Can Grown-Ups Be Trusted?
Children’s Films and Plays Turn Dark
Johnny Depp has denied insinuations by internet bloggers that he was impersonating Michael Jackson in playing Willy Wonka (the oddball candyman with whitened face and long black hair in Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”). Depp—who channeled Keith Richards for his role in “Pirates of the Caribbean” and Ozzy Osbourne for his character in “Finding Neverland”–insists he was not inspired by Neverland Ranch’s famous ranchero but by the late children’s show host Fred Rogers.
That’s quite a choice: between the preternaturally innocent Mr. Rogers and the Michael Jackson found innocent of child molestation charges in a Santa Maria courtroom. But that this question should arise at all, and that it should be framed in such stark alternatives, reveals the dark clouds now overshadowing our visions of childhood. Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” does little to dispel them. Indeed, it is just one more contribution in what can be recognized as a general darkening of children’s movies and plays.
Consider the principals behind this film. Its director is Tim Burton, the Edward Gorey of children’s films, the twisted genius behind “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Beettlejuice,” and “Edward Scissorhands.” And the film is based on a book by Roald Dahl, an immensely popular but macabre children’s author who was particularly fascinated with child abductions and scary jeopardy. As Dahl’s daughter once observed about her father: “The stories he told us were rarely cozy or sweet; they always had a spooky edge. He told us about creatures who could only survive on the supple bones of small children and about strange old men who lurked in the undergrowth.”
That Dahl has emerged as our author du jour says something about our current and uneasy obsession about relations between youngsters and grown-ups. “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” was a recent hit on Broadway and based on the film for which Dahl wrote the screenplay. In its central scene, the Primal Scene of Dahl’s oeuvre, the spooky and darkly clad Child Catcher arrives in the child-hating kingdom of Vulgaria to abduct youngsters, luring them to their doom with candy.
In our era of child abductions and Amber alerts, the question that seems to haunt us is: Can adults be trusted? Consider guardians. In the Long Ago, an orphaned Heidi could depend upon her grandfather and live with him in his hut in the Alps without an eyebrow being raised. These days, in the film “Lemony Snicket,” the character Jim Carrey plays is no kindhearted uncle to the Baudelaire children but a ghoul who takes giddy pleasure in harming them.
Or consider Phillip Pullman’s “The Golden Compass,” a recent hit at London’s Royal Theater and and a movie starring Nicole Kidman. Pullman’s story tells of vast adult conspiracy to employ a high-tech guillotine to separate children from their souls.
Gone, in other words, is that sunny era when the public imagination was filled with images of the trusting children like the wide-eyed Jackie Coogan and the curtseying Shirley Temple. Instead, we now live in a darker time when the young must be wary of the Child Catcher and the Candy Man. “Can grown-ups be trusted?” is the question that lingers behind newspaper reports about Neverland Ranch and Amber alerts, behind stories by Tim Burton, Roald Dahl, and Phillip Pullman.
More than fifty years ago, psychologist Erik Erikson wrote that the first belief a growing child must acquire is “Basic Trust.” Nowadays–as films, plays, books, and the news suggest–they first need to acquire Basic Mistrust.
A version of this essay was written for the Los Angeles Times in 2005 but never published. On related topics, see “Who is Disney’s ‘Into the Woods’ For?” and “Tim Burton’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’.” On childhood abductions, see “Burdening Kids with Innocence.”