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Hit film adaptations for young audiences a 'mixed blessing' expert says

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor


Betsy Hearne
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Betsy Hearne, one of the country’s top experts in children’s literature, says
"The Chronicles of Narnia" and "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," are "a mixed blessing for their young audiences." Their shared shortcoming is symptomatic of the way most children’s stories are being told on the silver screen these days.

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 Fire?"

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 children’s literature.

"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 stimulation."

"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 children’s attention."

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 Review.

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," Hearne said.

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 said.

"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 overdramatics.

"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."

Other observations:

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."

Hearne will talk about the translation of children’s literature into film while giving the Lois Lenski Lecture at Illinois State University on March 6.