"What do they teach children in school these days?" wonders the genial professor in C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Well, the august British Film Institute has some interesting suggestions for which films children ought to be watching. Last summer, the BFI put out a top-ten (and then 50) list that includes a Danish film (Show Me Love, released in some countries as F***ing Amal) featuring experimental lesbian teen sex and an American noir thriller (The Night of the Hunter) about children fleeing a murderous, psychotic preacher. The list does include popular American family films such as (The Wizard of Oz, E.T., and Toy Story, as well as the splendid Japanese animated film Spirited Away, but the dominant themes in the list focus on the evils of the adult world, while the dominant mood is despair.
Top-ten lists, part of the ephemera of our culture, appropriately coincide with our most meaningless holiday, New Year's Day. Something a bit more significant is going on with the BFI list, released earlier this year, after consultation with some 80 experts in film and education and backed by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which monitors the national curriculum.
Given the adult themes and dour tone of these films, some have wondered whether the BFI was not confusing films about kids with films for kids. Alas, not only is that not the case but the BFI actually advises that these are films that children should see by the age of 14. Note well — the BFI offers no minimum age for the viewing of any of the films, just a maximum age by which they should have seen the films. Cary Bazalgette, head of education at the BFI, admits the top ten was " quite a controversial list that's likely to provoke continuing debate." "But that's the idea," she added. "We want people to discuss what children should see - rather than what they shouldn't see."
Well, the debate should likely begin with the question of whether even a majority of these films would be appropriate for pre-teens and whether some of them are the best educational choices even for early teens. Indeed, one might wonder whether the list is not designed to render young viewers disaffected, cynical, and suicidal.
A number of the films, for example, The Bicycle Thief and The 400 Blows, would likely make any list of, say, top 100 international films, but it's not clear these are the best pedagogical films for children. Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief is a gripping, minimalist production, a story of Rome's post-World War II depression as seen through the eyes of a child who is gradually stripped of every illusion about his father and is finally forced to witness his father's public humiliation. An equally bleak film, François Truffaut's first feature film, The 400 Blows, stars Jean-Pierre Léaud as 13-year-old Antoine Doinel, a character upon whom Truffaut based a series of films, a runaway who ends up as a petty thief as he strives to come to terms with the brutal indifference of life on the streets of Paris.
The vast majority of the films, including an Iranian entry Where is the Friend's House?, offer artistically sophisticated versions of what has in recent years become a Hollywood cliché: the arbitrariness of conventional adult power. Except for Night of the Hunter, the American films do not fit so neatly into this mold or at least they are not as bleak. It's not clear, however, that any of the American films would necessarily make a top-ten list of American films for children. For the BFI list, Dead Poets' Society might have been a more apt choice.
Unfortunately, American teaching — where the use of film, often as nothing more than a babysitting mechanism, is increasingly prominent — is hardly immune to this sort of pseudo-sophistication. Although there are many fine high-school English teachers, far too many flatter, rather than challenge, the teen penchant for prurience and mindless, narcissistic rebellion.
The use of film in today's schools makes debates about what ought to be seen, by whom, at what age, significant. And it won't do for cultural critics to lambaste the ideological parochialism of politically correct film lists. We need to put forth positive accounts of which films children ought to be seeing and why. And we need to avoid a saccharine piety that only wants films with tidy, happy endings and no real conflict. As a tentative first shot at films that depict children facing real difficulties and overcoming them — or at least coming to see the possibilities of nobility and courage in the face of life's struggles — how about The Miracle Worker, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Searching for Bobby Fischer? Or, more recently and in a somewhat lighter tone, The Lion King, Holes, and The Incredibles? Moreover, how about age-appropriate classics beginning with Sleeping Beauty and The Sound of Music on up to historical dramas such as Lawrence of Arabia?
One of the strangest omissions from the BFI list is war films. Among others, how about The Longest Day (1962), A Bridge Too Far (1977), or The Battle of Britain (1969)? I'd certainly expect older, film-literate teens, beyond the age of 14, to see Apocalypse Now or Three Kings, but we should balance these with films such as Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan.
We might also want to debate, indeed resist, the eclipse of the written word by the visual image in our schools and homes. Of course, the written word and the moving image, accompanied by sound, are distinct media, embodying divergent artistic excellences. One of our tasks no doubt is to teach students to move between the two and not to judge one by the standards of the other. But it is also significant that, when avid readers compare their beloved books with their cinematic versions, they find the latter wanting. They have the sense that film fails to capture the imaginative richness of the written word, a richness paradoxically founded on what the written word is not compelled to supply for us.
There are signs that certain forces in the media may actually help rather than obstruct the transition between the visual and literary world. The ambitious goal of making literate films, which might in turn create more readers, has been embraced by Walden Media, which has become famous for its current production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe but whose inaugural release was Holes, based on the best-selling book from Louis Sachar.
A final oddity in the BFI list is the relative absence of British films, especially when one considers how many solid British films have been based on superb British dramas and novels, from Shakespeare to Austen and beyond. Perhaps in keeping with the contemporary British tendency toward self-loathing, only one English film, Ken Loach's Kes, made the cut. Americans are now accustomed to, and welcoming of, regular cinematic version of Shakespeare and Austen and have become devotees of film versions of the British authors, J. R. R. Tolkien, Lewis, and J. K. Rowling, the latter of whom is responsible for the most significant development in childhood media culture in the last 30 years — young Americans devouring Russian-length novels. Rowling may not be in the same league with Tolkien or even Lewis, but she comes much closer to appealing to the better angels of the young soul than most of what passes for dramatic excellence in the BFI list.