By Jeff Norton 06-08-2012
Last month’s inspiring Olympics opening ceremony celebrated the legacy of children’s literature. The spectacular sequence featuring the terrifying villains of kids’ lit shone a spotlight on the darkness and dystopia that underscores great children’s stories: life-threatening peril, nightmare-inducing villains, and young protagonists overcoming real (and sometimes fantastical) hardships.
This darkness permeates both the pioneers of the genre (Peter Pan, Alice, Black Beauty) and today’s literary blockbusters (fantasy Harry Potter, paranormal romance Twilight, and thriller The Hunger Games). It echoes a fundamental truth of adolescence that adults are often reluctant to admit: adolescence is a dystopia.
And yet this darkness is largely absent in the programming landscape of children’s television.
Contrast browsing the ‘middle grade’ (roughly defined as eight-plus) and ‘young adult’ sections of a bookshop – where my new book MetaWars is shelved – with flicking through the channels of children’s programming and you’d be excused for believing that tween readers and viewers inhabit two totally different storytelling worlds. Book readers have a vast spectrum of stories to choose from and are not afraid to dive into dark, dystopian narratives. By contrast, tween television viewers mostly have a bright, sunny selection of smiles, dancing and BFFs to choose from.
Is this chasm created by commerce or culture?
Are television programmers afraid to schedule shows dealing with dark themes? Do country-by-country censorship laws (standards and practices, watershed rules etc) prohibit or discourage darker themes? Or does the relatively low capital cost of publishing books (against producing TV) enable the publishing industry to be bolder and more experimental? If that’s true, will television ever follow literature or will darker themes flourish only in films and games?
We as adults and parents possess an instinct to protect our young from the harshness of the world, but in doing so we forget that they are living through their own darkness and harshness every day we send them to school. Our instinct to protect young readers/viewers from darker themes, plots and characters robs them of honesty in storytelling. And publishing is not immune from this instinct. Recently, the UK’s Guardian newspaper sparked a debate in the publishing industry by asking if today’s children’s literature is too dark and depressing. Battle lines were drawn.
I work at the intersection of the written word and the moving picture. Depending on the day, I wear the hat of writer, author, producer or director. But in my role as author, I have the privilege of visiting schools and talking directly with ‘kids today.’ I can report that the spooks and spectres of our own adolescence – bullying, peer pressure, stirring sexual awareness – still haunt the hallways of middle school but are now instantly connected and amplified through social media. It’s a tough time to be a tween.
Darker stories, where the protagonist’s world is far from perfect, the characters are deeply flawed and the stakes contain real peril (physical and/or emotional) not only offer more fertile ground in creative memorable narrative but also reflect the reality of growing up in a confusing world.
I’m not arguing for depressing, kitchen-sink dramas (Fish Tank High? No, thank you!), but simply asking on behalf of the viewership for an injection of darkness into the bright colourscape that dominates kids’ programming. They crave the darkness, they need it and they’ll find it whether we programme it on children’s television or not.
In my novel MetaWars, I crafted a dystopia from the extrapolation of two current phenomena: tech wars and the financial crisis. The story world of MetaWars is one where governments have collapsed and an über-Google has become the dominant force on the planet. In this post-peak-oil future, whoever controls the web controls the world. But at its heart, it’s a coming-of-age story about growing up in a confusing world. The story is fantastical but the emotional arc is grounded in verisimilitude.
Like The Hunger Games or Harry Potter, I don’t think I could have launched this project as an original television show. It’s too dark. And while we are living through a golden age of television drama for adults, we are at risk of reducing television’s relevance to young viewers because of our aversion to darker themes.
For young people, honesty is a highly valued currency. Patrick Ness (author of A Monster Calls and the Chaos Walking trilogy) argued passionately and articulately in his recent Children’s Media Conference creative keynote that including dark themes in writing for young people builds trust so that they believe you when you write about the light.
The dominant portrayal of shiny, happy tweendom on television is akin to the unattainable magazine covers of the beauty industry. It’s not real, it’s not attainable, and though it may be aspirational, it serves only to distort and confuse the understanding of a young person’s place in the world.
Without thematic diversity, we as an industry are lying to a generation of young viewers, Photoshopping adolescence into something beautiful but utterly unrecognisable.
Many tweens feel alone, isolated, scared and misunderstood by those older than them. They cling to characters like Harry Potter, Bella Swan and Katniss Everdeen because those characters have street cred, signaling something profoundly reassuring: you are not alone. These characters earn that right because they live through relatable experience of growing up in an imperfect world – even if that world includes wizards, vampires, or lethal reality shows.
Who will earn this right in children’s television?
Commercial broadcasters have advertisers to worry about, and major companies may take issue with building their brands amid a dark, dystopian story world. But the risk is worth the reward. The challenge, however, will most likely fall to non-advertising-supported broadcasters. The BBC has the ability to lead the field. I have high hopes for Russell T Davies’ new show Aliens vs Wizards and we should encourage new CBBC controller Cheryl Taylor to build upon the channel’s track record and embrace a range of story themes, from sunny to dark.
Since the darker shade of storytelling freely exists in other media (films, books, games) and in adult programming, tweens will seek out the darkness in shows that are understandably, irresponsible towards younger viewers. On a recent school visit, I met a 10-year-old boy who named his favourite show as The Walking Dead. As a parent, I find this frightening. But as someone who talks to young people, who are both savvy and sophisticated, I know that they will seek out the darkness because it resonates. The truth always does.
If we want children’s television to resonate with the audience, we must stop being afraid of the dark.