The Good, the Bad, and the Younglings

Danny DeVito made a movie in 1996 called Matilda, based on a book of the same name by Roald Dahl. A copy of this movie wound up in the bargain bin at a local video store, where my mother was browsing for something to entertain her grandkids so we adults could spend an evening in conversation which included complete sentences. My six-year-old daughter Luthien told me later about the movie and how much she liked it. Her favorite parts, which she described repeatedly, sounded lame to my adult sensibilities.

Typical kids’ story, I thought. Poor little child misunderstood by her parents (at least not orphaned like so much of children’s literature). People are either mean or nice, and she has some sort of magical powers to help her through her ordeals.

A week later when we took the kids to my parents’ house for a movie night, and Luthien asked to see Matilda again, I groaned and asked if we could please see something everyone would enjoy, not just the kids. But, poor misunderstood-by-my-parents me*, I was outvoted. On with the show.

Maybe it helped to have my enthusiastic fresh-faced daughter at my side, and her excessively giggly little brother primed to let loose at all the silly parts. I’m sure Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman playing the outlandish parents helped too. Whatever it was, it turned out to be a fun movie to watch together with my kids. I gave my grown-up critic the night off and joined with my kids in relieved laughter when the victorious school children chased away their mean principal once and for all, hurling the contents of their lunch bags like a G-rated mob.

Later, when the grown-up critic came back from her night out and the kids were asleep, Nathan and I had a conversation (which included complete sentences).

“That movie bothered me,” Nathan began. “All those flat characters – the perfectly mean principal, the perfectly good teacher, named Miss Honey even?! Where’s the redemptive value in a story like that?”

Both of us having only in adulthood discovered subtlety (I love Jodi’s post about this), Nathan and I appreciate stories that humanize people. We remind ourselves and our children almost daily that there are no “bad” people and no “good” people – that every person is a complex being marbled with good and evil.

Classic children’s literature, however, does not often concur. Many of these stories tell about good people (who are usually underdogs and often children) winning by destroying bad people. We see it often in today’s movies for kids too. Up, which was a fun story idea and colorful and interesting to watch, disappointed us for the same reason. The bad guy, apparently, had to go.

Not all children’s stories conform to this standard, but in those that take the conflict of good versus evil as their theme, good and evil are often personified and therefore become polarized characters. Therefore the good character must destroy the bad character for good to triumph over evil. In a more complex story, the good character may do bad things (like Edmund in the Narnia chronicles), but ultimately that character will exhibit his/her inherent goodness through repentance. If there is character development, it will most likely be the good characters who get developed, and not the bad.

At least, that is the explanation I came up with when Nathan and I had this conversation and I tried to understand why children’s stories are not often redemptive.

No expert on childhood psychology (of which, as the parent of small children, I am more painfully aware than ever), I’m pretty sure I’ve heard somewhere that children are concrete thinkers; and I think this means that subtlety just isn’t something they get. So, maybe these stories help to cement into their concrete thinking the persistent human belief that no matter the odds, good will overcome evil in the end.

And maybe subtlety is something to be gained through maturity, interacting with the world, listening and observing others. Maybe the understanding that every person – and every situation – is complex and has something beautiful as well as something ugly or dangerous or evil in it can only come through experience, cannot be transferred through external teaching.

Taking this viewpoint, I think that Avatar should be classified as a children’s story (a highly interesting, predictably violent and visually stunning one) while Star Wars is for mature viewers.

Then again, even in Star Wars, the bad guy known as the Emperor never gets redemption. And maybe Darth Vader would just be classified as a good guy doing excessively bad things for an excessive amount of time until he repents and gets to be immortalized as good.

I dunno. It just feels deeply right and true to me when, as the Doctor triumphantly said in one of my favorite Doctor Who episodes, “Just this once, everybody lives!”

*Uh, Mom . . . Dad . . . my tongue is firmly in my cheek here. (Can’t afford to lose my biggest fans!)