Tuesday, 23 February 2010

I'm not scared

When I saw Chris Riddell and Paul Stewart the other day, I was telling them both about a few DVDs I had watched recently. The common theme was that they were movies with a child (or children) as the protagonist(s) without actually being made with children in mind as viewers.

You can probably think of many, many movies and books where this pattern is followed - it is actually a very common device. After all, there is a strong autobiographical aspect to literature (and therefore to the films made from books) and childhood is such a vivid experience to draw on for all kinds of reasons. But I thought that over the next couple of days I'd look at some I have watched recently.

Such movies (and books) interest me because I think there is often a marked difference in the way a movie is made depending on its audience. I don't simply mean that there is less violence or sexual scenes or swearing or whatever - I more mean that there seems to be a difference in the approach. Sometimes this is because there is perhaps a greater allowance for ambiguity in a work intended for adults, but often it is simply a question of what is considered believable or realistic.

Recently I watched two DVDs with a very similar theme. They both are both adaptations of novels, set in the past and dealing with a boy who does not fully comprehend the level of danger and threat to another boy with whom he forms a bond. In both stories, the fates of the boys become intertwined with shocking results. In both books, the world of adults is seen as full of duplicity and violence.

My wife had read Niccolo Ammaniti's novel I'm Not Scared and bought me the DVD of Gabriele Salvatores' movie for Christmas. I had not read the story and had not noticed the movie at all for some reason. It was great to watch something where I had no prior expectations. I can't recommend the novel (though my wife does) but I can certainly recommend the movie.

It is set in the late seventies in the heel of Italy during that crazy time in Italian history when there seemed to be a kidnapping every five minutes. It is beautifully shot and acted and quite apart from the riveting plot, it just seems very honest and true about childhood itself. It seems to grow naturally from the experience of being a child - from that world of game-playing and secrets.

I should say straight away that I have not read John Boyne's bestselling novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. I have only dipped into it. My son read it for school and so I bought the DVD of Mark Herman's movie for him. But as truthful as I'm Not Scared seemed to me, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas seemed unbelievable on so many levels.

My son said straight away that it seemed implausible that an eight year-old (with a high-ranking military father) would not know who Hitler was. At eight? In fact I think I'm right in saying he is nine in the book. Would any nine year-old in Germany not know who Hitler was? Would he really not know whether he was a Jew or not? The ignorance of the boy in I'm Not Scared seems believable and true, whereas the ignorance in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas seems only to be there to facilitate the 'twist' at the end.

I have many problems with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and I'm far from being the only one. But apart from issues with the plot, the way the movie was directed was so oddly flat.

Childhood is evoked brilliantly in I'm Not Scared, with wonderful shots of running through wheat fields and cycling down dusty tracks. The camera is right among the children and - for me certainly - it felt like an impossible memory (given that I am sure that I did not grow up in the south of Italy). But I did grow up in those mobile phone-free days when a bicycle was the only thing you needed for a great adventure.

I'm making I'm Not Scared sound nostalgic, but it certainly isn't. It is also sharp and dark. It just feels real. The children seemed like I was at that age - and like children I know now. Friendship is often the concern of children's books, but this story picked up on the fact that children often form little groups and gangs without necessarily liking each other at all. Circumstances bring them together - geography, school, parental friendships or whatever and they form loose, wary, often edgy groupings that get more edgy as the children concerned get older.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and I'm Not Scared are both about the loss of innocence, but strangely, given that it is intended for children, the loss of innocence in the former is connected with the boy's mother, not the boy himself. She comes to understand exactly what kind of man her husband is. But the boy remains innocent of the true nature of the camp and is in no position to learn from the experience.

And even the 'innocence' that is lost seems open to question here. Could you really live next door to an extermination camp and be oblivious?


  1. I loved both the book and the film of I am not Scared! It was our set book in my Italian class one year but I haven't read the English translation - maybe the problem was with that? I haven't liked anything else I've read of Amamaniti but I absolutely agree that the childhood shown was authentic.

    Such a relief to agree with you about a book/film, Chris!

    I simply cannot bring myself to read or see The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. The outline of the plot just repels me. And I can't bear that children are being offered this version of events.(Couldn't see Benigni's Beautiful Life either).

    If you've read Primo Levi, this stuff just seems crass and dishonest, if not cynical.

  2. I couldn't agree more Mary. The movie left me with a rather guilty feeling and an urge to re-read Levi.

    And I am SO impressed (and jealous) that you can read in Italian.

  3. I've not seen it either - cowardly reasons in the first instance and then when it was launched with 'wear you own pyjamas' to the cinema......

  4. Really??? Hadn't spotted that Kathryn. That is shocking.

  5. Have you seen The Devil's Backbone? If not I hugely recommend it.

  6. Chris, it's my only skill! Can't even ride a bike.

    Kathryn - unbelievable! Pyjama parties for the Shoah. What next?

  7. I haven't Brian. It does look good. Thanks for the recommendation. I really liked Pan's Labyrinth. If 'like' is the right word.

    And Mary - I've just realised that you thought when I said I couldn't recommend the book of I'm Not Scared it was because I didn't like it. It was only because I haven't read it.