The Grass is Always Greener: Color in THE DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND
14 August 2011
In 1976, Fred Schepisi directed his first feature film, The Devil’s Playground. The film takes place at an all-boy’s religious boarding school in Australia. The boys are entering adolescence and find themselves grappling with changes with their bodies and minds. Their teachers and caretakers, the brothers (priest), who are just as confused about and frightened of sexuality as the young boys, grapple equally with how to handle, what they sees as, the disorder adolescence brings to the school. Toward the middle of the film, one of the brothers (priests) states, “an undisciplined mind is the devil’s playground,” identifying, from the brothers’ perspective, what the term “devil’s playground” means. However, Schepisi, though his use of color, adds another meaning of “devil’s playground” to the film, beyond the brothers’ narrow perception of chaos.
One of the most striking colors in the film is green; there is green everywhere, often overwhelming the screen in a variety of shades. Half the time the green comes from nature: trees, grass, brush, etc. The rest of the time the green comes from some manmade, artificial source: dyed clothing, fabric, or paint. Because the color is so prevalent from both sources, at times, this juxtaposition seems a competition between the natural and unnatural.
Today it’s popular to associate green with a host of positive things, like Nature, growth, luck. Schepisi pulls on these associations when using the natural, outdoor green. In contrast, there are negative connotations, like envy, greed, jealousy, and even sickness attached to the color. Schepisi is also pulling in these negative attachments in his use of unnatural, artificial green. But, perhaps most negative of all connotations, and the one pivotal to Schepsi’s film, is the connotation between the color green and the devil, dating back to the Middle Ages.
First, in the 14th century, the poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” (by an unknown author) connects the color green and the devil. The poem’s Green Knight is a supernatural being who taunts and tests other knights, ultimately killing them if they fail to prove their goodness and loyalty. While scholars still debate interpretations of the Green Knight, a popular theory is the Green Knight represents the devil.
Furthermore, in the late 14th century, one of the tales in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, titled “The Friar’s Tale,” includes a devil-like character dressed in green. In “The Friar’s Tale,” a green-cloaked figure, claiming to be a demon, tests a rather deceitful summoner. Ultimately, the summoner’s corruption is his own fatal flaw and the green-cloaked figure takes him to hell for his wicked ways.
Also, in the 15th century, an Austrian artist, Michael Pacher, painted “Saint Wolfgang and the Devil,” where the devil is, once again, depicted as green. Unlike the examples of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and “The Friar’s Tale,” Pacher’s painting is not of British origin; however, considering this painting came about 100 years after the two written works, it seems plausible those descriptions of the devil in green, or some connection between the devil and green was spreading in Europe, at least as far as Austria. (This is not suggesting Pacher read The Canterbury Tales or “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.”) Moreover, it is also likely a few hundred years later, when British forces settled in Australia, British connotations, such as the color green as a symbol for the devil, continued to be passed on.
While the 14th and 15th century’s artistry proceeds 20th century film by a great deal, evidence that green is historically linked to the devil is insightful and valid to Schepisi’s film. In part, what The Devil’s Playground confronts is the danger of religious fanaticism because of the severe oppression is places on the human condition. Some of the brothers are ‘guilty’ of the ‘sins’ they preach, and punish the young boys for behavior they act on. In fact, a few of the brothers are struggling, quite painfully, with their own demons, which challenge their stringent belief system and pledged vows. The brothers are more conscious of their ‘sins;’ therefore, the green Schepisi uses around the brothers, primarily unnatural paint on the walls, is darker and more noticeable; symbolically, the film suggests the devil (or some negative force) is closer to the brothers, likely due to their hypocrisy. In contrast, the boys, who are still learning the “discipline” the brothers speak of, are just becoming conscious to their ‘sins.’ Because they still hold some innocence, Schepisi often captures them around the positive, natural green of the outdoors and a pale unnatural green inside.
Schepisi keeps the devil close in The Devil’s Playground; however, doing it symbolically with green (as opposed to red or a symbol more commonly associated with the devil) he maintains subtlety in its inclusion. Even in his juxtaposition between natural and unnatural greens, Schepsi remains refined. Although the brothers claim “the devil’s playground” is an undisciplined mind, the audience sees the irony in the brothers’ statement, realizing “the devil’s playground” is more than just an undisciplined mind. The audience comes to understand the school itself as “the devil’s playground,” where deception breeds and oppression takes hold. Schepisi cleverly takes advantage of a rich, complex symbol, and in painting the walls green, symbolizes, perhaps, an encapsulating evil presence inside the school, an evil some characters, by the end of the film, literally run away from.