30 years after its release, Tim Burton’s gothic fairytale Edward Scissorhands is as poignant and razor-sharp as ever.
Edward Scissorhands’ origins can be traced back to director Tim Burton’s own awkward, isolated childhood in the suburbs of Burbank, with its genesis in a pen-and-ink scrawl drawn by him as a teenager. An image of a sinewy solemn figure who has long, sharp blades where his hands should be.
Burton has often acknowledged the film as his most personal piece of work, having felt alone and alienated in his youth; it’s gloriously fitting that the quirky fable found its way into the collective imagination – lonely, leather-clad misfits and all – and has remained stoically there ever since.
The screenplay, at first novelised by Caroline Thompson after being shown Burton’s sketch, started studio development in 1988 and casting soon followed, after a change of (non-metal) hands from Warner Bros (where Burton had made Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice and Batman) to 20th Century Fox.
Dianne West was the first actor to sign on as the adoptive Peg, whose motherly instincts coax Edward down from his secluded, high-on-a-hill mansion. Winona Ryder, as the plucky love interest Kim, soon followed, as did Alan Arkin as the aloof patriarch of the Boggs family and Kathy Baker as the cooing, seductive Joyce. The part of The Inventor, Edward’s creator, was written specifically for horror maestro Vincent Price. This would be his final film appearance.
Johnny Depp, Ryder’s fiancé at the time, was Burton’s first choice as the titular, tragic hero and the actor was keen to move away from his teen idol standing in television’s 21 Jump Street. It was the first time that the actor and the director had worked together, marking the start of their cinematic relationship: the two have seven subsequent collaborations.
“He’s got those kind of eyes that can say things without speaking,” Burton has since said of his favourite leading man and it was this that ultimately secured Depp the role as the innocent, enquiring Edward; he utters less than 200 words throughout the entire film. It was a launch-pad for his career, transporting him from a heart-throb to – well, still a heart-throb, albeit one with an oeuvre of chameleonic performances.
I’m a real fan of Depp’s acting work. Although Edward isn’t necessarily my favourite role of his (I have a weakness for rum-soaked pirates), I do think this remains his best. He plays the sombre hero with a despondency and vulnerability that’s hard to imagine anyone else being able to convey and makes you so desperately root for Edward to belong that it feels even more devastating when he doesn’t.
The tragedy of the fairytale is how nimbly it works to unravel The Grotesque trope, which carries the ethos that the character in question would be loved and accepted into its surrounding society, if only it wasn’t for its irredeemable deformity – think of poor Quasimodo, banished to the cobwebbed rafters of Notre-Dame de Paris. Burton is quick to turn this motif on its cinematic head; the obedient Edward is instantly welcomed into the folds of the bright, meddling neighbourhood and his abnormality is treated as no more than a delightful quirk, deployed as a party-trick in the form of animal topiary and experimental haircuts.
When his eventual condemnation comes, then, the metaphorical pitchforks burn all the brighter; the townsfolk that saluted him for his dissimilarities are the very same ones who chase him away and for reasons that are entirely unrelated. His rejection doesn’t stem from fear or disgust of his abnormalities; it’s pure, human betrayal and it hurts all the more for it. There’s no epiphanic redemption, the creature is hounded back into solitude, and the world keeps turning – only now, we know what is true.
Across both Burton’s and Depp’s extensive catalogues of work, Edward Scissorhands continues to stand the test of time – and it’s the sheer emotion of it that sets it apart from the rest for me, the realisation – à la Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – that the creature isn’t the monster to be feared. Edward shines with childlike curiosity, stitched and scrapped together, wearing his scars as a reminder of his own gentleness. He’s thrown sharply against the uniform backdrop of a pastel suburbia that, momentarily obsessed, almost entirely forgets about him as soon as he disappears.
Materially-speaking, his story is almost entirely cyclical and he arrives right back where we first discovered him: alone in his crumbling, hill-top mansion. His true transformation – and what separates the man from the machinery – is that, now, he understands love; what it is to give it and, more importantly, what it is to receive it.
For anyone who has ever struggled to feel like they belong, it’s a resonating message and so, Edward and his story continue to endure. A shy boy with hands of rust and a heart of gold, Burton’s forlorn protagonist still holds us – as best as he can, anyway – even 30 years later.
I’ll leave you with a clip from Danny Elfman’s outstanding score to the movie…
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