In this section of our Colossus Movie Guide for The Fabelmans, we will discuss the meaning behind the movie’s title.
- Gabriel LaBelle – Sammy Fabelman
- Michelle Williams – Mitzi Schildkraut-Fabelman
- Paul Dano – Burt Fabelman
- Seth Rogen – Bennie Loewy
- Julia Butters – Regina “Reggie” Fabelman
- Judd Hirsch – Boris Podgorny
- Jeannie Berlin – Hadassah Fabelman
- Robin Bartlett – Tina Schildkraut
- Keeley Karsten – Natalie Fabelman
- Sophia Kopera – Lisa Fabelman
- Sam Rechner – Logan Hall
- Oakes Fegley – Chad Thomas
- Chloe East – Monica Sherwood
- Isabelle Kusman – Claudia Denning
- Tony Kushner – Writer
- Steven Spielberg – Writer and director
Why is the movie called The Fabelmans?
The answer to this question might seem simple, as Kushner himself provides an answer. But there’s actually more to it than meets the eye. Because while the words “fabel” and “fable” pertain to storytelling, their definitions are very different.
First, Kushner. In this story from The Hollywood Reporter, Kushner, who has worked on several screenplays with Spielberg, elaborated on writing The Fabelmans. After all, the movie is based on Spielberg’s life. So why not just call it The Spielbergs? Kushner’s response:
“Spielberg means play-mountain; ‘spieler’ is an actor in Yiddish, and a ‘spiel’ can be speech or can be a play. I’ve always thought how wild that this guy is this great once-in-a-century storyteller who would be called Spielberg, play-mountain. I wanted to have some of that meaning, and I’ve always liked the German word ‘fabel,’ which means fable. And because the movie is autobiographical for Steven but it isn’t an autobiography, it’s not a documentary, so there’s a fictional element as well. So I thought that ‘Fabelman’ was a nod to that.”
This is where it gets tricky. Because Kushner is not wrong: “fabel” literally translates to “fable” from German to English. So in this light, Kushner’s insight makes sense—the movie’s title is literally a play on that translation. But “fabel” is also an actual word with a completely different definition. Which triggers a very interesting conversation about the themes and meaning of The Fabelmans and art of storytelling in general.
Fable is a literary genre that most of us are familiar with. A fable a short form of narrative, written in prose or verse, populated with animals, plants, and inanimate objects that can speak and think like humans. At the heart of any fable is a moral lesson. The most famous collection of fables is Aesop’s Fables, which gave us stories like The Hare and the Tortoise. In that fable’s case, the lesson is “slow and steady wins the race.”
But a fabel is something different. A fabel is a critical analysis of the plot of a play that consists of three interrelated parts: the social interactions between characters, the structure of the plot, and the attitudes embodied and articulated by the play. Essentially, you could say that Film Colossus specializes in fabels.
The Fabelmans is most definitely a story—but it is definitely not a fable, by definition. Fables are short and feature non-human creatures. But we can think of The Fabelmans as a fabel, as the film is Spielberg’s reflection of his own life. He is looking back on his youth and observing the social interactions between people, the structure and shape of his formative years, the ideologies born from his experiences.
The Fabelmans isn’t strictly autobiographical, as the characters and situations have been altered. Instead, what we see is Spielberg’s observation of his childhood. The characters, the structure, the attitudes that are born from The Fabelmans are all representative of Spielberg’s vision as an artist; they are opportunities for Spielberg to reckon with the joys and pains of his youthful years and understand how they shaped him. By breaking select portions of his life into this story, he’s presenting a version of his life that helps him find catharsis as a director, as an artist, as a human being.
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