March 2, 2006
Posted online April 12, 2006
Hit film adaptations for young audiences a
'mixed blessing' expert says
By Andrea Lynn,
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — What's not to like about
today's youth films, titles like "The Chronicles of
Narnia" and "Harry Potter and the Goblet of
Adapted from respected novels for children, the PG and PG-13
titles, respectively, have a lot going for them: They are not
only enjoying huge box-office receipts, but between them are
nominated for four Academy Awards.
Like their namesake novels, the films have their appeal, says
Betsy Hearne, one of the country's top experts in
'Chronicles' and 'Potter,' however, are
"a mixed blessing for their young audiences," Hearne
said. Moreover, their shared shortcoming is symptomatic of the
way most children's stories are being told on the silver
screen these days.
The problem, according to Hearne, is that two critical
elements – "creative spaces and silences" –
are typically left on the cutting-room floor in the process of
translating a children's book into celluloid.
"Silence and space are important elements in all stories
– regardless of format," Hearne said, but instead of
offering modulated spaces – silences that often reflect the
"real mystery of the story" – contemporary
filmmakers are "besieging and ultimately shortening
children's attention spans through unnecessary over
"What we have is the 'ADHDing' of pop culture
for kids," said Hearne, the director of the Center for
Children's Books and a professor of library and information
science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Instead of the slow quiet moments authors build into stories
so that young readers can step back, rest and reflect between
climactic moments, filmmakers often substitute "frenetic
activity" – loud music, chase scenes, violence,
gimmicks and busy computer animation.
"Apparently, it is assumed that young people will not
want to pause for even a moment while no exciting action happens
on screen," Hearne said. "Unfortunately, this becomes a
self-fulfilling prophecy. We have created a juvenile audience
with hyperactive expectations often involving a range of violence
from slapstick to sensational."
She also suspects that today's pop culture creators
"don't really believe in the power of story to hold
Hearne believes that now, more than ever, as we grapple with
our "information-besieged lives," finding space and
even silence in our lives is "critical."
"Somehow we must reappropriate the all-important silences
that convey suspense, emphasis and humorous pacing. We need space
to think and be."
A prize-winning author, Hearne also is the former
children's book editor of Booklist and of The Bulletin of
the Center for Children's Books. She has reviewed books for
38 years and contributes regularly to the New York Times Book
Hearne demonstrated her point about silence and space with a
scene from "The Chronicles of Narnia."
"When Aslan the lion sacrifices himself to save Edmund,
the focus in the book is on him and on the witch who is enforcing
the old magic," she said.
"Although C.S. Lewis includes a restrained description of
Aslan's being reviled and beaten, the film's long
lurid sequence featuring a horde of horrific creatures indulging
in pagan ritual calls more attention to the movie's special
effects than to the character's sadness and nobility,"
A parallel in Disney's "Beauty and the Beast"
might be the dancing dishes, "which, however
'charming,' distract from a focus on the relationship
between the two main characters."
The new film "Curious George," on the other hand,
does give the kind of space featured in the picture book, Hearne
"In the scene where Curious George and the Man with the
Yellow Hat are sailing over New York City with a bunch of
balloons, there's a wonderful sense of release and joy that
just takes over the screen without interference or
"In fact, one of the film's major motifs is a
simple game of peek-a-boo, which accords perfectly with the child
audience's experience without peppering or pressuring them
with nonstop gimmicks."
Similarly, "Holes" (2003) based on Louis
Sachar's Newbery-winning novel, "is a film that does
not betray the book's subtle balance of action and
reflection," Hearne said.
"Nor does it become strictly duplicative, in the vein of
literal facsimile that is characteristic of the 'Harry
Potter' movies. Rather, 'Holes' transforms one
work of art into another. The flashbacks indicated by spaces in
the book are, in the film, skillfully rendered through fadeouts
that clarify transitions between present and past events but at
the same time add a striking visual dimension."
• Drama in good juvenile novels "often slips into
cinematic melodrama," and "exaggeration frequently
replaces nuance and subtlety."
• Children's picture books that are made into
full-length films, even more so than novels, "can suffer
acutely from the transfer of genres, because picture books, like
poetry and folktales, depend on implication, suggestion and
highly selective detail in both text and art."
• Disney's animated films "have turned the
folkloric journey into a chase."