With the huge success of films like Shrek 2, Finding Nemo and Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone, children's films are once more back in the critical spotlight. As a new film of The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe goes into production in New Zealand, Radio 4 offers a timely look at the impact children's films have on the viewing public in a new two part series The Magic Lantern, presented by poet, author, broadcaster and Radio 4 regular Michael Rosen.
From the 1930s to the modern-day Rosen, with the help of cultural historians Annette Kuhn and Jeffrey Richards and authors Philip Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson, explores just what it is about children's films that captures the public imagination. Rosen is a well loved and much respected creator of children's literature himself, but what made him think of doing a whole series about children's film? The real trigger, he reveals "was the memory of the magic sitting up in the balcony of the Langham Cinema, Pinner, when I was a kid.My mother would give me one shilling and threepence for the ticket and sixpence to buy a tub of ice cream."
But its more ideas than ice-cream that The Magic Lantern explores. From the difference between a children's film and "family entertainment" to how the shared experience of cinema-going is different from watching a video on the sofa at home, this is a series that is as intellectual as it is entertaining.
There's a long running academic argument that film has changed the way in which literature is written. As a writer himself, Rosen is well placed to enter the fray. "Over the years I've got more and more interested in.a more visual approach. I think that's come about as a result of film and TV' he says. "What film and TV has done, I think, is accelerate the action. Writers want to start scenes in the middle of the action rather than spend time setting things up."
The tight knit relationship between the silver screen and children's literature is long established too but in recent years, as adult sales of children's books have pushed bookshop takings through the roof, a plethora of film adaptations of popular books have elbowed their way into production. Rosen has a theory about this: " I think there was a slight nervousness about whether you would get an audience to see something completely new. If you adapted a classic there was a good chance that people would want to see it because they thought that they 'knew' it already."
There's also a confidence, Rosen suggests, in teenagers and younger adults where they are no longer afraid in showing their like for things associated with their childhood . " I saw a group of teenage girls late one night on Euston station walking along arm in arm singing the theme song from the Wizard of Oz movie" he says to illustrate his point. "All this means that with the right kind of books and films, young people aren't afraid to be entertained by something at the same time as ten year olds."
But what has the strongest influence on these teenagers and young adults - literature or film? Rosen hesitates for a moment. " I'm not sure there's a stronger or lesser. I think that both work in different ways," he says. "People easily forget that in order to watch movies, we learn, when we're very young, how to 'read' the meaning of close-ups, pans, zooms, cuts, flashbacks, facial expressions, cinematic symbolism and the like. It's just as hard to do that as it is to learn how to read, but we learn it from family and friends and hundreds of hours of viewing, whereas reading books is taught. People then think that because words aren't pictures that somehow it's more imaginative to read than it is to watch a film. I don't think so."
There seems to be a current trend both in children's literature and, inevitably, in film towards portraying the darker elements of life with a noticeably more 'adult' tone to art aimed at children. Rosen agrees. "I think it's also a sense that 1) not all children's lives are hunky-dory and 2) not all the world's problems are being solved. In a context like this, I think more and more writers, TV scriptwriters and film-makers find themselves, sometimes without knowing why, representing bad people, evil acts, difficult and tricky moments." M aybe as a knock-on effect of this, the fantasy genre also seems to be making a big comeback on screen. "It's not quite my cup of tea," reveals Rosen, "but I can easily acknowledge its power and the fascination it has for people. I like my fantasy coming up in an ironic way, a la Terry Pratchett. Sometimes, the way movements in art genres work, is that if people get to feel that one furrow is over-ploughed, they like the sheer surprise of something different." He pauses for a moment , "Think of the decline and fall of the Western. My guess is that the great volume of fantasy books and films will shade off in about three or four years time," he says.
But what about girls and boys films? The Lord of The Rings film trilogy seemed to have a bigger following amongst boys than girls. Why was that? "I think a film that concentrates very closely on the concerns of girls and the act of growing into a woman, will inevitably be more interesting to girls" Rosen says. "The all-action, all male film will inevitably attract boys more, but you'll find that girls get sucked into the hype even though their immediate interests aren't being catered for."
Looking at such a long period of time in children's films, from the 1930s to today, Rosen and his fellow contributors must have noticed some major changes over the years. He thinks for a moment. "I think film-makers want to grapple with the relationships within families in quite a serious and contemplative way. That's what ET did, it's what Finding Nemo does." He also argues that irony is more overtly present in modern films like Shrek and Toy Story - which he later reveals is one of his favourite children's films along with classics, The Kidnappers and Hue and Cry. The latter two, Rosen says "were films that grabbed me for approaching two areas of my life I cared about a lot. My relationship with my brother (as with the Kidnappers) and my relationship with the gang (with Hue and Cry). I think Bug's Life is a brilliant political parable, along the lines of something like Animal Farm and very moving too."
As for Rosen's worst children's films, he's not a fan of Caspar or Danny Champion of the World . Most surprising though is his admittance that, as a child, he "hated the Wizard of Oz because it turned Dorothy into this weird adolescent when I knew her as a feisty little Kansas kid."
Some literary adaptations for the big screen are indeed somewhat disastrous. The film version of Pullman 's Dark Materials Trilogy seems beset by problems with Stoppard being mysteriously pulled from the project, the director ducking out and, worst of all, cutting out the pivotal role that religion plays in the narrative. What are Rosen's thought on the controversy surrounding it? "They are very difficult books to film because there is a basic plot which is easily filmable, but the key problem is representing the atheistic philosophy that underpins the books. I would imagine that there is a lot of nervousness about this in the upper echelons of the film biz," he says democratically.
But what film would Rosen most like to see adapted for the big screen? He thinks. "To be absolutely honest, my book, 'You're Thinking About Doughnuts'!!! But otherwise I thought Robert Swindells Daz 4 Zoe would have made a great movie."
One area that isn't covered in the series is children's television. With huge DVD sales of The Box of Delights, The Railway Children, Trumpton and Bagpuss, can we look forward to a similar series exploring the delights of television classics? "Why not" says Rosen, "why not?"
The Magic Lantern is on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday 12th and 19th March at 3.30pm.