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 Hollywood’s early steps in reflecting childhood criminality on screen. After all, this was a mainstream studio film that would tentatively dare to imagine that children can and do hurt others in a system where children were generally portrayed as mischievous, light-hearted, and fun.
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, ensuring his screenplay transcended the religious themes of The Omen. McEwan intended to portray the behaviours that were so often labelled as evil within a more detailed exploration of childhood psychology with the resulting screenplay focusing on a 12-year-old boy sent to live with his aunt and uncle following his mother’s death. However, as the boy settled into his new home, he would uncover his cousin’s harmful and dangerous behaviour as he manipulated those around him under a cloak of childhood innocence.
The Good Son (1993) 20th Century Fox
However, 20th Century Fox would decide to reject the project, with McEwan’s screenplay quickly snapped up by the independent producer Many Anne Page. In her hands, the script would bounce around the Hollywood circuit for several years, never finding a backer as Universal and others rejected the subject matter due to a perceived lack of public appetite.
But by 1991, thrillers and horrors were once again finding large cinema audiences with Cape Fear, Silence of the Lambs, and Sleeping with the Enemy, all providing healthy box office returns. Added to this, a new generation of child actors were beginning to emerge following the 1990 sleeper hit Home Alone. These changes would herald a new era where studios created healthy returns off the backs of young actors, leading 20th Century Fox to re-examine and green-light McEwan’s screenplay.
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Initially conceived as a low budget psychological thriller, The Good Son would be placed in the hands of director Michael Lehmann (Heathers). Here Lehmann’s first act was to bring in Jesse Bradford (Presumed Innocent) to play the psychologically damaged Henry. However, elsewhere in 20th Century Fox, Kit Culkin was in discussions to secure his son Macaulay for Home Alone 2 – Lost in New York. Kit’s demands in the lengthy contract negotiations included a dramatic role for Mac. Eager to secure Mac for the box office return of Kevin, Fox subsequently agreed to a two-picture deal including The Good Son, something that remained unknown to Lehmann during casting.
This agreement would see Jesse Bradford removed before filming began and the film delayed to a post Home Alone 2 date. This delay would also inadvertently ensure that Elijah Wood (Forever Young and Radio Flyer) became available for the role of Mark, with Fox sculpting a movie that would bring together two of the 90s biggest child stars. But this studio decision would also change the course of the film and its subject matter.
The Good Son (1993) 20th Century Fox
As preproduction ramped up, The Good Son would slowly morph from a small psychological horror into a potential cash cow, with McEwan’s screenplay subject to a series of rewrites. Here the psychology of McEwan’s script would be replaced by a more straightforward ‘evil’ child premise. While convenient for the studio, these changes would lead McEwan to walk away from the project alongside Lehmann. Instead, Fox would bring in Joseph Ruben (Sleeping with the Enemy), allowing for a more aligned studio focus.
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 reviews. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, UK audiences found the film banned following the horrific murder of James Bulger. The fierce public debate over child murder combined with a knee jerk press reaction that sought to blame movie violence. This public debate would ensure The Good Son vanished from the UK until an edited home video release in 1994. with the full version only seeing the light of day on DVD in 2002.
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While performing well on release, the dramatic changes made to The Good Son were clear to see in a final film that never quite knew how to handle its more complex themes of childhood murder, animal harm, and manipulation. However, despite its weaknesses, The Good Son remains a brave step forward in exploring childhood crime. After all, this was a movie unafraid to subvert the wholesome image of one of Hollywood’s highest-paid child stars.
Unlike previous Hollywood films such as The Omen or Village of the Damned, The Good Son would take small steps in reflecting childhood criminal psychology in mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, challenging the Hollywood obsession with childhood innocence. Here The Good Son would bravely accept the reality that children can and do commit appalling crimes. For example, we have scenes where Henry gleefully kills a local dog with a bolt gun while Mark looks on. While at the same time, Henry carefully wraps Mark into the disposal of the dog’s body, ensuring the boy becomes a part of his secret world. These scenes reflect the complicated psychology of childhood criminality, from peer pressure to dominance and manipulation. But while there is bravery at the heart of these scenes, The Good Son also stops short of exploring Henry’s psyche.
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The reason for this lack of psychological detail is clear from the reviews. For example, Roger Ebert 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. This critical response demonstrates the narrow path The Good Son had to walk in production as it attempted to open the door to the darker side of childhood in mainstream film.
We will never know whether McEwan’s original screenplay would have genuinely challenged the mainstream cinema audience of 1993, in a similar way to Michael Haneke’s Benny’s Video. But The Good Son, for all its flaws, does demonstrate the beginning of a Hollywood willingness to explore childhood’s darker realms.