Hol­ly­wood’s over­due les­son

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Suzanne Fields

The two young women at the next ta­ble at my neigh­bor­hood cafe were deep in an­i­mated con­ver­sa­tion about a movie they couldn’t wait to see. I eaves­dropped. Their con­ver­sa­tion quickly be­came a rem­i­nis­cence about a lady spi­der, of lis­ten­ing to their moth­ers lull them to sleep with E. B. White’s de­light­ful tale of barn­yard bon­homie, “Char­lotte’s Web.” There’s a les­son here for Hol­ly­wood, and there’s ev­i­dence that Hol­ly­wood is lis­ten­ing. That’s good news for par­ents ev­ery­where.

Whole­some may be on its way back. Th­ese young women ex­pressed what a lot of us feel, a long­ing for a more in­no­cent time when a child could be a child with­out the bom­bard­ment of the su­per­fi­cial so­phis­ti­ca­tion preva­lent in the me­dia mes­sage of graphic sex and un­remit­ting vi­o­lence.

It’s not that “Char­lotte’s Web” isn’t a so­phis­ti­cated book. Char­lotte, af­ter all, was the al­ter ego of E.B. White, who con­cludes at the end of his novel: “It is not of­ten that some­one comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Char­lotte was both.”

One of the plea­sures of par­ent­hood is read­ing good­night sto­ries to a child, and “Char­lotte’s Web” is a book that Mom and Dad can en­joy as much as their chil­dren do. This is the light bulb flash­ing on above the heads of moviemak­ers, who are dis­cov­er­ing that cater­ing to a grownup’s re­mem­bered child of­fers enor­mous re­wards. Par­ents who work hard to shield their chil­dren from Xrated trash will be grate­ful, and will show grat­i­tude where it counts, at the box of­fice.

“More ti­tles suit­able for young­sters were re­leased in 2006 than in many pre­vi­ous years,” John Fithian, pres­i­dent of the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Theatre Own­ers, told The Wash­ing­ton Post. Com­mer­cial tie-ins are one of the rea­sons. Fam­ily-friendly movies gen­er­ate sales of dolls and DVDs.

Film­mak­ers are dis­cov­er­ing that Walt Dis­ney knew what he was do­ing in the 1930s with his car­toons. “Ev­ery­body in the world was once a child,” Mr. Fithian says. Un­cle Walt liked the money, and his for­mula was sim­ple and di­rect: “We don’t think of grownups and we don’t think of chil­dren, but just of that fine, clean, un­spoiled spot down deep in ev­ery­one of us that maybe the world has made us for­get and that maybe our pic­ture can help re­call.”

Cary Granat — that re­ally is his name — made ter­ri­fy­ing movies with ti­tles like “Scream” and “Scary Movie,” and now he’s the man be­hind the re­lease of “Char­lotte’s Web,” and be­fore that “The Chron­i­cles of Nar­nia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” He now un­der­stands what Walt Dis- ney was talk­ing about. When his chil­dren were old enough to go to the movies he didn’t want them to see his ear­lier films.

Rat­ings, for all of their lim­i­ta­tions, are at last hav­ing an im­pact. Direc­tors who once ar­gued that graphic sex and vi­o­lence was cru­cial to the in­tegrity of their movies are now quite happy to cut such scenes if it robs them of the lu­cra- tive mar­ket of teenagers and younger chil­dren. When it be­came clear that R-rated movies were not among the top-gross­ing films, sex and vi­o­lence lost many of the de­fend­ers of “fine art.”

Hol­ly­wood mocks as Pu­ri­tans the par­ents of “the Chris­tian right,” but the moral val­ues of de­vout Chris­tians are the val­ues of many fam­i­lies who are nei­ther Chris­tian nor right. The val­ues get a de­fense from the First Lady in the White House, a li­brar­ian who is a force for fam­i­lies and schools and a cham­pion of chil­dren’s clas­sic sto­ries. Moviemak­ers whose pur­suit of sto­ries to make into movies have tended to fol­low the best-seller lists of adult books, and whose per­sonal read­ing lists are stud­ded with X-rated sto­ries, now con­sult li­brar­i­ans to find out what the kids are read­ing.

“Char­lotte’s Web” con­tin­ues to ap­peal with its el­e­gant and uni­ver­sal sim­plic­ity. In the hip lan­guage of the post-mod­ern child, Char­lotte the spi­der is a one-in­sect ad­ver­tis­ing firm, who spins the mes­sage on her web — the medium is the mes­sage — that saves a charm­ing lit­tle pig from slaugh­ter. Chil­dren at­tach them­selves to the book be­cause it nei­ther con­de­scends nor pa­tron­izes in teach­ing life’s lessons, but reaches out to their imag­i­na­tions in straight­for­ward prose they eas­ily un­der­stand. The movie is good, but chil­dren should not be de­prived of hear­ing the words with­out pic­tures to fire their imag­i­na­tions.

We live in a cul­ture where chil­dren grow up swiftly, hav­ing to put away child­ish things be­fore they in­dulge the vul­gar in clothes, mu­sic and move­ment, in what Char­lotte would de­scribe as “rush, rush, rush.” As teens be­come the new 20s, they of­ten miss learn­ing one of Char­lotte’s lessons, how we “must al­ways be on the watch for the com­ing of won­ders.” E.B. White’s story re­vives an older mean­ing of “the mir­a­cle of the web.”

Suzanne Fields, a colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Times, is na­tion­ally syn­di­cated.

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