Released in 1993, The Good Son had a turbulent journey to cinema screens. Beset with re-writes, production changes, and Hollywood politics in casting. However, despite its tumultuous journey, The Good Son remains a fascinating insight into child criminality on screen. A mainstream film that tentatively dared to imagine that children can and do hurt others. The Hollywood system, still embedded in the narrative of children as mischievous, light-hearted, and fun.
McEwan and Hollywood
The Good Son began its cinematic journey within the imagination of novelist Ian McEwan (The Cement Garden). On approach from 20th Century Fox, McEwan agreed to develop a screenplay based on a child committing an ‘evil’ act. However, this came with the agreement that his work would explore the psychology of childhood crime instead of horror. His intent was to portray the behaviours that were so often labelled under the sweeping concept of ‘evil’. The resulting screenplay focused on a 12-year-old boy sent to live with his aunt and uncle following his mother’s death. However, just as the boy settles into his new home, he uncovers harmful and dangerous behaviours in his cousin—the boy manipulating those around him in a cloak of childhood innocence.
However, 20th Century Fox decided to reject the project, and McEwan’s screenplay was instead snapped up by the independent producer Many Anne Page. In her hands, it bounced around the Hollywood studio circuit for several years, never finding a backer. With Universal and others rejecting the subject matter due to a lack of appetite in production.
However, by 1991 thrillers and horrors were once again finding their cinematic feet. Cape Fear, Silence of the Lambs, and Sleeping with the Enemy all bringing in healthy box office returns. In addition to this, a new generation of child actors was emerging following the 1990 sleeper hit Home Alone. These changes demonstrated the ability of studios to create healthy returns on young actors and highlighted the power of thriller and horror in audience pull. A change that ultimately led 20th Century Fox to re-examine McEwan’s screenplay-the green light for preproduction work, provided in 1992.
A changing vision
Initially conceived as a low budget psychological thriller, the production found a Director in Michael Lehmann (Heathers). His first act was to bring in Jesse Bradford (Presumed Innocent) to portray the psychologically damaged Henry. Meanwhile, elsewhere in 20th Century Fox, Kit Culkin was in discussions to secure his son Macaulay for Home Alone 2 – Lost in New York. However, Kit’s demands included a more adult dramatic role for Mac, which would stretch his cinematic feet. Eager to secure Mac for the box office hit of Home Alone 2, Fox subsequently agreed to a two-picture deal. Kit’s eyes firmly set on The Good Son.
This board room haggle saw the removal of Jesse Bradford and the arrival of Macaulay Culkin. A move that would delay the filming of The Good Son to post Home Alone 2. However, this delay also inadvertently ensured that Elijah Wood (Forever Young and Radio Flyer) became available for the role of Mark. The new cast list, bringing together two of the biggest child stars in 90s Hollywood. For Fox, this not only ensured a box office take but changed the course of the film and its subject matter.
As preproduction ramped up, The Good Son morphed from small film to potential cash cow. Resulting in ever closer scrutiny of McEwan’s screenplay. A series of rewrites agreed that simplified the overarching story, stripping back the psychology to a simpler ‘evil’ child premise. Changes that, while convenient for the studio, led McEwan to walk away. Equally, the changes taking place in the film’s direction led Lehmann to step down as director, replaced by Joseph Ruben (Sleeping with the Enemy). The new director, allowing for a more aligned studio focus.
Controversy and release
Released in the US on the 24th of September 1993. The Good Son initially performed well, taking $12,520,305 in its opening weekend. However, the release was equally dogged by poor critical reviews. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, UK audiences found the film banned following the horrific murder of James Bulger. The fierce public debate over children’s criminal actions combined with a knee jerk press reaction to cinema violence. This public debate would ultimately ensure The Good Son vanished from the UK until an edited home video release in 1994. The full version only seeing the light of day on DVD in 2002.
While performing well on release, the dramatic changes made to The Good Son in script and vision are clear to see. Ultimately creating a film that never quite knows how to view its themes of childhood murder, animal harm, and manipulation. However, The Good Son also remains a brave step forward in the exploration of childhood crime. Even subverting the wholesome image of one of the highest-paid childhood stars of the 1990s in the process.
The final film echoing the debate happening in the UK on horrendous acts of harm committed by children. While also uncomfortably shining a light on childhood’s perceived innocence versus the horror of a child’s ability to harm. Unlike previous Hollywood films such as The Omen or Village of the Damned. The Good Son took small steps in creating a new perspective on childhood psychology in mainstream cinema. Actions that, while not fully achieved, began to challenge the cinematic concept of childhood innocence.
The Good Son provides us with a fascinating example of the 1990s changing view of adolescence and childhood. Debates about the darker side of childhood actions beginning to come to the fore. The final film tentatively attempts to explore childhood criminal psychology while also fearing the potential audience reaction. Opting instead to pursue an acceptable and tested concept of evil over the more horrific reality that even children can and do commit appalling crimes.
However, there are several scenes where The Good Son attempts to explore the potential manipulation children can enact on others. For example, Henry gleefully, killing a local dog with a bolt gun while Mark looks on. Here, Henry carefully wraps Mark into the disposal of the dog’s body down a well. Ensuring Mark is a part of his secret and dark act of destruction. These scenes reflect the complicated psychology of childhood criminality, including peer pressure, dominance, and manipulation. But while directorial bravery sits at the heart of such scenes, The Good Son ultimately stops short of exploring Henry psyche.
This may be due to the feared critique of the time. Fears highlighted by Roger Ebert’s 1993 review where he stated, “One of the reasons the movie feels so unwholesome is that Macaulay seems too young and innocent to play a character this malevolent.“ While I hold every respect for Ebert, his comment fails to understand that children who commit horrendous acts don’t have 666 stamped on their foreheads. Or, in turn, look evil and corrupt. While at the same time demonstrating the narrow path The Good Son had to walk in production. Especially in casting Mac and Elijah in the main roles.
The Good Son is no masterpiece of filmmaking. In fact, despite some solid performances, it’s far from it. But it attempted to open the door to the darker side of childhood in mainstream film, even if the Hollywood studio system feared whether society was ready for it. And while we will never know whether McEwan’s original screenplay would have truly challenged the mainstream cinema audience of 1993, in a similar vein to Michael Haneke’s 1992 Benny’s Video. The Good Son does demonstrate a studio system edging towards a darker take on childhood experience. Both Mac and Elijah, leaving the door ajar for the far more accomplished Mean Creek and Eden Lake in the early 00s.