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Let children’s stories be children’s stories

We need more respect for the childhood imagination

Artillery Row

The director of blood-soaked thrillers Drive and Only God Forgives is making three Famous Five films for the BBC. This is the sort of thing that has to be written down a few times before it seems remotely plausible. Can it be right? Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn has put aside dreams of an Aleister Crowley biopic to indulge his love of Enid Blyton? These days both Crowley and Blyton are controversial figures — if, admittedly, for very different reasons.

Whilst hopes are high for this improbable project, it’s safe to say recent attempts at bringing classic kids books to the screen have not always met with success. Too often, an urge to modernise texts can blind filmmakers to the very reason those books endure.

Winding Refn promises his vision will be a “reimagining” that caters to “progressive” audiences. This is despite a first publicity still suggesting the films — which he is producing, rather than directing — will be set in a lost golden age when children could go on solo cycling holidays without their parents being reported to child services. Certainly, the casting of British-Ghanaian actor Diaana Babnicova as George demonstrates a willingness to reflect a more diverse vision of Britain than Blyton ever offered.

Given the long history of publishers bowdlerising Blyton, though, some Five fans have read Winding Refn’s words as red flags, revealing a hidden “woke” agenda. Where many adaptations have stumbled isn’t clumsy politicking so much, though, as a lack of belief in the stories kids actually like.

There is a curious affliction amongst contemporary filmmakers that causes them to make kids films that aren’t really for kids at all, but for mini-adults. Even the rightly lauded Paddington 2 is, let’s face it, aimed more at parents — and their distant memories of the TV series — than children who are still reading the books.

The drama arises from the eponymous bear overfilling a bath

In a typical instalment of Michael Bond’s Paddington books, the drama arises from the eponymous bear overfilling a bath, putting a red sock in with the whites or attempting to bake a cake. In Paddington 2, our ursine hero is arrested for burglary, sent to prison with hardened criminals and nearly drowns after a traumatic train crash. I took my five-year-old to the premiere, and, like most of her peers there, she was in tears throughout. That said, my peers loved it.

This instinct to take something domestic and relatable and explode it into adult-sized spectacle, where the stakes are not wet feet but a drowned bear, seems to be borne out of a fear that “kids today” are not what they were. They need to be distracted, bombarded and overwhelmed to engage with a text. At heart, it’s a lack of faith in the power of a good yarn.

The most recent Swallows and Amazons film perfectly illustrates this faithlessness. First published in 1930, based on author Arthur Ransome’s childhood, this novel has been a mainstay on bookshelves for the best part of a century, its enduring popularity bolstered by the faithful (and much-repeated) 1974 film adaptation.

This popularity is remarkable, considering Swallows and Amazons is an adventure story wholly lacking in danger. The book’s brand of gentle adventure — four siblings waging a friendly naval war against two tomboy sisters — speaks more powerfully to kids than adults remember.

The new film attempted to compensate for the lack of peril by shoehorning in an unconvincing subplot about Russian spies, allowing for a dramatic chase atop railway carriages. This spectacle only diminished the children’s story, which is more about freedom from adults than being bound up in their issues.

When it comes to children’s fiction, peril and drama are often overrated. In the book (and the 1974 film), the stakes are somehow more vivid for being smaller. The same is true of the heightened emotional complexity — bickering resentments and distrust — that the new adaptation foisted upon the young sailors.

It is easy to see why Ransome’s book might cause a screenwriter to panic. Just as this is an adventure without peril, the emotional narrative is basically non-existent. The chief problem for a dramatist is that our protagonists actually like each other.

What emotional drama there is arrives in response to the challenges of the plot (slight as they may be), and these moments are all the more powerful and relatable for that. John’s buried anger at the injustice of being wrongly accused speaks to any child told off for another’s sins. There is also the jubilation of Titty’s snatched victory after a night alone on the lake.

Some will read this as the tension between traditional British understatement and the American brand of performative emotion that now dominates storytelling. Not all children are ready for a world of adult emotions, though, and neither should they be. Childhood is a time of play, for stories that expand our world whilst keeping us safe.

Blyton’s books understand this — although I would argue they do a better job at depicting the complexities of childhood friendships than the above filmmakers managed. The Famous Five books are pure wish-fulfilment, granting children the freedom to adventure in a world without the sort of things that adults worry about — emotions, politics, homework and housework.

Julian, Dick, George and Anne are appealing because of, not despite, their slenderness. Devoid of deep and troubling emotion, or the trauma you might expect from being regularly locked in a dungeon by smugglers, they are ciphers any child might wish themselves inside.

Despite this simplicity, children’s fiction — and The Famous Five in particular — has been a long-running, if unlikely front in the culture war. Every attempt to update a well-loved text tends to be met with outrage from one side of politics or another. A recent stage adaptation tangled with the idea of labelling tomboy George as trans or non-binary without coming to any firm conclusion. Winding Refn’s position on the character is as yet unknown.

The more complex the tale, the less that can be done with it

Whilst some fans embrace this trans reading, others find the idea of suggesting George isn’t really a girl — because she shrugs off the shackles of gender more easily than cousin Anne — to be regressive, rather than progressive.

As it is, George isn’t a one off. Blyton’s writing, whilst frequently sexist and racist by the standards of her own time as much as ours (she was cancelled by the BBC as early as the 1930s), is packed with gender non-conforming girls such as Bill in Malory Towers and Lotta in Mr Galliano’s Circus. Blyton understood what kids want from stories and why girls, in particular, might be frustrated with their lot.

The persistent popularity of Blyton’s work — a source of frustration to many in the publishing industry — shows that kids still respond to stories that understand them. These stories tell simple adventures within worlds they inhabit. Winding Refn is probably right to house his adaptation in a period setting — something the current Malory Towers TV series has done very successfully — as it will insulate his version from being tied to our particular moment.

Despite the progressive urge to update and revise, much of the appeal of children’s fiction is its timelessness — the fact that kids are, at heart, always kids. This is something understood by recent triumphs Worzel Gummidge and The Dark Is Rising (a BBC podcast), both of which fused the ancient with a recognisably modern world. In both adaptations, our young heroes are pulled away from the enervating noise of modern life towards something eternal, meaningful and pure.

There is a long running parental joke that kids are always more interested in a cardboard box than the expensive toy it contained. The more complex the tale, the less that can be done with it. The more simple the characters, the more profound their impact. How better to explain the countless generations who, despite their guardians’ best efforts, keep falling in love with Blyton’s oeuvre?

As adults, we deaden things by overcomplicating them. Kids need neither outsized spectacle or emotional tempests. Winding Refn has spoken of his lifelong fight to “remain a child with a lust for adventure”. Let’s hope that, in taking on The Famous Five, he remembers the power in small adventures and the joy of escaping adult concerns for more simple, timeless pleasures.

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