Are children's movies getting scarier, or have parents have simply become overprotective of their offspring?
Ever since its publication in 1963, Maurice Sendak's seminal children's book, Where the Wild Things Are, has been delighting and terrifying diminutive readers in equal measure. Telling the story of Max, a naughty little boy sent to bed without any supper, who travels by boat to a land inhabited by monsters, it is a dark journey into childish imagination - confronting the demons that lurk under all children's beds and in every adult's unconscious. Now a new screen adaptation, by the director Spike Jonze and the writer Dave Eggers, has proven so frightening that its US cinema release has caused uproar among parents.
Those among the first to see the film found it so frightening that they advised other parents to stay away. This, in turn, provoked a furious response from Sendak, who told Newsweek that he would "not tolerate" parental concerns about the film - or indeed book - being too scary. "I would tell them to go to hell," he raged. If children couldn't handle the story he advised them to go home and compared his tale with Disney's anodyne output, calling Mickey Mouse a "fat nothing".
What a "wild rumpus", to borrow a phrase from Sendak's book. But is it a rumpus about nothing? Are the outraged parents being overprotective, or is this and similarly powerful cinematic fare too troubling for little ones? And are we witnessing a new trend for overtly dark and disturbing films aimed at kids? The latter claim follows a series of movies that some feel are too much for impressionable young minds. For example, Pixar's latest animated release, Up, tells the tale of a grumpy, lonely old man bereft at the death of his wife. And Wes Anderson's new film, The Fantastic Mr Fox (with a hero voiced by George Clooney), is based on a dark tale by that old master of the macabre Roald Dahl. Other recent films deemed too frightening for little ones include Coraline and several instalments of the Harry Potter franchise.
So are these modern adaptations any nastier than kids' movies of old? "I don't think so," says Eric D Snider, movie critic for www.film.com. "If anything, they've gotten more tame as we've got wimpier. Monstro the whale in Pinocchio is terrifying. The whole Pleasure Island sequence, with kids turning into donkeys? That's good old-fashioned nightmare fuel. And Bambi's mother dying is legendary. Can you even imagine someone trying to put that into a G-rated children's cartoon today?"
You can add to this list such old-school frighteners as Dumbo, Snow White and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, whose pointy nosed Child Catcher remains one of the most terrifying characters ever to grace a movie, children's or otherwise. Going back to Where the Wild Things Are, does Snider think this film especially scary? "Not unusually so, no," he says. "Every kid is different and you never know what's going to scare someone, but this film isn't any scarier than plenty of movies aimed at children."
So, what does he make of the furore surrounding its release? "I'm glad that for once parents are actually paying attention," he adds. "I remember seeing kids at the South Park movie 10 years ago. Their parents figured, well it's a cartoon, so it must be for kids. You see that sort of thing far too often. Parents don't do their homework beforehand and take their kids to something they wind up regretting."
Whether this and the current batch of movies are scarier than their forebears or not, there's another important point here: children's stories have long involved an element of fear or danger. Take the Brothers Grimm's classic Hansel and Gretel. Two small children are abandoned by their father deep in the forest, then, after a night spent shivering in terror, they are abducted by a child-eating witch who tries to roast them in an oven. How disturbing is that? But many experts argue that this is precisely the point: children's stories are supposed to be frightening, so kids can vicariously live out these emotions in the comfort and safety of their own home.
"Kids love scary stories," says Ruth Coppard, a child psychologist who works for the British National Health Service. "But don't forget that most frightening books were originally read to kids - there's no way your average five-year-old can read a fairy tale. And videos and DVDs are usually seen for the first time with parents. It's the same with movies. You wouldn't send tiny children off to the cinema by themselves."
This, says Coppard, is key. Children may find books or films frightening, but it is far less scary with the reassuring presence of parents close by. And, as writers such as Sendak or the Brothers Grimm knew only too well, experiencing scary feelings is part and parcel of growing up. "I think of it as being scared in safety," says Coppard, who also runs the website Help Me, Help My Child. "As children we need to practise being scared, because adult life is often frightening. Think about small animals, who are taught by their parents to practise being big. They play at fighting, play at chasing and their parents teach them to hunt. It's the same with small humans. Childhood is all about practising being big."
Experts including Coppard argue that the parents whisking their children out of the cinema the moment they seem scared are missing the point. Not only do kids love being scared, within reason (hence ghost trains, Halloween, rollercoasters-), they need to experience more challenging emotions to develop a robust psyche that will equip them for later life. Dr Angharad Rudkin, a clinical child psychologist from the University of Southampton in the UK, agrees that a little fear can be healthy.
"If you look back, many old fairy tales and classic films had a scary element," she says. "It's just part of the spectrum of emotions they bring up - like excitement and happiness, fear is just another element. And if it's carefully managed, it is just another emotion children need to learn to deal with in a safe way." Rudkin also notes that young viewers/readers are not actually lost in the dark woods or traversing a land bristling with monsters. The child characters in those books are films and doing it for them. "Remember that it's not them going through it, it's the character in the film," she says. "So they are experiencing those feelings vicariously, which makes it easier to practise being scared."
The American mothers and fathers who reacted with such outrage to Jonze and Eggers' adaptation throw up another salient point: many child-development experts fear parents have become overprotective to the point of suffocation. The blame for this, as so often, lies at the media's door, with a disproportionate focus on the shocking but extremely rare cases of child abduction and sensationalist (and often inaccurate) headlines about widespread crime and violence whipping parents into a fearful frenzy. "We are so overprotective now," confirms Rudkin. "And our fears as adults are being transmitted to children. Kids today are told that bad things will happen to them, so they can't play outside or walk to school by themselves. I don't think the world is any more dangerous than it was 100 years ago, but we're certainly acting as if it is."
Roger Catchpole, training and development manager at the child mental health charity Young Minds (www.youngminds.org.uk), argues that controversial films are just one example of disturbing media content that young people must digest. "I doubt kids would be more frightened by images in a film like this than a lot of the other stuff around them on a daily basis," he says. "I worked with some children last year on what they found frightening and they said it wasn't the fantasy stuff that scared them, it was real-world things like the bombs and wars and goodness knows what else they saw on the news every day."
He also argues that generalising about the effect such images have on children is unwise, because every child is unique, and a small but significant percentage of them are more vulnerable than others. "We would argue from a mental-health perspective that some children are more at risk of a range of problems and difficulties," he says. "Some kids struggle to regulate their feelings - the evidence shows that around 10 per cent of children have a disorder of some kind and another 10 per cent are more vulnerable than most."
So, although vicariously experiencing fear is generally a good and healthy thing for children, some kids are unusually timid, sensitive or prone to disturbing nightmares. The last thing they need is more fear-inducing images on top of those that their fertile imaginations already produce. "If you have a child who is already very scared or sensitive, then don't take them to these kinds of films," advises Coppard. "There's no need to force them to see something that is overtly frightening."
Rudkin adds that helping kids assimilate scary material is quite age-specific. "At around eight to 10 you can chat to kids more about what's in a film and work out strategies for them if they want to see it. For example, if you and they think a film will be too scary, but they really want to see it, watch it at home on a DVD where you can stop the film at any moment. That gives them more of a sense of control than seeing it in the cinema."
And, as Snider points out, always make sure there's a happy ending. "In children's movies, the hero needs to face challenges that will involve some danger, sadness or tension," he says. "The reason those stories are fun is that the hero wins in the end. He overcomes the scary things and the audience gets to share his relief and happiness. That's why it's vital for children's stories to have happy endings."
Lest we forget, after his adventures in Where the Wild Things Are, Max goes home to find his dinner still warm and a mother who loves him, no matter what. And what happier ending could there be than that?