Special People Read Books!
Several months ago, I wrote a rather extensive review of The Spiderwick Chronicles, setting forth the hypothesis that adaptations of children’s literature are aesthetically regressive, if comfortable. Quite often I hear the words “mindless entertainment” and speculate for hours upon the fact that the people who use them in defense of a film or TV show could have gotten so far in life without ever being introduced to the concept of an oxymoron. To perceive and enjoy a piece of entertainment, one must possess a mind capable of apprehending narrative action, rudimentary character motivation, and assembling the sensory input generated by the audiovisual elements upon which the individual must focus. Of course, an individual claiming to enjoy something without the aid of his/her mind is, in fact, illustrating something of an oxymoron — a tautological nightmare that could very well destroy the very fabric of space an time in its ramifications.1
What people tend to mean when they say “mindless entertainment” is something akin to junk food — an artifact you consume for the pleasure of consumption, which yields no nutritional value. I have argued that films made for children — or “family films,” as they are often identified — achieve the goal of pacifying a young audience in more ways than one. They may sit still, eat their popcorn, and cease yammering for a few hours, but they are also conditioned to expect less from their entertainment — if not thematically, then aesthetically. The young ones, so recently weaned from the bottle, are taught to be spoon-fed for the rest of their lives.
Inkheart appears to contradict this mode of thinking. The protagonist played by Eliza Bennett (a promising young actor, if constrained a bit by the material) is a strong girl who likes to read, think for herself, and be told the truth rather than comforting lies. Just because her mom happens to have been sent into another dimension by her dad, and evil villains dragged out of it into ours in the same event, doesn’t mean she can’t handle the truth. She and Brendan Fraser (daddy) possess the ability to bring the reality of fiction to into our reality by reading aloud. A wonderful conceit, though ill-considered in the long run; by the end of the film, it’s less a testament to the power of literacy than it is an introduction for impressionable tots to the dangerous device called deus ex machina.
While the film leans heavily on the darker side running under the surface of good children’s literature2, the mind-blowing dimensions of its premise are undercut by an extremely workmanlike aesthetic approach and plot holes that go unaddressed.3 Ultimately, once again, the film itself subverts its ostensibly honest approach to common human themes like loss, breaking away from self-imposed emotional prisons, the complicated relationship between parents and children, and the nature of evil and suffering.
Y’know. “Kid’s stuff.”
The problem is that films like this appeal to my desire for happy endings — they make me happy. They’re rarely earned, and the patently idiotic finale to Inkheart concludes with everybody getting what they want, happy and secure in the embrace of their respective families. I like that, too, in theory. Happy families are not a total myth. I come from one. The insulting part is that the very real difficulties that face even a functional family dynamic are solved in films like this with a ridiculous set of circumstances that — surprise, surprise — are not only implausible on an emotional level, but fall back on an all-American sense of entitlement and “specialness” that virtually nobody I know actually possesses.4 The idea of being born with a gift/curse is a redoubtable mythological conceit; great stories can be told with it. Saddling Fraser’s overprotective pop with the “silvertongue” (as the “reading to life” magic is called) sets the stage for his daughter to prove her worth and pull her family back together.
She does, of course, but not through her own device, cunning, and courage. Her courage and cunning flow from the *spoiler* revelation that she, too, has inherited her father’s ability.5 Except she’s even more powerful, because she can write as well as read! In other words, she’s only worth anything because of her genes. Way to totally buck the patriarchal shadow, Inkheart. Her mom is voiceless but can draw, her dad’s got the silvertongue and binds books (but can’t write apparently), but kiddo can do it all — her words, spoken and written, bring forth the images of her imagination, literally rewriting the lives and destinies around her. Great. She’ll get an ‘A’ in speech class. But what about the kids who can’t conjure whirlwinds from the pages of The Wizard of Oz or turn Andy Serkis into a papier-mȃché model of himself? If their moms really did abandon them, if their great-aunts hold open contempt for their body shape, if their dads really are shitless cowards, what then? Retreating into a book is a fine escape, but books always end. Books can be put down or torn from clutching little fingers. Everyone is unique, but almost nobody is special in the mythological sense of the word. Babies aren’t born with lightning-shaped scars on their foreheads, and little girls with large wardrobes aren’t predestined to be princesses.
The wonderful gifts of a loving family (whatever shape it may take) or a good book are soldered to the pandering superiority complex either created or fostered by so much mainstream entertainment. The lackluster presentation deadens the senses and the messages instill a false confidence based on misguided dreams and the idea that happiness is owed to you by your heritage, by society, by whatever most aptly fill in your particular blank. On one level, it certainly is what it’s designed to be: passable, typical, “mindless entertainment.” It only succeeds in being mindless because it rots the brain and warps the soul. Such is the effect of mediocrity. I guess it’s fine to be content with life’s simple pleasures, as long as those simple pleasures make you better than everyone else.
Edited by Daniel Davis.
- Or, conceivably, cause you to poop a little bit when the shock of this realization causes you to fart involuntarily. ↩
- Jim Broadbent’s portrayal of the titular novel, the reading of which propelled the plot into motion, is a perfect balance of childlike wonder and creepy narcissism. While he presents the facade of an endearingly cranky demeanor (oh, those eccentric old folks, hyuk hyuk hyuk!), his chilling obliviousness to the pain of our protagonists, and his emergent, frightful god complex once he meets his own characters make him oily and complex. A real snake in the grass. ↩
- Possibly because, like Marvel President Joe Quesada, it was felt that magic needs no explanation. The very least they could have done was acknowledge the inexplicable continuity problems. But they assume kids, as well as their parents, are too stupid to notice. ↩
- The recent action film Wanted suffers from the same thing. Esteemed Playtime colleague, Dan Swensen, cut to the heart of it in this forum post and his article, “Angels With Dirty Faces.” ↩
- This isn’t much of a spoiler if you’ve ever seen any fantasy movies. Ever. ↩
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