The Good Son – Hollywood’s tentative steps into the darker side of childhood

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.

The Good Son began its cinematic journey with novelist Ian McEwan (The Cement Garden) being asked to develop a screenplay for 20th Century Fox based on a child committing ‘evil’ acts. McEwan agreed to the project, but only with 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 is involved in acts of harm toward others, manipulating those around him in cloak of childhood innocence.

The Good Son – Macaulay Culkin (1993) 20th Century Fox

Immediately snapped up by the independent producer Many Anne Page. McEwan’s screenplay bounced around the Hollywood studio circuit for several years. 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 large box office returns on child actors who appealed to 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.

The Good Son – Macaulay Culkin and Elijah Wood (1993) 20th Century Fox

Initially conceived as a low budget psychological thriller, the production found a Director in Michael Lehmann (Heathers). Alongside a young up and coming lead, Jesse Bradford (Presumed Innocent) as the psychologically damaged Henry. However, in discussions to secure Macaulay Culkin for 1992s 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. Kit’s eyes firmly on The Good Soon as an opportunity to show his son’s diversity in acting, after a run of family films.

Jesse Bradford was out and Macaulay Culkin was in, delaying the filming of The Good Soon to post Home Alone 2 scheduling. The delay inadvertently ensuring that Elijah Wood (Forever Young and Radio Flyer) was also available as a bankable young star in the role of Mark. Casting choices that brought together two of the biggest child stars of 1990s Hollywood. Ensuring box office appeal for Fox, but also changing the course of the film and its subject matter.

The Good Son – Macaulay Culkin and Elijah Wood on set (1993) 20th Century Fox

As preproduction ramped up and The Good Son morphed from small film to potential cash cow, McEwan’s screenplay came under scrutiny. Rewrites were agreed that simplified the overarching story. Stripping back the psychological content to a simpler ‘evil’ child premise. Providing a more palatable good vs bad journey for mainstream audiences. These changes led McEwan to remove himself from the filmmaking process, despite remaining the writer credited on screen. In addition Lehmann stepped down as Director, replaced by Jospeh Ruben (Sleeping with the Enemy) who brought a more studio focus to the revised screenplay and bankable child stars.

Released in the US in September 1993, The Good Son’s troubles were far from over. Across the Atlantic, UK audiences found the film banned following the horrific murder of James Bulger in 1992 and subsequent trial. With fierce public debate over the criminal actions of children, and knee jerk press reactions blaming films. The Good Son would be finally be released in the UK in 1994 with cuts, only to be fully released in its uncut format on DVD in 2002.

The result of the dramatic changes to The Good Son in script and vision are clear to see in the final product. Creating a film that never quite knows how to view its topic of childhood murder, animal harm and manipulation. However, The Good Son 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.

This is a film that echoed the debate happening in the UK on children who committed horrendous acts of harm on others. 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.

The Good Son – Macaulay Culkin and Elijah Wood (1993) 20th Century Fox

The Good Son is an example of the inner debate Hollywood and wider society were beginning to have on the darker side of childhood. Tentatively exploring childhood criminal psychology while also fearing the potential audience reaction. Opting to pursue the concept of ‘evil’ over the reality that even children can commit horrific crimes and manipulate the world around them.

There are several scenes were The Good Son does attempt to explore the potential manipulation children can enact on other children. Henry gleefully, yet ‘accidentally’ killing a local dog with a bolt gun, while Mark looks on. Carefully wrapping Mark into the disposal of the dogs body down a well. Ensuring Mark is a part of a secret and dark act of destruction. While in discussions as they float around the town Henry uses Marks grieving, exploiting his vulnerability while enabling him to express his feelings. These are scene’s that reflect the complicated psychology of childhood criminality. Including the peer pressure, dominance and manipulation of children on other children in committing crimes. However, ultimately The Good Son chooses to embrace the concept of inbuilt evil as an answer. Never quite allowing the true darkness of the subject matter to take hold.

The critical reaction to The Good Son further highlighted the difficulties of subverting a mainstream audience fascination, with the innocence and joy of childhood. Many critics using its two Hollywood child stars to point to the film failings. Roger Ebert’s review of 1993 famously pointing 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 look like Damien from the Omen.

The Good Son – Macaulay Culkin and Wendy Crewson (1993) 20th Century Fox

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 the door on exploring the darker side of childhood in mainstream film. Even if Hollywood deemed society not to be ready for it. We will never know whether McEwan’s original screenplay could have made The Good Son a film that truly challenged the mainstream cinema audience of 1993. Similar to that of Michael Haneke’s 1992 independent Austrian-Swiss film Benny’s Video. However, The Good Son does demonstrate a studio system edging towards a darker take on childhood experience. While also fearing the reaction of society where the subvertion of childhood innocence can only explained evil. A debate that continues to be reflected in modern cinema and its depiction of child led crimes.

More to read…

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