September 30, 2004
By Franklin Harris
American popular culture has undergone a dramatic mood swing, from trying to make everything all happiness and light to embracing the darker side of our wretched existence. This is all for the better.
A decade ago, when I was a young intern slaving away in Washington, D.C., one of my jobs was to keep up with then U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, who was waging war on television violence. Her crusade was an outgrowth of Baby Boomer guilt. The Boomers, having come of age amid the "sex, drugs and rock-and-roll" of the 1960s, were determined to make the culture all squeaky clean for their children, whether their children wanted it or not.
The fallout of all this was a television ratings system, which no one nowadays gives a second thought, and the V-chip, which no one knows how to use.
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Jim Carrey, center, stars with Emily Browning, left, and Liam Aiken in ''Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events.''
Around the same time, R.L. Stine was a publishing juggernaut. His young-adult horror novels and his "Goosebumps" series, aimed at a slightly younger crowd, sold millions of copies. He was the Stephen King of teen fiction. Stine was also the favorite whipping boy for those who thought children should be kept far away from anything that might drive them to sleep with a nightlight. (And here I thought sleeping with a nightlight was simply a natural part of childhood.) While researching this column, I happened upon a 1998 essay by a Stine critic who was appalled by Stine's love of old EC Comics comic books, which in their own day (the 1950s) sent overprotective parents and professional worrywarts into similar fits of dismay.
How things have changed. The new literary behemoth is J.K. Rowling, author of the immensely popular "Harry Potter" series, which has thus far spawned three blockbuster movie adaptations and made Rowling the richest woman in the United Kingdom, ahead even of Queen Elizabeth II.
Like Stine, Rowling has her detractors, most upset that the "Harry Potter" novels depict witchcraft, as do most of the stories in "Grimm's Fairy Tales" to be blunt about it. But Rowling and Potter have carried on without missing a step, and their success has led publishers to unleash a wave of competing dark-fantasy books for children.
Rowling's chief rival is Lemony Snicket (a.k.a. Daniel Handler), whose "A Series of Unfortunate Events" books have sold more than 25 million copies. The 11th book in the series is just out, with two more on the way, making for an unlucky 13 in all. Unsurprisingly, a movie based on the books is due this Christmas. It stars Jim Carrey as the evil Count Olaf, who takes in the three luckless but inventive Baudelaire orphans in order to steal their sizeable inheritance.
The whole point of "A Series of Unfortunate Events" is to show that virtue is not always rewarded and vice is not always punished. Yet, so far at least, the PTA has not begun a campaign against it.
Then, of course, there is the granddaddy of all dark children's storytellers, Roald Dahl, author of, among others, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."
Director Tim Burton is hard at work on a film adaptation of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" starring Johnny Depp as the mysterious and slightly menacing Willy Wonka. The book was previously adapted as the 1971 musical "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" starring Gene Wilder.
Lastly, Neil Gaiman's spooky children's novel "Coraline" is also in development as a film, a stop-motion feature directed by Henry Selick, who also directed "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas."
So far, children seem happy and content reading all these frightening books, and there has been no upswing in juvenile crime. Children shiver under their covers, reading by flashlight and giving themselves bad dreams. Which is exactly how it should be.