Weaving a web of wonder

Posted: Jan 04, 2007 12:00 AM

The two young women at the next table at my neighborhood cafe were deep in animated conversation about a movie they couldn't wait to see. I eavesdropped. Their conversation quickly became a reminiscence about a lady spider, of listening to their mothers lull them to sleep with E.B. White's delightful tale of barnyard bonhomie, "Charlotte's Web." There's a lesson here for Hollywood, and there's evidence that Hollywood is listening. That's good news for parents everywhere.

Wholesome may be on its way back. These young women expressed what a lot of us feel, a longing for a more innocent time when a child could be a child without the bombardment of the superficial sophistication prevalent in the media message of graphic sex and unremitting violence.

It's not that "Charlotte's Web" isn't a sophisticated book. Charlotte, after all, was the alter ego of E.B. White, who concludes at the end of his novel: "It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both."

One of the pleasures of parenthood is reading goodnight stories to a child, and "Charlotte's Web" is a book that Mom and Dad can enjoy as much as their children do. This is the light bulb flashing on above the heads of moviemakers, who are discovering that catering to a grown-up's remembered child offers enormous rewards. Parents who work hard to shield their children from X-rated trash will be grateful, and will show gratitude where it counts, at the box office.

"More titles suitable for youngsters were released in 2006 than in many previous years," John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, told The Washington Post. Commercial tie-ins are one of the reasons. Family-friendly movies generate sales of dolls and DVDs.

Filmmakers are discovering that Walt Disney knew what he was doing in the 1930s with his cartoons. "Everybody in the world was once a child," Mr. Fithian says. Uncle Walt liked the money, and his formula was simple and direct: "We don't think of grownups and we don't think of children, but just of that fine, clean, unspoiled spot down deep in every one of us that maybe the world has made us forget and that maybe our picture can help recall."

Cary Granat -- that really is his name -- made gory movies with titles like "Scream" and "Scary Movie," and now he's the man behind the release of "Charlotte's Web," and before that "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." He now understands what Walt Disney was talking about. When his children were old enough to go to the movies, he didn't want them to see his earlier films.

Ratings, for all of their limitations, are at last having an impact. Directors who once argued that graphic sex and violence were crucial to the integrity of their movies are now quite happy to cut such scenes if they rob them of the lucrative market of teenagers and younger children. When it became clear that R-rated movies were not among the top-grossing films, sex and violence lost many of the defenders of "fine art."

Hollywood mocks as Puritans the parents of "the Christian right," but the moral values of devout Christians are the values of many families who are neither Christian nor right. The values get a defense from the first lady in the White House, a librarian who is a force for families and schools and a champion of children's classic stories. Moviemakers whose pursuit of stories to make into movies has tended to follow the best-seller lists of adult books, and whose personal reading lists are studded with X-rated stories, now consult librarians to find out what the kids are reading.

"Charlotte's Web" continues to appeal with its elegant and universal simplicity. In the hip language of the post-modern child, Charlotte the spider is a one-insect advertising firm, who spins the message on her web -- the medium is the message -- that saves a charming little pig from slaughter. Children attach themselves to the book because it neither condescends nor patronizes in teaching life's lessons, but reaches out to their imaginations in straightforward prose they easily understand. The movie is good, but children should not be deprived of hearing the words without pictures to fire their imaginations.

We live in a culture where children grow up swiftly, having to put away childish things before they indulge the vulgar in clothes, music and movement, in what Charlotte would describe as "rush, rush, rush." As teens become the new 20s, they often miss learning one of Charlotte's lessons, how we "must always be on the watch for the coming of wonders." E.B. White's story revives an older meaning of "the miracle of the web."