When children die in films

Special to The Times

“SEABISCUIT,” “21 Grams,” “Mystic River,” “In America,” “House of Sand and Fog,” even “Whale Rider"-- so many of the most praised films last year were big cinematic gambles upon what is surely not a good bet: the deaths of children.

These movies ask their audiences to feel considerable pain without the compensatory excitement of a war movie or a thriller. Their exploration of grief is prolonged, the audiences often emotionally and physically uncomfortable. While watching “21 Grams,” the man next to me writhed most of the way through the movie. But he did stay to the end.

Traditionally, Hollywood treats the deaths of children carefully, preferring, in fact, not to treat them at all. In this, Hollywood emulates William Shakespeare, who after the gang warfare of “Romeo and Juliet” centered his tragic dramas and deaths on adults. Despite his own grief over the death of his young son, Shakespeare set the deaths of children offstage and made it clear that those who order them -- Macbeth, Richard III, Edmund -- are beyond redemption. Only at the end of “King Lear” does Shakespeare deal with a parent’s experience of the unthinkable, and Lear isn’t left to survive and wonder what to do next.

Each of these movies, though, sets out to solve the puzzle that is for most an abyss -- how is a parent (and the rest of the family) to find meaning, the will to continue, and maybe even peace of mind after the death of a child? It is a tall order, and without many precedents, because each of these movies is careful to note that the traditional solace, religion, is more likely to betray than to console.


The least serious of these, and perhaps the most corrupt, is “Seabiscuit,” which changes the circumstances of Charles Howard’s son’s death to motivate his fatherly relationship with Red Pollard, who is portrayed as having been abandoned by his family. Apparently the real story of Pollard’s afflictions and his connection to Seabiscuit wasn’t felt by the moviemakers to be sufficiently interesting so a little gratuitous fiddling was in order. The child is made younger, his death more firmly tied to his father’s actions. The death of this child is meant to be shorthand motivation for what comes next -- Howard is a man stunned by grief so he will do some unaccountable things. This presents Jeff Bridges with a problem as an actor -- he has to communicate his secret grief even as he campaigns his horse around to racetracks all over the country. The result looks like kindhearted zombyism; his son’s death has been reduced to a mere plot point, just another item of sentimentality in a sentimental story that isn’t even the true story it purports to be.

Lest “Seabiscuit” lead us to believe that Hollywood cannot treat the death of a child in any respectable way, there is “Mystic River,” as superbly acted and star-filled as a movie could be. “Mystic River” is so carefully thought through, in fact, that I became increasingly convinced as I watched it that the movie is an allegory about 9/11 and the war in Iraq.

Jimmy, played by Sean Penn, is the apparently respectable owner of a corner store in Boston (Boston’s identity as the cradle of the American Revolution, and therefore the emblematic American city, is much played up at the end of the movie). When his daughter is murdered, Jimmy’s grief is at first overwhelming. The ideal father, he is strong and manly in every sense, but devoted and involved, not remote. As an American of a certain type, though, he has a habit of taking matters of neighborhood discipline into his own hands (from time to time, he puffs out his jowls a la Marlon Brando in “The Godfather”).

He has no patience for Kevin Bacon’s character and his investigation of the murder, what you might call the rule of law, and in the end takes revenge upon the wrong man. The actual murderers are young boys, also from the neighborhood, not unlike terrorists and it turns out that Jimmy, in a previous act of cowboy justice, had found it necessary to kill the father of one of these boys some years before. As if to underline the parallel to recent historical events, Jimmy’s wife tells him in their last scene together that now nothing can stop him -- “You can be the king around here!” she says, stating the doctrine of preemptive war right there on the screen.


Whether Jimmy looks forward to this is a moot point -- his last gesture is to put on his sunglasses. But Sean, the Bacon character, seeing him across the street at the Fourth of July parade, shoots him with his finger, hinting that the legitimate process might take hold later, after the end of the movie, when Sean and his partner have accumulated enough evidence to convict Jimmy of his crimes.

Different paths

The deaths in “21 Grams” are perhaps the most horrifying -- a man and his two daughters are walking in their neighborhood, and another man (Benicio Del Toro) in a huge pickup truck hits them in a crosswalk and flees without attempting to help them. Naomi Watts, as the wife and mother, struggles to survive her loss. The peculiar time structure of the movie, in which scenes are juxtaposed out of sequence, forces the audience to confront the accident repeatedly, each time getting closer and closer to the moment of impact, each time mimicking the mother’s grieving return to the tragic turning point of her existence.

As it happens, Penn, who also co-stars in “21 Grams,” is carrying the husband’s transplanted heart. The implication is that this helps motivate him both to love Watts and to sympathize with her urge for vengeance. But he doesn’t really want revenge -- he only pretends to kill Del Toro. The scheme goes wrong, and he himself ends up shot (this is tricky, and I am not going to reveal the trick), but each participant in this tragedy does find a slender path out of his or her dilemma. Jesus is most assuredly not the answer. In the rough, ugly and secular world of “21 Grams,” religion cannot answer the hardest questions. Biology is the only hope.


It is not clear, at first, what “In America,” the semiautobiographical film written by Jim Sheridan and his daughters, is about. Johnny, an Irish actor who has brought his family to New York, is having a hard time finding work, and the family is having a hard time surviving. That the youngest of the children has died of a brain tumor (loosely based on the death of Sheridan’s younger brother) is openly acknowledged but doesn’t seem to be the point of the story, which is told by the older daughter in voice-over. Johnny is volatile and a bit remote, though well-meaning. The family’s adventures at first don’t add up, but then do -- Johnny’s emotions are blocked because he hasn’t accepted Frankie’s death. Even the survival of a new daughter born very prematurely doesn’t do the trick.

In the end it is a second death, this time of a neighbor that the daughters have warmed up to (and warmed up) that enables the daughters to diagnose their father -- Johnny must say goodbye to Frankie, and this he does in the last scene. “In America” quietly tries out the biological solution, the “Seabiscuit” solution (distraction) and the “Mystic River” solution (anger and resistance) and finds each one wanting. The only salvation is acceptance.

What connects all of these movies? Surely it is the sense that in America, our children are unsafe. During the few days that I was contemplating the deaths of these cinematic children I saw headlines in the newspapers about child sex-slaves, about compensation to parents of 9/11 victims, about a toddler dying in a motel fire. I was even sent a new book about Andrea and Rusty Yates (Andrea drowned her five children three years ago).

We don’t have far to look to know what may be inspiring this spate of big-screen trauma. In three of them, America is a grotesque place, full of abandoned buildings, harsh light and dangers that surround even when they do no harm. These three movies seem to indicate that it is sheer dumb luck that the other children have not died -- their parents are powerless to protect them. The saddest scene in all of these movies is not when the children die, though; it is when the young Dave, Jimmy’s playmate, is taken away to be molested by a man pretending to be a cop and a man pretending to be a priest.


The most famous child to die in American literature is Little Eva in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” When she dies, her father falls into such despair that he too dies (in a brawl), the family is broken up, and Tom, the novel’s eponymous hero, is sold to the satanic Simon Legree. But Tom learns the lesson that Eva is intent on teaching -- the lesson that salvation is sure and awaits every sincere believer. Dying children in 19th century novels often taught such lessons of faith and resignation (which was comforting and intentional, infant mortality being routine in the 19th century).

Dying children in today’s movies do not have lessons to teach. At worst, they provide convenient catalysts for the drama; at best, they symbolize our fear that we are not capable of providing them with beauty or protection. Only the little girls in “In America,” so charming and cute, come close to performing the traditional child’s task of redemption. Maybe that’s why every dad I know loves this movie.

Jane Smiley is the author of many novels, essays and articles. Her newest book, “A Day at the Races,” will be published by Knopf in April.