Tim Burton’s post-modern Victor Frankenstein must have been hitting the gin when he gave poor Edward scissors for hands. Seriously – was there not a better option? Spoons, for example; at least the poor dude would’ve been able to chug down those ridiculously round peas served to him by Peg and Jim, ‘Pleasantville’s’ favourite couple…and who serves peas to a guy with scissorhands, anyway? What a load of craziness. Crazy, sure…but superfluous? – No!
Edward Scissorhands, like its fairy tale predecessors, subscribes to a genre that opens up a world of imagination excess; a catalyst for an insanity so absurd that it cannot be anything but brilliant and beautiful in equal measure. Fairy tales are a place where houses can be made from cake and marzipan without any structural dilemmas; where glass sippers can be danced around a ballroom without smashing to smithereens and plaited hair can be used as a climbing rope while still attached to a person’s head – no scalping involved. ‘Fairy tale’ makes anything possible, scissorhands included.
Burton’s man-made ‘monster’ harks back to literature’s most famous lusus naturae, imagined by Mary Shelley in her 1818 novel, Frankenstein. In her iconic book, Shelley challenges the traditional notions of evil often reflected in classic fairy tales, which were adapted from the oral tales of ancient society and converted into a type of literary discourse about mores, values and manners so that children would become civilized according to the social code of that time. Lurking beneath the oxymoronic assimilation of the horror and whimsy encapsulating Rapunzel and her princess posse is an evil exposed and a lesson to be learnt. ‘Badness’ was an external entity, explained through the metaphor of wolves and witches, that was to be avoided at all costs, and disobedience would be met with the direst of consequences. But Shelley internalises the evil by blurring the line between human and monster, arguing that the man who used strange chemicals, stolen body parts and unnatural forces to create an eighteen foot hulk of a creature referred to as “it”, is as much a devil as his creation. “It” is ostracised for its ugliness as well as the unnatural manner of its inception, and can thus never be part of the world that Dr Frankenstein has brought it into. Frankenstein’s creature thus becomes a literal manifestation of the evil intent (the selfishness; the desire for knowledge and applause) that invoked it into being. And yet the gentleness and melancholy that envelopes the creature renders the metaphor ironic; villainy, rather than something conscripted to those who are genetically predisposed to warts, wrinkles, sharp teeth and surplus hair, is expressed as something disconcertingly familiar. Shelley articulates man as monster and so alludes to the evil that lurks within.
It’s a point that Burton’s Edward Scissorhands adapts and delivers with macabre grandiosity. Edward’s awkward appendages are the literal consequence of a creator who didn’t expect to die on his creation, leaving the dude unfinished and awkward – monstrous, even; in a just-stepped-out-of-satanic-Bedlam kind of way. His steely ‘hands’ make him an immediate outcast and, through Edward, Burton poses a challenge to society – daring ‘Pleasantville’ to open its arms to ‘otherness’. And society fails, miserably. Unwitting Edward tests societal constructs of normality. Those who do try to accept Edward and his eccentricities are ultimately overrun by mass suspicion – he is cajoled into robbery, (unfairly) accused of rape and worst of all, falls in love with the popular girl; too many faux pas for one small town to handle. Ultimately, in a scene reminiscent of James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein adaptation, Edward flees to his hilltop mansion, neighbours in pursuit.
In the face of alterity, our best efforts are overrun by our own need for acceptance – rather not rock the boat, right? Gotta roll with the masses or look down the barrel of our own exclusion. We might mean well – we’ll give Edward dinner – but ultimately we are controlled by popular opinion – dinner will be peas; because, really, we don’t know how to to accommodate that which deviates from the norm without endangering the foundation of our own identity. Burton describes human nature an assimilation of bad and good – there is no Red Riding Hood versus the wolf; they are one and the same.
In Little Red Riding Hood (1697) Perrault warned of the danger of deviating from the path prescribed; Burton warns against not deviating from the proverbial path. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, Bible bashing cray-cray Esmeralda elicits from Edward the beating, bloody heart of Burton’s message:
Esmerelda: It’s not heaven he’s from! It’s straight from the stinking flames of hell! The power of Satan is in him, I can feel it. Can’t you? Have you poor sheep strayed so far from the path?
Edward: We’re not sheep.
Esmerelda: Don’t come near me!
Edward’s simple, literal answer is laden with innuendo. By saying we’re not sheep, Burton calls on his audience to ponder the alternative. And if Burton has anything to say about it, we’re as sheepy as they come. The film’s fictitious town, which is based on Burton’s hometown of Burbank in California, is samey to the max – people look the same, so do their houses and lawns; they drive the same cars and the men (take note!) leave for work at the same time every morning. A flock of people, living pleasant sameness *yawn* each and every day.
Until that sameness is breached by the anti-stereotype of a visitor, who reveals, to the shock of Pleasantville, that strange does not equal reprobate. This new and nonsensical idea contravenes the the mode of thought that the town has bought into, and so to make life make sense again; the townsfolk force Edward into a role that they understand: villain. In so doing, they expose an ugly truth about themselves – about us; that, quite simply, people suck. We’re mean, narrow minded and petty. But not Edward; who is not quite human and thus exempt from the suckiness of the lesser mortals upon whom he is modelled. Burton thus offers Edward up as an ode to non-conformism. He, in his scissorhanded un-glory, is the surprising, ideal; the model of superlative behaviour.
Ever the maverick, Burton subverts fairy tale traditionalism by reconfiguring recognisable motifs, characters, themes and functions into something relevant to an evolved world. The product of his genius is a scathing critique on modern society. By exposing the dark heart of the individual en masse, Burton’s film oozes morality, condemning sectarianism and warning us against our own nature. But transcending the moral is the ever-present story; about star crossed lovers and a relationship fated to tragedy by the inescapable condition of being human. Cleverly, Burton’s script allows us to love and empathise with Edward whilst condemning the townsfolk, society, and inadvertently ourselves – who exists as part of the society we are encouraged to chastise. We are drawn to the revelation of our own malfunction because, as Bruno Bettelheim suggested; fairy tales estrange the individual from the real world, allowing him or her to deal with deep-rooted psychological problems and anxiety-provoking incidents to achieve autonomy. With Edward Scissorhands as psychologist, what can go wrong? May he live on and on as part of an ever-expanding canon of modern fairy tale art.