Childhood - Purity or Danger

June 23, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

In American movies, children are usually good. They are uncorrupted by adult motivations like greed, lust, anger, pride, etc. The adults in their lives, especially the men, are either well-meaning but ineffectual, even foolish, or downright vindictive.

Children are not just morally superior, they are more competent and more resourceful. In “Home Alone” and “Ferris Bueller,” the child left is left behind by the nice but foolish adults and outwits the mean adults. Kids don’t really need their parents, but parents often need their kids. In movies like “The Parent Trap” and “Sleepless in Seattle,” the grown-ups, though obviously intended for each other, are so encumbered by adult doubts, fears and ignorance that they can’t get together. A child has to engineer the romance.

Some British fictions give us a far different view. Children left to their own devices, without adults to rein in their imaginations, become cruel, dangerous, perverse. Think Lord of the Flies. I was reminded of this recently when I watched the DVD of “Atonement.” In the central incident, the mainspring for the entire plot, Briony, a girl of twelve or thirteen, tells a lie, and she coerces an older but weaker girl into going along with the lie. Her sin has disastrous consequences for two adults – her older sister and the man she loves. Briony looks up to them, but she is also jealous, selfish, and ignorant. She doesn’t yet understand what adult love is all about. Her vindictive act nearly destroys these two good people. The atonement the title refers to is Briony’s atonement for this lie, a process that the becomes the core of her life and work, first as a nurse, then as a writer. The message of the film and book is one we rarely find in American fictions: growing up – becoming mature, an adult – means realizing how terrible one was as a child.

(The movie begins in the 1930s, when girls of thirteen were less sexual. Developmentally, Briony seems more like an eleven-year-old of today. The movie also has plenty of material for an essay on social class – I was reminded again of what my friend
Melissa said long ago: “All British films are about the class system”– but I leave that to others, perhaps Phil.)


Belle Lettre said...

Henry James, an American writer who spent much of his time in England, gave a particularly nuanced view of the good/evil dichotomy of children in "The Turn of the Screw," one of my favorite Victorian ghost stories. See also, "The Others," that creepy movie with Nicole Kidman.

I really liked Atonement, too.

Jay Livingston said...

Not everyone liked Atonement. The Times (UK) recently asked critics for the books they most loathed. Helen Hawkins, their culture editor, said, "The only book that has ever moved me to hurl it across the room is McEwan’s 2001 bestseller."