June 27, 2020
The film most moviegoers associate with TIM BURTON (Beetlejuice, Batman) happens to be the iconic EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990.). He spoke about the film as his most personal project, because it is about the
‘very simple teenage impulses of the feeling of wanting to touch and wanting to communicate, but not being able to.’ (Burton, 2008)
It is not so much about belonging to a mass of people, it is more about not being able to express oneself, because something stops one from being that open. Facing the problem, one will try to conform, but will always be categorized as the outsider. This feeling Burton translated into the film, with the help of screenwriter CAROLINE THOMPSON (Nightmare before Christmas, Corpse Bride). She based the main character on
‘Let’s face it, I love dogs, it’s about being a dog.’ (Thompson, 2014)
Loaded with references to classic horror films and fairy tales of the 30s, all the way up to the 70s, Edward Scissorhands proves the magic of Hollywood really exists.
WHO IS EDWARD? WHAT IS EDWARD? WHY IS EDWARD GOING TO TOWN?
The unnamed scientist (VINCENT PRICE), in this reincarnation of Frankenstein’s myth, is not a madman, he uses his talent to build useful appliances, but he constructs them in an unusual manner. His cookie making machine takes up the place of the whole ground floor and it looks like a steampunk museum exhibition. Behind this giant cookie factory assemble, working on a small table, is a crude robot with no features except a round ball for a head and a plain torso, equipped with scissors for hands. His purpose is to chop salad. Burton gave the right pointers on how to look at the moment of Edward’s creation,
‘The scientist picked up one of the delicacies and placed it over a robot chest, where a human heart is located. This scene suggests that the robot was Edward before he was a finished product.‘ (Lee, 2013; 2)
Yes, why wouldn’t the scientist invent a robot with a heart? Since the scientist is a recluse in his own right, living all alone up on the hill inside this gothic-looking mansion, it is no wonder he would come up with the idea to design a companion, so he can have someone present in his old days. And thus the creation of Edward (JOHNNY DEPP) begun.
He created Edward not to be this independent creature, with his own thoughts and goals, but to serve him as a useful assistant around the mansion.
‘Edward is not a human being, he’s not an android, he’s not an alien,’ explained Depp. (Page, 2007; 74)
Each piece of the old featureless robot was replaced by a sophisticated human-looking part, but the parts although looking very accurate, are not organic and alive. It stays a mystery of what material they are designed from and how they actually function, but it is safe to say, the very old scientist didn’t dig up graveyards to obtain them. The important thing is that the scientist succeded in his endeavour. Out of a useless piece of scrap metal, he managed to build a human lookalike with the many features a human is born with, like speech, ability to walk, seeing through the eyes and display reactions. Everything became human-like, except the hands. They
‘seem to communicate the horror of future events, through mere size, the material that is made of, and its appearing as either different or detached from the rest of the body.’ (Radacanu, 2014; 157)
Unfortunately, the scientist didn’t replace them, because he died of a heart attack before he managed to do so. Edward is now stuck with his Scissorhands and alone in this giant mansion. It is worth noticing that
‘Depp’s highly self-conscious and stylized performances edule the stagy actions of children when they explore pretend worlds. His intuitive technique mirrors the giggles, exaggerated gestures, and melodramatic facial expressions of children at play, all of which make the characters more believable and likeable,’ estimates Walling. (Walling, 2014; 73)
Most audiences see Edward’s shy look and calm behaviour and perceive like Depp, that Edward seems to be
‘like a newborn baby. With that kind of innocence.’ (Page, 2007; 74); ‘His vocabulary would be limited to a kind of innocent way. Like instead of where is your father, from the script …He is dead, or he died. I thought that was too knowing. So I changed it to ‘He didn’t wake up’. Which I think opens up a whole new area of purity innocence to the character. Cause death doesn’t exist in his mind.’ (Depp, 2019)
At first glance, yes, he seems like an innocent child, but is he really? The scientist gave Edward a lot of Bonton and literature lessons, that way he thought him the rules of good behaviour, logic and understanding. So, he certainly does not behave like a baby or a child. Edward
‘is naive, and he doesn’t understand the rules and he tries really hard to follow the rules, or find the rules or he takes things to literally, he is sort of being trained to be a human being.’ (Thompson,2014)
Since he never went to town, he never saw how people usually behave apart from the scientist, who is in his own right different from the average citizen of that Suburbia. He could have learned about the traditions, the culture and the way they talk and behave in certain situations, but the scientist is not a part of that town and therefore he didn’t supply him with that knowledge. Saying he is like a newborn baby means to have characteristics like a newborn; constantly giving in to impulses, screaming for unknown reasons, always exploring what is happening, trying to use everything it sees and behaving irrationally at times. None of these things mentioned apply to Edward.
He is very shy, calm and precise. He doesn’t show his emotions on the outside, he keeps them locked inside. He doesn’t even explore the town, although everything is entirely new to him. He is dragged around by other citizens in order to amuse them, otherwise he wouldn’t leave the sight of Peg’s house. He gives into anything the people offer, because he figured it that is the shortest way to seem like he belonged to the town.
If someone seems ‘child-like’, it’s the people from the town. The colour scheme of their houses reflect simple children toys, where Edward’s castle is a triumph in creativity. The clothes are in contrast as well. Edward’s costume seems complicated, threatening and uncomfortable, in stark difference to the town’s easy slacks, t-shirts and comfy shoes. The town’s people look like one giant mass of colour splashes, the pastel tones reflect their boring lives and their conformity. It is obvious that
‘The film satirizes the suburban lifestyle by showing how empty these women’s lives are…’ (McMahan, 2005; 65)
The citizens are very easily manipulated, because they want to satisfy only their hedonistic needs, always searching for something to pep up their day or the following week. Edward doesn’t ask for anything, neither is he trying to mimic his neighbours. The town is built on lies, it may look like a perfect unified paradise, but underneath it is plastered with boredom and attention seekers.
Joyce (KATHY BAKER) lies and acts like a jealous child, when she doesn’t get what she wants, in fact, many wife’s lie to their husbands and they express their anger and unsatisfaction loudly, so everybody can be to date of what is on their minds. Just like the teenagers, who are lying to their parents and have the urge to lie amongst themselves as well. In contrast, Edward is honest, he detects when he is lied to and he doesn’t have the urge to judge anyone or to any kind of spread rumours around. What was his goal by telling Peg (DIANNE WEST) ‘Don’t go!’? And why did he follow her down into the community? It may be that
‘Edward’s presence in the suburban community was a source of realization of people’s desires.‘ (Lee, 2013; 5)
Looking at Edward as the fresh, new neighbour moving into the neighbourhood, he got to be the star of the week. He is watched, observed, followed and judged by every citizen in the district. Many of them realize very fast how he can be of use to them. Even
‘Kevin’s classmates were amazed by Edward, and that probably made Kevin look cool for his age. Kevin took advantage of Edward. Kevin knew that Edward can possibly lead him into popularity.‘ (Lee, 2013; 4)
HOW EDWARD CHANGED THE LIFE’S OF THE PEOPLE
Edward is affecting everyone very positively and the change can be noticed, but very few are actually grateful to him for helping them change. Here are some examples:
- PEG – She isn’t a good cosmetics saleswoman, neither does she understand which creme is creating what effect. That’s why the women won’t buy her products. In Edward, she found a test subject, as well as a platform to get some knowledge on what these creme’s actually do. He is helping her around the kitchen, since Kevin is not interested and Kim is away on a trip. He keeps her company and is certainly a better listener than her husband.
- KEVIN – He wasn’t popular in his class, because he is considered the ‘outsider’, but with bringing Edward to a ‘Show and Tell’ presentation at school, he suddenly raised to someone being admired to have a friend like Edward.
- KIM – She doesn’t receive kindness, nor love from her boyfriend Jim. She is feeling alone in her relationship and is well aware that Jim is crossing the line. In Edward, she finds comfort, understanding, a touch of romantic love she never experienced with Jim. She uses Edward to satisfy her romantic needs.
- JOYCE – As a bored, neglected housewife she is seeking thrills, adrenalin shots, energetic behaviour and above all, she is seeking to have the attention of the whole world. With Edward, she gets her kicks, because he seems like a bad character to be around with. His knives are dangerous and she acts like she is a child playing with fire. He unintentionally makes her feel special.
- JIM – His parents are rich, but he owns zilch. By crafting a plan on how to steal money from his parents and get rid of Edward, because Kim is showing compassion towards him, he came to the conclusion to use him as a tool to break into his own house and later on, he can throw Edward under the bus for stealing.
- ESMERALDA – She is the town’s loon, talking about things no one cares about, believing in the antichrist and whatnot. She has always been the outsider. When Edward is held responsible for breaking and entering, she decided that the time was ripe for her to stand out, to tell them that she was right all along. She got credibility, because finally they started to believe her. Edward helped her to step out of the shadow.
But what about Edward? What does he want? He was alone for a long time inside his castle, completely useless. He did snip a little around the bushes in the garden and collected articles on people with special needs, but he wasn’t useful to anyone. He was built to be an assistant to the scientist, so he accepted Peg’s invite to her house in order to find the meaning to his existence and to find something he can do after his master died. He tried all sorts of things; grooming dog’s hair, hairdressing people or shaping bushes into sculptures.
Many things are new to him and he does them only to satisfy his need to be useful. None of the things really mattered to him as long as he can be of help, until he found ice blocks to shape them into ice sculptures. He chooses that for himself. No one asked him, no one convinced him to do it, he made a decision by himself. Since the film portrays Kim’s (WINONA RYDER) narration to her granddaughter, many details are missing. Many spectators wondered where the ice blocks came from, but since it is from Kim’s memory, she intentionally didn’t provide her grandchild with that information. Kim was overwhelmed by Edward’s creativity. His ice cuts flew around the garden creating a snow-like phenomenon and since the town has never seen snow before, as the older Kim revealed, Kim honestly enjoyed herself by dancing in the ‘snow’. Edward finally found his calling.
HAPPY END OR NOT?
At the film’s finale, Jim and Edward have a showdown inside the mansion. It becomes clear that
‘Jim is everything that Edward is not. Jim is abusive, self-centred and a representative of ‘normal’ society. […] He is the epitome of modern selfish society and his passing at the film’s close is a cause for much celebration.‘ (LeBlanc, 2005; 68)
Edward killed Jim. He threw him out of the window of his mansion and immediately realized he can’t go back to town after doing such a monstrous thing.
Kim found a prototype Scissorhands laying around in the mansion, presenting it to the angry town people as evidence that Edward is dead, and the mob, who wanted to lynch him, stuck their tails between the legs and withdraw themselves from the hill. Kim knew this is the last time she had a chance to see Edward. He is now at the exact same point as at the beginning of the film. A question begs to be answered,
‘A fairy tale after all – or is it? Some strange way, the frame narrative is unable to quite contain Edward. He is neither killed in the manner of Frankenstein’s monster, nor saved (like the Beast in Beauty and the Beast). Kim pronounces what ought in the circumstances to be the magic words: ‘I love you’ – and yet nothing happens. Edward remains untransformed and unassimilated; his ice sculptures freeze time, and in them, Kim remains a young woman dancing in the snow.’ (Potter, 1992; 15)
From the outset, the film couldn’t promise a clear cut ending, since the main character isn’t as easy to figure out. His grim outfit and the dark castle up on the hill, lean more towards a tragic ending. Page didn’t have high hopes either when he unravelled the ending,
‘Edward will forever remain alone in the shadowy depths of the big, dark house, a solitary figure, incomplete, unfinished and unloved in the silence.’ (Page, 2007; 77)
Could the ending be that bleak? Firstly, Edward experienced so much, he learned how people behaved, what they like and dislike and that everyone needs to be useful, a lesson learned from Kim’s father (ALAN ARKIN). Before Peg brought him to Suburbia, no one knew he existed. Secondly, he experienced a special kind of love with Kim. She felt compassionate toward Edward, she liked the helplessness, the honesty and didn’t like him being the victim, and Edward finally got to use his heart. He used his scissors all the time, but never got to use his emotions, so when he fell in love, he felt jealousy and anger, disappointment and hope.
When he got scared away to the mansion again, he understood what had to be done. Now he figured out how to be useful, useful to Kim. He provides her with a snow shower every year, that expresses his dedication and loyalty to her, and although they are not together, he makes it hard for her to forget him as well. His existence received a meaning, he became a force of nature, presenting snow as a gift to Kim and also commenting on the town’s people that were always cold from the inside. In a way, Edward became timeless. He cannot die and he will create snow as long as he can. The film provided a closure, because Edward enjoys being creative and he found his purpose. Kim isn’t disappointed in her life either, because she got married and had children, even grandchildren. Her life seems accomplished as well. As for Burton, he thinks it’s
‘not a happy ending, it’s not a sad ending. To me, it’s more of a symbolic ending. Some things work out, and some things don’t.‘ (Page, 2007; 78)
THE MANY CUTS IN EDWARD’S LIFE
Edward’s Scissorhands are symbolic, they not only cut physical or material objects, they cut through meta-meanings as well. The audience can witness that
‘Edward Scissorhands discloses a cut, a blade, that sever the very narrative and theoretical strands that would seem to hold it together; coming apart is what they are all about.’ (Potter, 1992, 1)
A fairy tale narrative has a certain form or rules, and the spectators have expectations on how it will end, but with Edward killing Jim, it seems like Edward slashed through the conventional narrative and it completely proceeded into another direction. It is still a happy ending, but Edward didn’t get the girl, nor does he appear to be the hero. As a bonus, being in that mansion forever, he ‘cut off’ every contact to Peg and her family as well. Edward doesn’t just cut, he uses his scissors to provide almost every synonym to cuts there is:
- SLASH (cut with a wide, sweeping movement) – slashing through his clothes when he is angry
- GASH (a long, deep cut or wound) – In a fit of rage, Edward gashes Jim
- LACERATE (tear or make deep cuts in flesh or skin) – He tears into Kevin’s hand by accident
- SLIT (a long narrow cut or opening) – He slit the bathroom walls with a long narrow cuts
- PIERCE (of a sharp-pointed object, go into or through) – Edward pierced Kim’s waterbed
- PENETRATE (gain access to an organization, place or system, especially when this is difficult to do) – Edward penetrated the lock of Kim’s house many times, before breaking into Jim’s house by penetrating the sealed door
- WOUND (an injury to living tissue caused by a cut) – He accidentally wounded Kim while creating the ice sculpture
- TRIM (make something neat or of the required size or form by cutting away irregular or unwanted parts) – The best thing Edward seems to do is to trim bushes, making figurines out of them
- SNIP (cut something with scissors or shears, typically with small quick strokes) – Edward snips away dog hair in the scene where he is sitting by the curb and is accompanied by a dog
- BOB (make a quick, short movement up and down) – By destroying the bathroom wall, Edward bobs up and down with his scissors
- PARE (trim something by cutting away its outer edges) – During the ‘Show and tell’ presentation, Edward pares a few pieces of paper, showing off his skill
- INCISION (a surgical cut made in skin or flesh) – Edward makes a lot of unintentional incisions on his face
When speaking of the scars on Edward’s face, he wasn’t always clumsy. When the scientist was still alive, Edward didn’t have cuts on his face. He always had scissors for hands, which means he could have cut himself a million times, but he didn’t. By filming Edward without the scars in the time when the scientist was still alive, Burton wants to make it explicit that inner scars became visible with the scientist’s passing. Edward became clumsy and the cuts on his face didn’t heal, because he missed his master too much.
Burton’s fairytale has touched so many moviegoers, that it became a timeless classic. The many layers contained inside the film will always provoke new discourses and evoke deep emotions. It’s not a surprise that
‘The popularity of Edward Scissorhands derives from the fact that not only does the film manage to be entertaining whilst also exploring the depths of human nature, but it also achieves this with an impressive degree of gentleness – something rarely seen in contemporary cinema.’ (Page, 2007; 78)
Although Burton referenced many other myths, films and characters from the film history, Edward will be remembered as a unique idea with its own set of rules and a bittersweet happy ending.
Burton, Tim, Hollywood Backstories: Edward Scissorhands, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uaPob-C7Z3E&t=3s, 2008
Depp, Johnny, A Conversation with … Johnny Depp at Zurich Film Festival, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptkJKeTyuFg, 2019
LeBlanc, Michelle; Odell, Colin, Tim Burton: The Pocket Essential Guide, Trafalgar Square Publishing, 2005
Lee, Esther, Edward: A human machine, https://www.academia.edu/3667317/Edward_Scissorhands, University of California, Riverside, 2013
McMahan, Alison, The films of Tim Burton: Animating Live Action in Contemporary Hollywood, Bloomsbury Academic, 2005
Page, Edwin, Gothic Fantasy – The films of Tom Burton, Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd., 2007
Potter, Russel A., Edward Schizohands: The Postmodern gothic body, Postmodern Culture, Volume 2, Number 3, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992
Radacanu, Adriana, Son, lover and scapegoat: The progression of horror in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, Reading the fantastic imagination: The avatars of literary genre, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014
Thompson, Caroline, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cHOg7yunPNI, Jog Road Productions, 2014
Walling, Mark, Johnny Depp Is a Big Baby!, The philosophy of Tim Burton, University Press of Kentucky, 2014