How 'Pete's Dragon' Sent Me to Live at a Lighthouse in Norway
One of my favorite childhood films led me halfway across the world to a remote island in Norway and changed my life.
I had weird tastes as a kid. Well, I still do. But back then I didn’t feel the need to justify them. I just liked what I liked. And one of the things I liked the most was Pete’s Dragon.
It was a weird pick for a favorite movie. It came out in 1977, 13 years before I was born, and was never terribly successful. I’m not even sure why or how I happened to come upon Petes Dragon in the first place, other than the very real possibility that the classic white Disney clamshell-cased VHS was on sale and I liked that its cover had something that looked vaguely like a dog (and let’s be honest: Elliott does kind of look like a big, weirdly-shaped, winged, green dog).
The key to enjoying the original Pete’s Dragon (the remake is out this weekend) is understanding it for what it is: odd, charming, and, in some ways, a little tough to categorize. I’m not sure it’s any one thing or belongs in any one place. Pete’s Dragon always felt to me less like a film and more like an introduction to the world the way I wanted to see it. For all of its oddness and lack of substantial commercial or critical success, Pete’s Dragon shaped my worldview and changed my life.
It was as Kathleen Kelly said it would be in You’ve Got Mail: “When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.”
I think the same holds true for movies.
Pete’s Dragon was, to me, about the importance of kindness, friendship, and finding joy in the life you’re living. It’s also, on some level, about simplicity and the joy that comes with being surrounded by people you love and the beauty of nature.
That last element was the thing that would really stick with me. Much of Pete’s Dragon takes place at a lighthouse on the coast near the village of Passamaquoddy in Maine. There, at the lighthouse, life was a little simpler, a little slower; the water, the light, and the people around you were the only things you needed to be happy. Money, commutes, and self-comparison were non-factors. It was, in short, a goddamn paradise.
In the midst of a strong and sudden burst of profound professional unhappiness, some half-remembered truths of Pete’s Dragon and the unhurried happiness of life on the coast shook themselves loose in the corners of my mind. I spent my nights googling, looking for a way to get far, far away for a good long time without going broke in the process.
And I found it in a lighthouse.
I booked my tickets, gave my notice, and moved to Norway for a few months, taking up residence on a tiny island near the Lofoten islands in an old and plain, but sturdy house next to a lighthouse that’s stood on the same rock for more than a century.
On the island, there are no roads, no cars, and no shops. The only way to and from the island is a 20-minute boat ride, and the only other people on the island are those who are also living and working at the lighthouse — now a very small bed and breakfast.
Supplies come on the boat or from the garden. Internet is spotty at best. There are no televisions. There is one iPod Classic, which seems to belong to no one but has a decent number of Otis Redding and Bill Withers songs.
The island is in the Arctic Circle, and in the late summer, while I was there, enjoys 24 hours of full daylight (it’s 24 hours in earnest during July). As August turns into September and the sun dips far enough below the horizon to grant a few hours of darkness, the Northern Lights are visible if you find yourself able to stay awake long enough to see them.
It’s not a big island, but it’s big enough that you could go for a hike every day for two and half months and still see something new every time. There are Stone Age ruins, an ancient cave, a boat tomb, the remains of an abandoned village, and some of the most stunning views that Norway has to offer. There are steep cliffs, frigid waters, sandy beaches, and rock formations shaped by centuries worth of winds and storms from the Norwegian Sea.
Its the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, and it was there that I found the truth I’d always hoped Pete’s Dragon was telling.
I shared the island with anywhere from 6-10 people at any given time. People came and went. People from Israel, Italy, Germany, the USA, Sweden, England, and Canada, in the time I was there. With no internet or cell service to speak of, getting close to the people around you doesn’t take much effort — a deck of cards, a generous amount of tea, an illicit chocolate bar stealthily taken from the pantry.
When you have just a little bit of space and a lot less distraction, enjoying and understanding the people and the things around you becomes, to borrow a phrase from iPod Classic fave, “Easy like Sunday morning.”
Something about living on an island together — about hiking together, contending with the constant upkeep together, cooking and eating all of your meals together, and talking to each other at length because you’re each other’s only entertainment — has a way of helping you get over yourself long enough to figure out that maybe Pete, Nora, Lampie, and Elliott had it right. It also explains why, about two weeks into my stay, I hiked to the highest point of the island to get cell service long enough to sync “It’s So Easy” for offline play on my phone.
I have no idea whether or not the original Pete’s Dragon from 1977 was a good movie. I only know that I loved it, and that its deeply charming, weird truth wormed its way into my heart so thoroughly that years after I’d watched the film, the idea of that lighthouse, of Pete and Elliott, of the beauty of a happiness that’s simple, were so much a part of me that they brought me to a place I needed to be with people I needed to know.
In the end, I think that’s the power of film. I don’t even really remember the plot of Pete’s Dragon, except for a few vague notions. What I remember is Pete, Elliott, the lighthouse, and the room that came with it. In the end, Pete’s Dragon for me wasn’t about the story, but where the story led me when I was ready to go. I don’t know that we can ask much more from a film.