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. Within a Hollywood system where children were still seen 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). Who was asked to develop a screenplay for 20th Century Fox based on a child committing ‘evil’ acts. McEwan duly agreed to the project. But only on the agreement that his work would explore the psychological realms of childhood crime. Behaviours that were so often labelled under the sweeping concept of ‘evil’.
The result was a screenplay focussing on a 12-year-old boy sent to live with his aunt and uncle following the death of his mother. Slowly discovering that his cousin was involved in acts of harm toward others. While manipulating those around him in a cloak of childhood innocence.
This resulting screenplay was immediately snapped up by the independent producer Many Anne Page. Where it ultimately bounced around the Hollywood studio circuit for several years. Being briefly considered by Universal, only to be dropped due to a lack of appetite in production.
However, by 1991 thrillers were once again finding their cinematic feet. With 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 were emerging following the 1990 sleeper hit Home Alone. Demonstrating the ability of studios to create healthy returns on young actors who appealed to both adults and children in equal measure. This change in public appetite led 20th Century Fox to re-examine the original McEwan screenplay. Finally giving the green light for the project to begin preproduction work.
A changing vision
Initially conceived as a low budget psychological thriller, the production found a Director in Michael Lehmann (Heathers). Who would work alongside the young and up and coming, Jesse Bradford (Presumed Innocent) in portraying the psychologically damaged Henry. However, in discussions to secure Macaulay Culkin for Home Alone 2 – Lost in New York. Fox subsequently agreed to the demands of Kit Culkin (Macaulay’s father and manager) for a two-picture deal. With Kit’s eyes firmly set on The Good Soon as an opportunity to show his son’s diversity in acting.
Therefore, Jesse Bradford was out and Macaulay Culkin was in. A move that delayed the filming of The Good Soon to post Home Alone 2 production. However, this delay also inadvertently ensured that Elijah Wood (Forever Young and Radio Flyer) would also be available in the role of Mark. Leading to a cast list that would bring together the biggest child stars in 90s Hollywood. Not only ensuring box office appeal for Fox but also changing 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. With a range of rewrites agreed that simplified the overarching story. Stripping back the psychological content to a simpler ‘evil’ child premise. Changes that while convenient for studio led McEwan to remove himself from the filmmaking process. Despite ultimately remaining the writer credited on screen. Equally the changes taking place in the direction of the film led Lehmann to step down as director. Replaced immediately with Joseph Ruben (Sleeping with the Enemy). A director who brought a more alined studio focus to the revised screenplay and bankable child stars.
Controversy and release
Released in the US on the 24th September 1993. The Good Son initially performed well, taking $12,520,305 in its opening weekend. However was equally dogged by critical reviews that were often less than perfect.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, UK audiences found the film banned following the horrific murder of James Bulger. With the fierce public debate over the criminal actions of children combining with knee jerk press reaction to violence in films. Ultimately leading to The Good Son vanishing 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 result of 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 into the subject of childhood criminal behaviour. Even subverting the wholesome image of one of the highest-paid childhood stars of the 1990s in the process.
Creating a film that echoed the debate happening in the UK on children who committed horrendous acts of harm on others. While uncomfortably shining a light on the perceived innocence of childhood 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 film. Steps that while not fully achieved began to challenge ideas and concepts of childhood innocence.
Taking this into consideration The Good Son provides an example of the inner debate happening in both Hollywood and wider society. Where the darker side of childhood actions was becoming central to social discussion. The film and its narrative tentatively exploring 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 horrific crimes.
However, there are several scenes were The Good Son does attempt to explore the potential manipulation children can enact on other children. For example, Henry gleefully, yet ‘accidentally’ killing a local dog with a bolt gun. While Mark looks on. Henry carefully wrapping Mark into the disposal of the dog’s body down a well. While ensuring Mark is a part of a secret and dark act of destruction. These are scenes that reflect the complicated psychology of childhood criminality. Including the peer pressure, dominance, and manipulation of children on other children in committing crimes.
At this point, it is also interesting to acknowledge the critical reaction to The Good Son. Reactions that further highlighted the difficulties of subverting a mainstream audience fascinated with the concept of childhood innocence. For example Roger Ebert’s review of 1993 famously pointed out;
“One of the reasons the movie feels so unwholesome is that Macaulay seems too young and innocent to play a character this malevolent”Roger Ebert (Review – The Good Son 1993)
A comment that fails to understand that children who commit horrendous acts don’t have 666 stamped on their forehead. Or in turn, look evil and corrupt.
I am not suggesting that The Good Son is a masterpiece of filmmaking. In fact, despite some solid performances its far from it. But it did attempt to open a door on exploring 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 could have truly challenged the mainstream cinema audience of 1993. In a similar fashion to that of Michael Haneke’s 1992 Austrian-Swiss film Benny’s Video. It does demonstrate a studio system edging towards a darker take on childhood experience.