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Swan Lake and Black Swan: A Compelling Parallel

Updated on March 1, 2012

An Introduction

The movie Black Swan (2010) is not for everyone. But a review is for another time.

Despite its unique composition, story line and cinematography, this movie undoubtedly has some compelling parallels to the actual Swan Lake story with an added layer of personal growth and discovery.

There have been many theories about this movie and its message/storyline/relation to the actual ballet of Swan Lake. There is no wrong interpretation per se, and I don't seek to debunk anyone else's ideas and theories. There are so many other elements of this story that don't relate directly to its inspiration, but this analysis will be only on the parallels that I see between the two pieces of media. Agree to disagree, or agree to agree!

Join Me at the Ballet

The original Swan Lake story was written by Tchaikovsky as a ballet in the latter half of the 19th century. As a story, it proves fairly direct and simple.

Split into four acts, the story begins by following Prince Siegfried. He spots a beautiful swan and plans to hunt it down, but is stopped when the swan turns into a woman. She introduces herself as Odette, a princess who was kidnapped by von Rothbart and bound to be a swan by day and a woman by night. The only way to break the spell is if a Prince promises his fidelity to Odette forever. Infatuated immediately with Odette, Prince Siegfried becomes determined to free Odette of her curse. Von Rothbart intercepts and Siegfried threatens to kill him, but is stopped by Odette.

The prince listens to the princess and returns to his castle, to a grand ball. Unwilling to give Odette up so easily, von Rothbart disguises his own daughter Odile to look exactly like the cursed princess. The difference, of course, is that Odile wears black instead of pure white.

Arriving at the ball, Odile is mistaken by the prince as Odette. He dances with her and declares to the room his undying love for her and his intent to stay with her forever. Too late, however, he sees the real Odette and immediately realizes his error. The more popular ending (the first revision on the original) sees the couple distraught over the mistake. As they both face the fact that this means they can never truly be together, they commit a double suicide so that they are bound in the afterlife. This not only guarantees them eternity, but it also breaks von Rothbart's spell and thus his hold over them. He, too, dies because of this.

Join Me at the Theater

The 2010 Black Swan adaptation of this ballet has many modern twists. The basic storyline, however, is relatively chronological.

The story follows Nina, a ballerina who lives at home with her mother in an arguably unhealthy relationship. As she struggles to gain the role of Swan Queen and then to maintain the prestigious role, her mental stability slowly deteriorates. The chronology follows her initial rise to stardom as the new feature girl of the dance company to her decline as she sees a new and possibly better dancer start to take her place. Depicted as a perfect, delicate ballerina at first, the most haunting timeline of the story follows Nina's transformation from the pure and innocent white swan to the destructive, raw and "evil" black swan.

(A digression): There are many interesting parallels in the movie that are self contained. Here are a few:

  1. Beth vs Nina vs Lily: The beginning of the movie shows the decline of Thomas's "little princess" Beth. Her age is probably the major contributor to this decline, and it ultimately ends in Thomas announcing her retirement at a party announcing the new season. Nina sees her fall apart with her career, and she sees the jealousy Beth displays towards younger and fresher blood. Beth ends up running in front of a car and symbolically shreds both of her legs, ending her career and identity as a ballerina forever. By the middle and finally the end of the movie, Nina starts feeling the same way Beth did towards a new member of the company, Lily. Nina, while experienced and skilled, lacks a sort of energy and seduction that Lily accomplishes so effortlessly. Struggling to convincingly play the role of the black swan, Nina becomes threatened by Lily's ability to so easily fill the role. She becomes unnecessarily paranoid and experiences her own identity crisis and mental/physical decline, just as Beth had before her.
  2. A slightly more subtle element is in the relationship between Nina and Lily. The two main characters of the movie, Lily is sometimes confused with Nina as the devil on her shoulder and increasingly as Nina's evil twin. The phasing of Nina from reality to imagination makes the relationship confusing, but after close examination it can be determined that Lily is in fact real. Where Lily claims she wasn't and where her face turns into that of Nina, the audience can assume that Nina has used Lily to feed her paranoid and almost schizophrenic outbreak. She already has seen Beth's fall, and now assumes that her own fate is inevitably going to be the same. Her own doubt and desperation force her to see everything as a threat, even herself.
  3. The third most powerful parallel is what this Hub is all about...so you'll know about it soon!

The Swan and the Swan

The movie doesn't follow the story of Swan Lake verbatim. This is a good thing, in my opinion, as it forces the reader to exert energy in finding the connections in what I found to be a fun puzzle-like experience throughout the film and throughout my reflections soon after.

That being said, once the plot parallels are figured out they seem pretty logical. Nina plays the role of Odette as the beautiful, innocent girl who can only be the white swan. As the story progresses, Lily and then finally Nina become the black swan. Lily's role is at first as herself, but true to the story she slowly transforms into Nina because of Nina's growing psychosis. Thomas can most easily be compared to von Rothbart, whose role in the original is an active attempt to keep the swan princess for himself. Thomas' role varies only in that it is more passive. While he certainly helps to egg on Nina's obsession with her role and her psychosis, he is not the character that literally sent Lily in to overtake Nina. He did, however, bring her into the storyline. While he doesn't have Nina under a glorified curse, he keeps her in her obsession and ultimately in her role as a swan by pushing her towards the role and asking her to embody it completely. In the sense that the mentally and emotionally traps Nina into the swan character is a manipulative parallel to the curse and isolation that von Rothbart bestowed upon Odette.

Another interesting but perhaps minor parallel in the two stories can be found in the idea of kidnapping. While in the original story von Rothbart kidnapped Odette from her parent to keep her hidden and cursed, Black Swan's Thomas "kidnaps" Nina from her mom.

To best understand this comparison, the dynamic between Nina and her mother must be understood on a basic level (at the very least). From the beginning of the movie, it's obvious that Nina's mother has an unhealthy obsession with her daughter as a sort of object. Later on, we learn that her mother once had a career in the ballet. This leads to the assumption that Nina's mother is possessive of Nina in the literal sense of "possessive": to her, Nina is what she could have been, and thus she serves as a mental commodity for the mother's own sanity and sense of self worth and identity. This being said, she protects her child like some sort of doll that can neither be broken nor soiled. This translates, in the story, as the sense of childlike innocence that directly connects to the idea of the pure, white swan.

All of that being said, Thomas steals Nina in the sense of her innocence and her protection from the evils in the world. The mother has her daughter taken away by someone who manipulatively isolates Nina into the world of the ballet. The curse of being a swan by day and a woman by night can easily be alluded to in the fact that during practice hours Nina commits to becoming a swan of grace, beauty and perfection, while at night she returns to her mother's grip on her daughter as a person or doll not to be damaged.

Nina, Lily, and the Black Swan

This dynamic is perhaps the most interesting of the movie because it takes place in both the physical and psychological world. The transformation is flawless, but confusing. So here's a breakdown of purely the movie's progression between the two characters:

Nina, as a character, is initially only capable of being the "white swan" both in her life and in her career. The introduction of Lily into the dancing company is at first seen as just a challenge of a new and younger dancer. As the story progresses, Nina becomes progressively infatuated with the lifestyle of Lily and they become closer. This can be seen as a representation of the transformation in the movie from black to white swan, although this is perhaps one of the few instances in which the cinematic interpretation doesn't parallel the original composition.

At any rate, Nina starts to see Lily as herself in relation to Beth (which I discussed earlier). Having been the young dancer that took over an older career, Nina more easily sees herself as becoming the next older career to Lily's new potential. Does that make sense?

Anyway, the point is that in the physical sense Nina is envious of a new and more energetic threat to her career. Lily also serves as a sort of excitement in Nina's life, as she shows Nina the real world and the less pure party scene involving drugs, alcohol, and one-night stands. Hints of an "evil twin" start early in the movie, and progressively become more obvious and more invasive as the plot continues. Nina first sees herself in Lily during the erotic lesbian scene which serves as a climax (my apologies, pun intended) of Nina's transition into the "soiled" world. The next and last most powerful scene in which Lily is scene both as the black swan and as Nina herself occurs near the end of the film, where Nina refuses to let Lily take over her role as the swan in the final act. The two (or the one) fight, and the confrontation ends with Lily being stabbed through the stomach.

The plot gets a little confusing and perhaps less favorable for some when the eventual discovery is that Nina in fact stabbed herself and that Lily is alive and well, without any sign of conflict or hatred.

Now that's the general summary. Here's how it relates to my "thesis":

Lily most obviously parallels Odile, von Rothbart's own daughter who eventually takes on the role of tricking the prince into thinking she's in fact the white swan. Now this isn't translated literally into the movie interpretation, but the basic premise is the same. Lily as a character is best utilized as the black swan (where, incidentally, Nina lacks ability). Lily's role as Odile is most obviously reflected via Nina's perceptions and paranoia. Her contribution to the movie can be confusing, but simply put she psychologically represents an evilly intentioned replica of Nina or the white swan. What gets difficult is the fact that all of this is a manifestation of Nina's own imagination. Unlike the original, Lily/Odile is not exactly "sent" to destroy the white swan's life , but instead is created through the white swan's own fear.

The Prince Is Perfect

One of the more abstract comparisons between the two stories lies with the prince, which I would argue isn't an actual person within the movie.

In the original performance, the prince and the princesses's eternal love and life together are the ultimate goal. This is what Odile prevents, and this is what forces Odette to commit suicide with her prince: the goal is ultimately achieved through death.

Of course, there are numerous other factors that complicate this short summary, but that's what I'm focusing on for the sake of this argument and the readability of the article. That being said, the closest parallel to this in the movie is the idea of perfection.

From the beginning, Nina strives for perfection in her career and ultimately in her role. She sees Lily as an obstacle of this perfection and feels as if she's trying to take Nina's place and ultimately achieving the perfection Nina had been striving for her whole life. In this sense, the black swan "fools" the prince.

Nina's increasingly psychotic state leads to her finally becoming the black swan or Lily, and she is unable to go back and achieve the type of perfection that she envisions in the purity of the white swan.

In the final act of the performance and the final scene of the movie, the suicide allows the swan to reach her final goal in the afterlife. The prince is ultimately the cause for both. Nina accepts, I think, the fact that she has transformed and is no longer the white swan that she had always been. By losing to her darker side, she is forced to find a way back to the innocence and perfection she originally sought out. Her last word is "perfect". In death, she has fulfilled her role and she has done so in the role of the white swan.

The Final Act: A Conclusion

There are definitely a lot of elements and layers in this movie. It's hard to pick and pull at them all, so I recognize that there are gaps in my summary and even in my analysis. This is mostly for the sake of time and so that I could more easily concentrate my writing content. There are so many interesting theories that go into this movie and it would take several articles to cover every facet.

That being said, I hope that you enjoyed this article on the movie and I hope it's understandable. There are a lot of abstract concepts that are essential but hard to articulate, so I hope I did a good enough job that you understand the parallels that I'm writing about.

Enjoy!

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