Christmas 1984

I don’t watch a lot of movies. The last one I saw was a month ago on YouTube: the 1954 version of 1984 with Edmond O’Brien as Winston Smith. It had a more tasteful treatment of Smith’s rat phobia than the version with John Hurt (1984), which I believe has more to do with audience sensibilities back then than cinematic technique. If they made a contemporary version of Orwell’s book, we could contrast the depiction of Smith’s phobia in 1954, 1984, and today. I’m sure a current remake would be more graphic and violent. That’s just where we are as a society, which is ironic given that in 1954 the world was still recovering from the most devastating war in history and today we live in relative peace.

This brings me, oddly enough, to my grandchildren, who do watch a lot of movies, especially in the era of Covid. And I can’t help but watch with them. I like most of these movies: Incredibles (2004), Incredibles 2 (2018), The Secret Life of Pets (2016), and anything with Grumpy Gru, whom I identify with. Others, not so much. Or, to be more precise, their themes and imagery have shocked me.

Consider Mulan (2020), Onward (2020), Moana (2016), and Maleficent (2014) to name a few. Collectively, they involve conjuring the dead, demonic forces, witches, animism, and the ritual use of supernatural powers to control human destiny. I suppose you could say they take the magic of Disney literally, except that Robert Eiger, chairman of the board of Disney, also has very mundane concerns. He agreed to market Mulan worldwide for the Chinese government as a sort of Chamber of Commerce promotional video. Perhaps they should have called it Moolah.

What’s more, these movies give prominence to non-traditional perspectives as in the case of Moana and Maleficient. In Maleficent, the eponymous character is a vengeful fairy with blood red lips who dresses in a shimmering black cape and sports horns like Baphomet. A purportedly misunderstood figure, she turns to evil because of unrequited love (see “J,” the Unrequited). The movie was such a success that Disney released Maleficent: Mistress of Evil in 2019.

I have been taken aback by the subtle acceptance of evil and the upending of the expected unity of truth, beauty, and goodness in these films. Maybe this simply reflects life in a Star Wars, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter world where magic and the id have escaped their dungeon confinement. If so, I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, John Gardner’s Grendel, which established the antihero hero in modern fiction and was mandatory reading in high school, turns fifty next year. Still, I have to ask whether this turn to the dark side is an unconscious attempt to balance the current, technocratic, consumer state with a new kind of romanticism. Or is something else going on?

I have spent my adult career in higher education, so I know and appreciate the power of learning. Young minds take on the values and perspectives of their teachers, peers, and the media. Even if you hold that the family has the primary responsibility of teaching, you have to admit that these other influences can dominate a person’s life. This is nothing new, but it should frighten those who believe that education ought to aim at preserving the good at the same time that it roots out injustice.

So, I believe something else is going on. The flood of antihero heroes, the fascination with evil, the explosion of erotic themes and imagery in the media, the blatant bias in that same media, and the restrictions imposed in the name of a public health crisis (justified or not) don’t strike me as coincidental. In fact, there seems to be a method in all the madness.

You might accuse me of being overly critical and a bit of a Grumpy Gru. You may be right, although you don’t have to be paranoid to know that some people insist that two and two equal five and will beat you over the head until you agree with them. Just ask Winston Smith. Sometime soon we will have to choose how we add, rat phobia or not.

Image credits: feature by Sérgio André on Unsplash; movie poster by source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair Use, Wikipedia; Nightmare Before Christmas by Ben Lei. Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”


  1. This is for angelfireharp. You got me thinking long and hard about my childhood reading. I never read “Nancy Drew”, the “Bobbsey Twins”, or the like. I did read Alcott. I loved fairy tales and mythology. I read Poe earlier than I should have. My most vivid childhood is reading the “Little Golden Books” – especially the children’s encyclopedia they produced, every volume of which I read from cover to cover. I can certainly see what fostered my love of reading/learning. I just Googled those encyclopedias – which I knew whatever became of my set!

    Thanks for triggering these memories. Have a good 2021!!

    1. Annalie, Thank you so much for your reply! Yes to the classics, Golden Books, and Encyclopedia:) It’s amazing how many of the illustrations come quickly to mind. Recently, I was looking for one of my favorite books, lost in years and moving.

      I found most of my favorites and in the editions I recalled on web site Grossett and Dunlap . The prices were low, $1.25 or best offers or in groups of books. I found that I didn’t need to own these editions. It was enough, for me, to have pictures of the covers and to know where they are!

      Best to you!

  2. Robert,
    Sorry, but I haven’t been able to put your post out of mind this entire week. So…I decided to leave one last response before the week ends. I promise.
    As I thought more about your words, I was drawn to thinking about the powerful effects of childhood and adolescent books on my own internal mapping, to this day. When I think about internal mapping, I mean visual, verbal, cognitive, and social/emotional understandings of the world, and my possible responses to the “worlds” as they present at different points of time.
    Because of my grandfather’s employment with a publishing company, he brought home all of the publisher’s copies of such classics as: The Bobbsey Twins, Tricia Belden, Penrod, Nancy Drew, Patty Fairfield, Little Men, Little Women, and hundreds more.
    As a child, I walked miles to the small, very small library in our little town. There, I read every fictional series, but also, every book I could find on the lives of classical composers, dancers, musicians and more.
    Every Christmas visit home to my family during my university years, one of the most important and wonderful rituals I had was to read the handful of my favorite books that had somehow survived all of my father’s transfers New York to Chicago, Los Angeles and finally to Tampa, Florida.
    The books were tattered, pages discolored, many without jackets. How precious were the stories and characters from those books. I would lay on my bed, and never return to Los Angeles without reading those books.
    Thinking deeply about your post, I realized again, the power of books on the internal maps of developing persons. Thank you, so much, Robert.

  3. Robert, yes, I have been similarly worried. As a career teacher, psychologist, and counselor for children and their families, the stories, pictures, and dreams of the children and youth I evaluated grew to reveal a picture and verbal vocabulary that was based upon movies, characters, games, and fantasy that spill over into stories and pictures of the families and parents by their children. Such different inner mapping vocabularies than those of my constant childhood reading!

    A part of the evaluation of children includes such tasks as Tell/Draw me 3 Wishes, Draw me a picture of your family, Draw a picture that includes a house, a tree, and a person, tell/Draw me a picture of where you would like to go, how, and with whom. The Roberts Assessment requires the presentation of 15 pictures of common childhood/adolescent family, school, community situations. The child is asked to tell a story of what happened, and what next.

    Some weeks ago, I was working/evaluating the 4 year old son of a friend. The grandmother was horrified at her grandson’s unwillingness to draw his father, and the ultimate family picture Yael did produce. The father was the child’s most beloved/trusted caregiver. To say the least, these evaluations demonstrate a different inner vocabulary map.
    My career has only included migrant or immigrant Latino children of Latin America or Mexico.

    1. Thank you for this. The trend is very disturbing. Children are not capable of protecting themselves or assessing what is going on. I still think much of the change in internal mapping is intentional. It didn’t help when, in researching the topic for this post, I found out that Leni Riefenstahl had been on the set of Fantasia in 1940.

      1. Another interesting resource related to your topic can be found under Sand Tray Play and Therapy. This topic explores non-directed play and non-verbal storytelling using culturally appropriate plastic figures, physical environments, utensils in the presence of a supportive adult. The adult records the various non-verbal “stories” created by the child, and interacts verbally and non verbally with the child in relation to stories over time. This process is a non-verbal tool used to better understand the world and present conflicts of the child in a non-verbal manner. Used with non-verbal adults as well.

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