Structure and Perspective in Children’s Stories and Films
NOTE: For those of you in the United States, since tomorrow is Thanksgiving, I want to wish you and yours a wonderful, fun, and loving holiday!
This past weekend, Skyfall was sold out, so we saw Wreck-it Ralph instead (n.b. It was absolutely delightful: if you haven’t seen it yet, please do! It’s worth it, particularly if – like me – you spent a large part of your childhood at the local arcade.). Sitting in the theater I was struck by an observation I had never noticed before: all of the best (and most successful) children’s movies in recent memory (e.g. Monsters, Inc., The Incredibles, Shrek, etc.) feature adult protagonists. But children’s books, whether middle-grade classics like From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, more recent fare like Harry Potter, or edgier YA titles like The Hunger Games, almost never adopt this strategy.
It has become axiomatic that in children’s literature, the protagonist must be a child. Why? And why the discrepancy between children’s film and books? In thinking it through (and discussing it with The Professor), I think it stems from the basic structure of all children’s stories, and in particular from the point-of-view through which that structure becomes most accessible.
NOTE: Forgive me if the thoughts here are a little muddled or plum off-base. I’d love to know what you think, since I feel like these ideas are still a little fuzzy in my own mind.
The Cynical Argument: Parents Should Want to Go
There is, of course, a cynical argument to be made: parents are more likely to spend their hard-earned cash on children’s entertainment that they enjoy, and parents are more likely to enjoy a children’s story that on some level speaks to their adult sensibilities. Children’s movies – through which parents must sit – are more exposed to this commercial logic than children’s literature because kids of a certain age can read books on their own. As a result, one might think that parental enjoyment is less important for books than for movies.
But this commercial argument – while true insofar as it goes – strikes me as superficial at best. If constructing an excellent, enjoyable story were as simple as that, then we wouldn’t have any bad stories. Instead, I think that the methods by which the best kids’ movies and kids’ books are both constructed, and the ways in which they differ, deserve a deeper exploration.
The bildungsroman Structure of Children’s Stories
At its heart, every children’s story is a bildungsroman (coming-of-age story). While this may be a broad, sweeping generalization, I think it remains accurate. Every artistically and commercially-successful kids’ story (in film or print) is a story of personal growth portraying a character who gains a more mature understanding of how to navigate the complexities of the world.
Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles show Taran struggling to prioritize selfish desires, duty, and self-identity. Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy follows the development of Katniss’ moral compass in a world that is far from black-and-white. Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower models a troubled young man’s development of self-confidence.
The same dynamic works in kids’ movies: Monsters, Inc. centers around coming to accept the Other. Lilo & Stitch is built around the acceptance of family and the responsibilities that come with it. The Incredibles focuses on the development and support of self-identity.
Just because these are stories of personal growth and maturation does not make them either formulaic or didactic. In fact, there is no surer kiss-of-death for a children’s story (regardless of medium) than didacticism. Instead, these stories all model the gradual process of maturation, in which by their conclusion the character(s) come to a more nuanced view of the world and their own roles in that world. Children’s stories model the maturation process every kid undergoes, and by doing so provide kids with a framework for dealing with the world’s complexities.
A Question of Perspective
Personal growth is – by definition – an internal, private journey. The perspective from which the story gets told is closely tied to the dramatization of that journey. Children’s books are axiomatically always told from a child’s perspective. Whether they are written in first person, or close third, etc. the point-of-view is invariably that of the child. It is the rare kids book indeed that tries to tell its story from an adult perspective (I’d like to call particular attention to Anna Waggener’s recent debut Grim, which makes a noble attempt at this daunting challenge).
We see Hogwarts through Harry Potter’s eyes. We struggle through the Arena on Katniss’ shoulder. We face the horrors of Uglyville and New Pretty Town alongside Tally Youngblood. Children’s books model the child’s experience directly, unmediated by any narrative distance. Authors face the challenge of giving their youthful protagonists agency and the opportunity to exercise it (e.g. “getting rid of the parents”) but once the adventure begins, the reader can experience the journey directly.
Children’s books tell their stories from a very close, very personal perspective. The emotional power of stories like Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Halse Anderson’s Speak, or Larbalestier’s Liar derives from the intimacy of being in the narrator’s head. Interior monologue and narrative voice – two tools which film lacks by its very nature – are key to this process.
Children’s movies that focus on adult characters obviate the need to empower their protagonists with agency. Sully and Mike Wazowski are grown ups, in relative positions of authority within their world. Wreck-it Ralph, though not in a position of authority, is clearly a grown-up with all of the freedom of choice that implies. Mister Incredible and Elasti-girl likewise have theoretical agency, however constrained by circumstances. When children’s movies focus on adults, they don’t need to “get rid of the parents” the way children’s books do.
However, movies are inherently more distanced from the character’s emotional journey than books. Movies generally lack an interior monologue or narrative voice to communicate the internal journey. Camera angles, voice work, shot composition, and lighting all contribute (often significantly) to give us that emotional window into the journey, but the relationship is always at a slightly greater remove.
When they focus on adult characters, children’s movies accelerate the speed at which the character’s expression of agency occurs. This gives the filmmakers the opportunity to rapidly develop the character and their emotional journey through dramatic action, which is key to entertaining the audience and getting us to identify with the character.
Because the adult characters in children’s movies are portrayed with agency, and with clear motivations expressed simply (however complex their underlying logic) kids understand how to interpret them. They may not be able to empathize with Mister Incredible’s frustration at a dead-end job, but they are able to understand the fact of his frustration’s existence. But it is through the adult characters’ relationship with non-focal children’s characters that the real accessibility occurs.
While kids will find it harder to empathize with Mister Incredible’s job troubles, or with Elasti-girl’s marital concerns, they can definitely empathize with the experiences of Dash and Violet, and in particular with the consequences of their parents’ difficulties as experienced by the children. The adults’ personal journey is modeled in the experiences of the youthful secondary characters, and the relationship between the youthful secondary characters and the adult protagonists itself models relationships familiar to the child audience. This gives the story an immediacy and relevance to audiences young and old.
In children’s books, this type of an approach is more difficult: the internal experience of an adult character is a greater (though not impossible) imaginative leap for children to make. Because the written word by its nature yields a more intimate audience/character relationship, this complicates and slows the emotional accessibility of the story.
The Value of Narrative Unity
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I think the trick to effective storytelling for children – whether in film, in prose, or in sequential art – ties back to the concept of narrative unity. Whatever perspective the story is told from, and regardless of whether the protagonist is an adult or a child, if the relationships in the story model relationships understandable and relevant to both kids and grown-ups, then the story is likely to be accessible and engaging to both audiences. And those stories where the personal journeys of both adult and child characters are tied together and their resolution is explicitly and emotionally unified are likely to be the most resonant and the most lasting.
Does this concept make sense? We just repainted the upstairs hallway, and the paint fumes might be making me more fuzzy-headed than normal, but it seems a little muddled to me. What do you folks think?
There’s also a sizable subset of picture books that focus on adults rather than kids (or animals who act in a more-or-less adult role.) I think the accessibility issue may apply there, too, in that picture books are more likely to be read aloud or initially picked out by adults. With the particularly young audience, though, I think there’s also more of a market for just learning how the world works, and so simple versions of adult concerns are just as new and potentially interesting as things that happen to other children.
Ooh! Great point about the picture books: reminds me of Mo Willems’ Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale, which (if I recall correctly) holds to that.