Picking Apart Coraline

This is going to be a long post. So, maybe go grab a Coke.

Coraline is a cult favorite of Neil Gaiman fans. The movie did amazingly well, even if everyone thought it was Tim Burton, the book has been reprinted at least twice. My kids and I have seen it a ton of times. The book is, quite honestly, mind-bending. Which is strange to say because my first impression of the story was that it was fairly simple. So why did it get under my skin so much?

Today we’re going to pick apart Coraline, lay it out on the table. We’re going to do this as fans, but we’re also going to do this as writers. While no one can ever duplicate Neil Gaiman, we can learn from him.

The Characters

I first want to look at the characters. I wouldn’t consider Coraline a character driven story, despite the fact that it’s named after her because if we just had Coraline all by herself there wouldn’t be much of a story. She’s a great character, don’t get me wrong. But she is a similar character to many that you’d find in young adult literature. She’s strong-willed, brave, and kind of a pain in the ass from a parent’s perspective. She’s kind of in fairness, a brat. But she’s not that dissimilar from many other protagonists. In fact, the story starts out like half of the Goosebumps books. A kid moves into a creepy house with her parents. She’s not happy about it and misses her old friends in her old town. Really, we can insert any other kid there and we’d get a similar result.

It’s the Other Mother that makes this story.

Coraline 2I just want to take a moment and consider how insidiously creepy just that name is. The Other Mother. You’ve got to remember that this book is written for kids. As adults, we see our parents as humans with faults and fears. As kids, we see our parents as fearless, strong and capable of solving anything. Our mothers and fathers are there to protect us and, when we’ve gotten ourselves in too deep, they’re who we run to. So what the Other Mother represents is, essentially, running to your mother in fear only to find yourself embraced by the very thing you were running from. She’s like reaching out for a loyal pet and finding that it’s turned rabid. She’s a razor blade in a slice of birthday cake.

She’s also, I think, a metaphor for the way we perceive things we don’t have and think that we want. While Coraline’s mother is busy and short tempered, the Other Mother has nothing but time for Coraline, nothing but patience. Coraline’s real mom is writing a book, a gardening catalog with her husband. She’s been in a car accident recently and just went through a tiring move. She and Coraline’s real father are focusing on what parents focus on; keeping the bills paid. This is something that I can relate to, as a parent. But Coraline’s Other Mother and Other Father just want to spend time with her. They don’t have anything to distract them from her, even sitting in her room to watch her fall asleep. Of course, it’s all a horrible lie, intended to trap Coraline so that the Other Mother can eat up her life. In short, the Other Mother feeds off of our inherent selfishness. And in this way, I feel that she’s a great antagonist. What do we fear more than our own weaknesses, our own sins?

Because I mentioned Coraline’s mother and father, let’s take a look at them. I read CoralineCoraline as an adult, and so I loved her parents. They were real, they were honest. I am Coraline’s mom, sitting at the table trying to work, being irritated by a bored kid. I get her. I get feeling angry, and guilty at the same time. Sometimes I just want to scream, “I’m taking care of you, can’t you see how hard I’m working to take care of you? Can’t you see that if I stop what I’m doing and play with you there won’t be food or the house will become infested with bugs? How many parents reading this right now would love to be the Other Mother? I’d love to have all the time in the world to make wonderful, scrumptious dinners for my family, provide them with all the new clothes they want and just focus all of my time and attention on my daughters. But there are bills to pay. And we can listen to Cat’s in The Cradle as many times as we want and talk about how money doesn’t matter until we don’t have a breath left. The bills have to be paid, the food has to be bought. And yet we feel guilty when we do it!

Even the background characters are memorable, all four of them. (Eight if we count their Other World manifestations.) I think this small cast is part of what makes them memorable, though. They are unique, certainly able to stand out in a crowd. And yet there is not a crowd for them to stand out of. There’s no normal in this world. Well, Coraline’s family is normal. But I’m willing to bet that none of your neighbors have a mouse circus no matter how much it sounds like it at night.

The World

Now that we’ve talked about the characters of Coraline, let’s take a look at the world. It’s broken up into two distinct universes for Coraline; the world and The Other Mother’s world. (Actually, there’s a fan theory that there’s actually a third plane of existence and that once Coraline goes into the Other Mother’s world she never really goes back to her own world. But more on that later.)

Let’s look first at the real world. Coraline and her family live in an old house that’s been broken up into apartments. It’s called the Pink Palace, which honestly sounds like a sort of slummy place. It’s realistic, though. It’s old, boring, and rainy. It’s average, brought alive by the people who inhabit it.

The Other World is the opposite. The world itself is designed to love Coraline all by itself. The bedroom is full of animated toys, the very plants in the garden want to come and say hello to her. Chandeliers that dispense mango milkshakes are a common occurrence, as are huge taffy cocoons that are full of vengeful taffy monsters. Much like the Other Mother, this whole world is a lie. When Coraline looks through the Seeing Stone she sees the world for what it really is; thin, one-dimensional, and dead.

In this way, the world itself feeds into the symbolism of the story. The real world is gray and boring, but it’s honest, tangible and solid. The Other World is fantastic, bright, and unsubstantial. It can all go away so easily, like wiping away steam on a mirror.

The things that are not in the story

Coraline isn’t a long book. I was actually surprised that it made such a long movie. And here’s not a lot of explaining things. You just sort of go through the story and if you get what’s going on super. If you don’t get what’s going on, well, that’s too bad because the rest of us are moving on.

I’ve read Coraline, of course, and I’ve seen the movie. And I still have questions about the damn story! Why can the cat get back and forth from the real world and the Other World? Why does he care to save Coraline? Why did the landlady let Coraline’s family move in, after not allowing kids in for so long? Did she know that the Other Mother was responsible for taking her sister and would still prey upon children in that house? Why can’t the Other Mother, or the Beldame, leave the Pink Palace and hunt other places? Is Coraline really in the real world at the end of the story? There are fan theories on Youtube, and you could fall down a really long rabbit hole watching them. I have, and that’s actually what inspired me to write this post. This longer than I thought it was going to be post.

There are so many mysteries left unexplained in this story, even after the book, movie and graphic novel. I’ve seen this movie a lot, and every time I watch it I catch something I didn’t see before. The picture of a boy dropping his ice cream cone in the real world, contrasted by the same picture of him enjoying his treat in the Other World. The single snow globe in the Beldam’s sitting room. The fact that, even when Coraline is entranced by the Other Mother she refuses to call her mother. She instead called her ‘she’ or ‘her’. There is a depth to this story, simply because it assumes that we know things we don’t.

And this not knowing has inspired a generation of fans to make up their own answers. Many of the answers are as interesting as the story itself. And really, there’s nothing better than managing to get audience participation with a book.

It’s the same thing we talked about with Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog. It’s 1 + 1 instead of 2.

The book, the movie and the comic.

To really understand Coraline you almost have to experience all of the material. Reading the book is a different experience than watching the movie is different than reading the comic book. Not only because they’re highly different mediums, but because the same story is told different ways each time. This includes things like one of the ghost children being replaced by a fairy in the comic book.

Let’s take a look at that decision from a writer’s perspective. While Gaiman didn’t get to completely rewrite the story three different ways, he did get three different cracks at it. That’s an artist’s dream right there. But it also got people, like me, to buy the same story three different times. That’s kind of evilly brilliant. I doubt that was Gaiman’s intention, but it’s still awesome.

If you have the chance, I do suggest reading Coraline. If you’ve already read it, do so again with the mind of a writer.


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