We never forget the stories which shape us in childhood. The characters and fantasy worlds we encounter at an early age, when our sense of self is still being formed and our imaginations are at their most vivid, stay with us for a lifetime. Many of us came of age alongside our fictional heroes, immersed in their adventures on the page and on the big screen.
The phenomenal success of the Harry Potter series in the noughties revitalised the genre, reminding us of the power and resonance that so-called children’s stories can have. The decade’s three Narnia adaptations were arguably less successful, opting for a rather wooden take on CS Lewis’s magical allegories, and – crucially – failing to find the huge audience their budget demanded. The series stalled after The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010), though a belated version of The Silver Chair, with an all-new cast and creative team, is now in the works.
Both of these franchises are notable for their underpinning Christian symbolism. Even in a post-Christian culture, the stories which speak to audiences of all ages most profoundly are those which echo deeper spiritual themes.
‘What if we are here for a reason? What if we are part of something truly divine?’ - A Wrinkle in Time
The beloved work of writer Madeleine L’Engle gets the blockbuster treatment in Spring 2018 with the release of A Wrinkle in Time. L’Engle isn’t as widely known in the UK, but in the US she is often revered alongside CS Lewis as a creator of classic Christian fiction. When A Wrinkle in Time was first published in 1962, however, fundamentalist groups tried to ban it, alarmed by its veneer of strangeness and mysticism. ‘They said it wasn’t a Christian book,’ L’Engle recalled in a later interview. ‘I said, “Quite right.” I wasn’t trying to write a Christian book. But, of course, it is.’
The newest film stars Storm Reid as Meg Murry, a young misfit whose scientist father (Chris Pine) has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Accompanied by her brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and classmate Calvin (Levi Miller), guided by supernatural forces, Meg must set out to defeat an evil which threatens the whole universe.
The story is about one girl’s coming-of-age – but it also touches on the idea of transcendence, and of our place in the greater scheme of things.
‘You're getting older, and you'll see that life isn't like your fairy tales. The world is a cruel place.’ - Pan’s Labyrinth
Some of the greatest films about childhood are not really children’s films at all. The unsuspecting parents who took their little ones to see Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) were in for a nasty shock – the film has the trimmings of a fairytale, and its heroine Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is only eleven: but it’s a dark, disturbing and sometimes violent tale. Set in post-Civil War Spain, the story is about confronting the evils of the adult world with courage, love and self-sacrifice.
Similarly, last year’s A Monster Calls used elements of fantasy and fable to explore a child’s journey through loss and grief. It’s easy for adults to forget how frightening childhood and adolescence can be, especially if we’re forced to prematurely confront the hardest aspects of life. In fantastical fiction, the monsters of our trauma and fear are brought out into daylight. ‘Stories are how we make sense of an inexplicable reality,’ says Patrick Ness, author of book on which A Monster Calls is based. ‘We have to tell stories about it or we couldn’t live in it.’
‘All of us are in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.’ - Wonderstruck
Stories help bring order to the otherwise overwhelming experience of growing up and finding our place in the world. This idea is perfectly embodied by another new film, Wonderstruck, adapted from a book by Hugo author Brian Selznick. Two parallel narratives follow two deaf children – one in the 1920s, one in the 1970s – whose sense of isolation is healed as they discover hidden connections.
Wonderstruck’s story is structured like a puzzle-box, so stuffed with coincidences that it seems more fitting to call them miracles. There seems to be not only an underlying order, but an underlying benevolence in the film’s universe: something that all of us, young and old alike, long to be true of our own.
Film Club: Questions to ask
● What were your favourite stories as a child, and why? What aspects of these stories have particularly stayed with you?
● How can fable and fantasy help us to deal with the difficult aspects of life? How might fantasy help us grasp spiritual realities?
● How do stories reveal our longing to live in a world of order and meaning? How might the Christian story help to meet this longing?
This article comes from Damaris Media, who create free film resources for churches and community groups. Download exclusive videos, discussion guides and more at damarismedia.com. If you want to get in touch and let us know how you’re using our resources, or to tell us what kind of resources would be helpful to you, email firstname.lastname@example.org.