers weave in wonderful touches that echo both the familiar tale and elements of high literature to craft a story that is believable and mythic at once. Though we all know that Jack traded his cow for beans, this time around, it’s his horse that he loses not because he’s dumb, but because he is trusting; and he is not bossed around by a nagging mother, but by a worn-down uncle, who grieves for his lost brother and regrets his role as caregiver for his daydreamy nephew. Those daydreams were fed by tales of the ancient giant war, which Jack heard from his father, just as the Kingdom of Albion’s Princess Isabell heard them from her mother. Ten years later, her mother dead like Jack’s father, Isabell struggles to find her place, resisting her father’s plans for an arranged marriage and her seclusion as a traditional princess; yet, despite her Disney trappings, Isabell is a fairly complex character, and her father, the king, is three-dimensional as well. Even Stanley Tucci’s villainous Sir Roderick, who stops just short of curling his mustache like a silent film evil-doer, is fun despite his predictability (Tucci, also our cinematic Caesar Flickerman, has a gift for making such characters come to life). In fact, the movie is fun, and even thoughtful, both when it fulfills and defies our expectations. Despite the predictable deaths of knights even my 12-year dubbed “redshirts” early on, other developments in the story were more subtle, such as the use of Ewan McGregor’s noble captain of the guards character, super number symbolism (seven beans in the bag, three giants downed by Jack; okay those were predictable, or at least hoped-for, by me), and the beautiful use of story as a conveyor or, and transformer of, truth.

The framing device of the movie is the story of the beanstalk, threading back, vine-like from the past up until the present with delightful, sinuous tendrils that made me actually clap my hands (okay, I was at home, so it wasn’t like I did it in public) with delight. If you see it, you’ll know what I mean; it’s that crown business. I love almost any story that understands how stories work, so that was a big plus for this tale, but it also has those big beanstalk roots growing in some very fertile soil that was cultivated in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, among other sources. It pulls on Spenser’s characterization of giants as both spiritual and physical foes, their size, their appetites, and their depravity all perversions of the natural order (like a two-headed giant whose physical and intellectual capabilities are compartmentalized), not just large, but profoundly grotesque and animalistic, just as Spenser’s giants are, from Book I until his unfinished conclusion. They are Ettins, like the giants of Ettinsmoor in C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair. Someone writing this film has been to the kitchen in the House of Harfang, too, as there are powerful connections in the depiction of humans as giant food (specifically pastries), but also in the giant buildings and attitudes.

Allusions are fun for these filmmakers, who obviously had a blast having Ewan McGregor say “I have a bad feeling about this,” just as he does in a galaxy far far away. Even without a lightsaber, his character shines as one that parallels that of Spenser’s Prince Arthur. The entire story has that peculiar “medieval with an Elizabethan twist” that marks The Faire Queene. McGregor’s Elmont (the mountain, another great joke) looks like that perfect knight Sir Walter Raleigh (complete with some pretty fantastic hair), inspiration and character model for Spenser, and the royal family in this story is woven into the modern monarchy as are Spenser’s royals. The use of clothing and armor as symbolic, elaborate character reinforcements is also Spenserian. In The Faerie Queene, people don’t just wear clothes to exhibit status or even to look good. Even armor is not just to keep a knight from getting squished. Instead, Spenser’s characters wear items that declare who they are: knights have their loyalty, their religion, and their origins emblazoned on every piece of their equipment; people carry and wear items that are imminently impractical yet highly emblematic; the evil Duessa wears an ensemble that marks her as a literal scarlet woman, the whore of Babylon, and the corrupt Catholic church (Spenser’s often heavy-handed, politically motivated anti-Catholicism is one of the main reasons The Faerie Queene was distasteful to Tolkien). As Lewis says of Una and Redcrosse in their first appearance, we don’t know much about their context, as all Spenser’s energy is bent on telling us “what they look like.” In Jack’s world, emblematic faces peer out of armor and horse gear, the princess’s bracelet and Jack’s knife serve symbolic roles, armor is remarkably intricate (Elmont’s kit alone is like a billboard of his status and accomplishments), and the giant’s kingdom is ringed by giant-head-shaped geology that is also reminiscent of the giant heads that Jill Pole assumes are rock piles in The Silver Chair. Both Jack’s story and Spenser’s also scramble pagan and Christian elements without much hesitation. While some viewers might see that as a flaw in the film, it actually accentuates its origins in Spenser.

Jack, this time around, is less a rube than a man of the soil, like Spenser’s Redcrosse, George, who was literally turned up in the earth. The movie even employs Spenser’s use of mirrors and other reflective surfaces. I would be very surprised if one of the books on the shelf in Jack’s cottage were not one of Spenser’s, but my eyes are not that quick. The story framing device is also Spenserian, with the narrative conveyed by parents. Of course, this is a typical fairy-tale device, as the musical Into the Woods would remind us, too, with its cry of “Children Will Listen!” Unfortunately, the fairy-tale requirements lead to my one real disappointment with the film: when the inevitable shift of power occurs, allowing the good guys to take possession of the crown that controls the giants, I had hopes that the princess would be the one to wear it. After all, she is a regal character who, like Spenser’s powerful females, and like the remarkable Elizabeth I who inspired them, she is a female with the power and destiny to rule. Jack, though a nice fellow with plenty going for him, is not so much a regal person as a great partner for a regal person, the princess. Having him wear the crown is a concession to the original story that puts Jack, despite his many shortcomings, as the possessor of great power and wealth. At least our Jack, this time round, seems to do more with his advantages than just steal more stuff from someone who wants to eat him. His accomplishments, like his motivations, are more noble, and he is an endearing fellow who makes up for in common sense what he lacks in cunning.

In any case, I plan to give the film a spot on my shelf, and I recommend it to our readers here, since there were obviously some readers involved in its production. That is, coming from me, rather high praise. As Jack in the film might say, I am generally “not wildly keen” on the way films handle story and legend, but at least, with this one, I have some hope. I would most certainly appreciate more additions to the conversation here, as I am delighted to have a film-connected conversation in which I actually have hopes that not everyone in Hollywood is in league with the Capitol, Voldemort, or any other forces of evil that might come to mind.


  1. You’ve convinced me to watch this flick. Thanks!

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