With The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky (director of Pi and Requiem for a Dream) lets a touch of optimism into his work, but it doesn’t survive the book’s fatalism. What seems like it could have been a departure into new territory turns out surprisingly similar to work that’s been done before. The Fountain is bleak, oppressive and surreal, with the major difference between it and Aronofsky’s films being that it wants to say something nice without knowing how to express it. The words stutter out in melodramatic sentence fragments. It’s a shame, because the fairy tale concept and structure of the story are engaging, and like Aronofsky’s films, this graphic novel is a visual pleasure. Artist Kent Williams’ loose pencils and paints complement the tale’s malleable reality. But as the story relentlessly demands a focus on its themes, it leaves out too much of the core relationship between its characters.
Fans of Aronofsky’s previous films should be pleased to know that, even though it’s made in a different medium, the work is recognizably Aronofsky’s. Metaphorical imagery abounds, Tom (the main character) is a man driven by obsession, and the element of Judaic mysticism from Pi is present. The latter shows up as the Tree of Life (though it’s conflated with the similar Mayan Tree of Life, Yaxche), which Tom tries to find in 1535, use as a drug in 2005, and save from death in 2463. Tom’s journey is rather like Max’s in Pi, in that they’re both searching for God. While Max looked for a god in the machine, Tom hopes to create a god within himself, through the use of God’s forbidden creation. Whether or not the Toms of every time period connect in a completely literal way is left ambiguous, which encourages readers to look for cohesion in the ideas of the story rather than in its events.
Tom’s lover, Izzi, also appears in each time period, and she creates an additional goal for him. In the present time, she’s dying of cancer and he’s a scientist searching for the cure. Tom can’t stand the idea of death, and he so desperately wants to save Izzi that he fails to care that she wants to die without making a fuss about it. Mortality is human, and as he rejects his humanity, he neglects to be human to his dying wife. However, just as Tom neglects her, so does the story itself. Izzi of the present time is the emotional focus of the book, which is unfortunate because she is so underdeveloped. Her absence of recognizable traits idealizes her, and this gives their love an artificial, dull feeling.
The Fountain worries too much about crafting its symbols, like Tom’s wedding ring, and touching upon the whole mythology in each time period, to have time for Tom and Izzi’s lives. More scenes emphasizing the pre-cancer relationship were needed not just to increase the book’s emotional impact but to give support to the argument for life and love. The fact that the Tree of Life does exist within The Fountain‘s world, making eternal life and cures for cancer actual options, in part necessitates some real argument in favor of letting life go. But at the very least, the story’s creed of fatalism would be more palatable, and as uplifting as the book thinks it is, if it had invested some time in life’s more positive aspects.
As you’ve perhaps heard by now, The Fountain comes from a once-abandoned film script that was later greenlit again and filmed as the book was completed. Due to this unusual arrangement, neither work is an adaptation of the other as would normally be thought, but instead they’re two creations working off the same blueprint. However, there’s a difficulty with the story’s narratives, especially in the past and future sequences, in that they sound like holdovers from the film script, like stage directions. A great deal of sentence fragment narration (“Father Avila, out of breath” states one caption) merely doubles what can already be determined from the visuals, betraying a mistrust of the art. In other cases, the narration’s problem is too much melodrama, with lines more suited to the obnoxious pronouncements of common theatrical trailers. It’s like the fast beating repetitions found in Aronofsky’s films, except it doesn’t work nearly as well on paper.
What does work is the art, which shifts between simple contours, heavy blacks and fully rendered paints, making ample room for symbolism. It’s refreshing to see a graphic novel done this way. Pages in the future section are particularly enchanting, with golden lights erupting across them. The detail level sometimes varies across a single panel, where full colors create the focus and background characters are mere sketchy lines, which is not only visually striking but also contributes strongly to the story’s otherworldly feel.
My only complaint regarding the art, and it is a minor one, is the odd reuse of images, where subsequent panels will zoom in or out on what is clearly a previously used drawing. This shortcut hampers the moment to moment storytelling. While many of these reuses appear no more than a panel or two after the original image occurred, some even show up again later, such as a drawing of Captain Tomas’s shocked expression that appears twice upon encountering the Mayan temple at the start of the book and again when Silecio threatens Queen Isabel later on.
Queen Isabel and Tomas have their brief moment of happiness together, but their lives appear to be ones of struggle followed by death. The Fountain gives itself too little time to show what’s so great about the lives that follow death when lives have to be so tragic. It suggests love, but it’s too uninterested in the object of its affections to be convincing. It does display a very pretty looking life, however, and could be worth a glance just for that.