If You Want to See the Film, Read the Book

December 1, 2012 — Leave a comment

My two boys were raised on a steady diet of musicals and plays. I selected what we would attend with great care:

Annie, Get Your Gun
Les Miserables ( remember the Battle at the Barricades?)
The Pirates of Penzance
Oklahoma (the song-“Oh the Cowboy and the Rancher Should Be Friends”)

Do you see a pattern? When we first started to expose our sons to live theatre, my choices all had weapons or professions that could be deemed interesting to six and eight year olds. We graduated to other pieces, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“What was funny in this comedy?”) and A Servant of Two Masters (“Now, that is comedy!”) They became effective young theatre critics: Showboat was good, Cats was awful (“P-U”).

Their first big theatre experience was Miss Saigon on Broadway.  We sat up in the nose-bleed section, which turned out to be a blessing as the opening number takes place in a brothel with scatily clad singers and dancers. We did not rent the binoculars; we were really there for the helicopter scene. The overblown sound system did not disappoint; we could feel the whirr of the chopper blades in our bones.

I thought of these choices when I read Dwight Garner’s commentary in his NYTimes piece, “Going Beyond Cultural Kid Stuff With a Wary Sense of Adventure”. He had taken his 15 and 13 year old children to see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? and reviewed their reaction to the play. They liked the set, the action and the performances; he was happy they had gotten so much from the “witty but sinister play, stocked like a nightmare bodega with adult themes.”

He also posed a good question, “When is it O.K. to introduce challenging cultural material — whether it is sexy or profane, creepy or violent, or simply adult and intense — to your children?” My response to him would be what I told to my own children when they asked to see adult or intense and violent films: “If you want to see it, read about it first.”

Saving Private RyanThe Longest Day CoverMichael was 13 when the film Saving Private Ryan came out in theaters in 1998. He begged to go. I was very hesitant, I had heard that the first 27 minutes of the film depicted the landing on the beaches of Normandy (Omaha Beach) very realistically; that director Stephen Spielberg was not interested in sugarcoating the gruesome damage machine gun and explosions can exact on a soldier’s body. But Michael had a keen interest in history.
“Come on, Mom, this is supposed to be just like the landing,” he argued.
That was what worried me.
“The only way you can see this film is if you read about the landing first,” I agreed.
“Ok, no problem,” he replied confidently, “done.” So he read The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan; 362 pages of historical prose.

There are many opportunities for a student to read a book in advance of watching a film. Reading the book or background materials prepares students for many of the adult themes in a film or play. For example, students who read books from the Harry Potter series were prepared for the dark themes or the twisted violence that was wrought upon many of the characters. I cannot imagine how confusing the series must have been for those students who had not prepared themselves by reading about characters, spells, or the magic elements at Hogwarts. Likewise, the students who read books from The Hunger Games trilogy were certainly more prepared for scale of the brutality of the society that “sacrifices” children for entertainment. In fact, I felt the book was far less gruesome than many of the moments from the film. When books are in circulation before the film is announced (Twilight, The Life of Pi), parents should take the opportunity to hold out for a little reading before letting a child see a film with a mature rating.

Granted, there are sometimes when a parent may have no control over what other parents deem acceptable. Michael already read Edith Hamilton’s brutal explanation of Roman life in her classic The Roman Way when Gladiator (2000) was released on DVD. That Thanksgiving, we were invited to our friend’s home for dinner. After dinner, I was forced into an awkward agreement when I found that our hosts had a copy of the film in the downstairs “playroom” for the boys to watch with their son while we socialized. I cringed that my younger son, Kevin, then age 12, would also be watching, too late for me to assign the required background reading. Of course, the boys were both thrilled to have me in such an uncomfortable position, and both we delighted we reluctantly agreed they could watch the film.

“Now, you have to read The Roman Way,” Michael told Kevin as we drove home that night, “or read Marcus Aurelius’s letters.”

I was duly impressed; perhaps I had not failed parenting.

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