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Children on Film

The adult world through a child's eyes

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Convincingly representing childhood experience in any creative medium is notoriously difficult. In film, quite apart from the well-documented problems of directing child actors, there is the question of approach to consider, since representations of children vary greatly, from nostalgic portraits of innocence, through to dark, disturbing, and nightmarish visions. Once these challenges are met, there still remains the challenge of finding an appropriate visual style to convey the child's world.

In Sammy Going South (1963), the story of a 10 year-old orphaned by the British army's attacks on Port Said, Egypt, in the Suez conflict, the child's viewpoint is repeatedly stressed by the positioning of the camera. When Sammy talks to his mother as he plays on the floor, we see only the mother's legs. When two statues of pharaohs loom before Sammy, low angle shots make them appear even more imposing, as they would to a little boy. Carol Reed's The Fallen Idol (1948) begins with a similarly aged child, Felipe, looking down through banisters (a commonly recurring shot in films dealing with childhood), emphasising the child's limited perspective. Felipe's interpretation of events proves crucial when his imagination fills in the gaps of what he has not witnessed, leading him to conclude that his idol Baines is a murderer. The childish mind may be innocent, but it is also dangerous.

In the Dickens adaptations of David Lean, the director employs some memorable point of view shots, as in Oliver Twist (1948), when, while escaping from police, Oliver is knocked out by a punch. The effect was created by camera operator Oswald Morris being pushed in a pram and running the camera into a waiting fist. In Great Expectations (1946), childhood fears are evoked by low angle shots of thrashing trees overhead, just before the justly celebrated scene in which Pip runs straight into the convict Magwitch. Later, on Pip's nighttime journey to the churchyard, talking cows emphasise his childish imagination, accusing him of stealing and heightening his feelings of guilt.

Despite the accusations of sentimentality towards children often levelled at Dickens, and the undoubted influence of his work on their representation, children in British films are typically less cute and romanticised than their counterparts in Hollywood. Even so, there is a historical tendency in British films to focus mainly on upper- and middle-class children, well-bred and respecting of society's rules. This tendency has led some films to examine what might happen to children when these rules break down, a trend begun with Lord of the Flies (1963), based on William Golding's novel in which open warfare breaks out between rival groups of boys marooned from the adult world. Walkabout (UK/Australia, 1970) exiles two British children in a harsh environment - the Australian bush - where behaviour is ungoverned, and where their learned social values are put to the test.

The childhood idyll provides a more common cinematic theme, often located in a general or specific rural past. Numerous nostalgic films, from the first screen adaptation of the classic Tom Brown's Schooldays (1916) to later adaptations such as Swallows and Amazons (1974), and The Railway Children (1970), depict childhood through a (mostly) rose-tinted lens. The Railway Children, particularly, sees children as innocent and loving, while even the bullying in Tom Brown's Schooldays is essentially character-building. When harsher settings are used, such as the Lancashire farm in Whistle Down the Wind (1961), they nevertheless often counterpoise an idealistic portrait of the children who live there. Despite the eventual loss of childhood innocence in Whistle Down the Wind, the character of Kathy Bostock, played by Hayley Mills, evokes the wonder and purity of childhood, without ever really displaying any of the more negative traits often associated with children.

The films of Alexander Mackendrick (Mandy, 1952; Sammy Going South; A High Wind in Jamaica, US, 1965) allow darker representations of childhood. Here, as in The Fallen Idol, children have an unconsciously destructive influence, sometimes even endangering the lives of those who wish to help them. Ratcatcher (1999) also highlights this destructive - even deadly - potential. More extreme representations appear in horror films such as Village of the Damned (1960) and The Innocents (1961), which question children's natural innocence and foreground adult fears.

Childhood experiences shape the adult outlook on life, sometimes providing inspiration for a personal style of filmmaking. The first two parts of Bill Douglas's Trilogy (My Childhood, 1972; My Ain Folk, 1973; My Way Home, 1978), based on the director's memories of childhood in a Scottish mining village, paint a bleak portrait of characters normally ignored in cinema. In Children (1976), the first part of his own trilogy, Terence Davies illustrates how acts of violence on a young boy continue to affect him years later, using a process of extended flashbacks. Similarly, The Go-Between (1971) slowly reveals a narrative taking place not in the present, but rather in the memories of an old man. Mainly told from the viewpoint of the man as a boy, the film progresses to the traumatic and formative moment when he confronts a sexualised adult world he fears and does not understand.

Children in such films are often a means to examine the adult world as well as their own. Mandy portrays a deaf child sent to a specialist school, where she begins to learn to communicate, but the film is equally concerned with the lack of communication between adult characters. Mandy's presence reveals the emotional handicaps of her parents and teachers alike. The Winslow Boy (1940) similarly uses a child to examine others' motives. The heart of the film lies in the dilemma facing the boy's family and barrister Sir Robert Morton, not with the boy himself, who remains remarkably unaffected by events.

All these films feature children, but are aimed largely at an adult audience. Successful films produced for children, of course, form a vast market in their own right, dominated through much of cinema's history by the Disney empire. In Britain, a much smaller company emerged from the Rank Organisation to become the Children's Film Foundation, founded in 1951. The Foundation produced films to a formula designed to keep children's attention: lack of action, excessive dialogue and too many characters were avoided, while favourite subjects included animals, pirates, treasure and sport, all designed to entertain while stimulating educational interest. Titles such as Go Kart Go (1963) and The Magnificent Six and 1/2 (1967-71) give a clue as to the content of the films. The Children's Film Unit, established in 1981, went further, making films not just for, but also by children, and found the support of industry figures such as Steven Spielberg.

The most popular genre for children is the fantasy or adventure story. Adults are regularly absent or ineffective in these films, allowing children to save the day. The Jungle Book (1942) deems conventional parents unnecessary, and the hero rejects corrupt civilisation in favour of a jungle utopia. In Hue and Cry (1946) adults are either blind or untrustworthy, while childhood energy, solidarity and an innate sense of justice ultimately triumphs over villainy. John Boorman's tale of wartime Britain, Hope and Glory (1987), sees the rubble of bombsites as a childhood paradise beyond parental authority, and schools are demolished to the cries of joyous students.

Anarchy can be fun, but the most successful contemporary film series provides a less subversive example for children, corresponding more closely, perhaps, to their deepest desires. Based closely on J.K. Rowling's phenomenally popular novels, the Harry Potter films, beginning with Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001), feature an identifiable hero, one who defeats monsters, yet suffers the everyday problems of school children. He is without parents, independent, yet longs for a loving family, reflecting the need for security every child has. The young wizard's popularity lies in they way he appeals to children's anxieties, while allowing them to triumph over fears. He sees the world through their eyes, not always understanding, but learning from experience, emerging from behind the banisters to face life's difficulties.

David Morrison

Further Reading:
Neil Sinyard, Children in the Movies (B.T. Batsford, London, 1992)

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