Themes of Cinema: Cruelty to Children


Six films.

Magnolia. Grave of the Fireflies. The Night of the Hunter. Lolita. ChinatownEmpire of the Sun.

On the surface they are each different. Family dramas. War films. Hard-boiled detective noir. But they each have a core theme that permeates the bones of the film. Cruelty to children.

For some, this is an extension of The Loss of Innocence story. In Grave of the Fireflies, the war (and loss of their mother) forces the children to grow up. To become parent figures to each other. Empire of the Sun runs a similar theme. A child separated from his parents and forced out into a horrific world. In The Night of the Hunter the two children lose their parents and set out across country. In each of these examples the children all find themselves in an adult world. Alone. All adult figures around them are indifferent to them or look down on them.

Magnolia, Lolita and Chinatown focus on a different manner of cruelty. Active cruelty. Predatory cruelty (The Night of the Hunter fits here too). Their cruelty is action rather than the absence of action. In Magnolia a father forces his child to play game-shows for cash prizes. An impersonal environment to raise a child. We see the fate of a similar character, now grown up and the lasting damage. In Lolita we see the perverse hunt of two predatory men on a young girl; a long downward spiral.

It might not be the core theme of the film, but as a theme or a sub-theme it is there.

But why? Why do we enjoy watching cruel things happen to children? Are we supposed to? Film-makers have tapped into a nerve. Watching cruel things happen to children makes our guts turn. It makes us sad. But it makes us interested. It is a conflict. And conflict makes stories.

It would be a mistake to think that the sole purpose of film is entertainment. That is one purpose. Other purposes are to make us think. To help us reflect. To provide perspective. And more. It’s not that we enjoy watching cruel things happen to children. But it resonates with us as humans because we are protective of them. This is why the scene in Under the Skin where Laura leaves the crying baby abandoned at the beach is so powerful in proving how alien she is. Because no human with conscience could do that.

It evokes emotions in us that are stronger.

The Loss of Innocence does not presuppose cruelty. Or even relate to the children. But cruelty to children is a direct relation to it. Watching children endure suffering on a road to destruction. We invest. We hope that these children will grow, become strong and withstand. When they don’t, it hurts us. And we reflect on this. We think about ourselves as a society and how we treat other people. Or, we think about the nature of harming innocence. We see struggle and hardship from a perspective that we might not relate to. And we hope that things might be better. And maybe we become better for thinking this.