The Lion King, one of the most succesful children’s movies of all time, is an entertaining and heartwarming mix of music, song and animation. At the same time, its plot centers on the emotionally charged story of a young protagonist, Simba, who comes of age when his father is murdered by an evil uncle.
Can children deal with traumatic scenes of the death of a parent? To judge by their perennial affinity for fairy tales, from Grimm to Disney, and for classic children’s stories, such as Bambi, the answer is ‘yes.’ Psychologists suggest that children can handle the darkest of storylines-the death of a parent, pursuit by evil forces, extreme physical danger-so long as the protagonist resolves his crisis and overcomes the threat to his survival. What makes even the most searing dramas ‘safe’ for children is their confidence that the tale will have a happy ending.
Like fairy tales, well-crafted documentaries about the natural world can offer kids a safe way to work through their anxieties about death and danger, as well as provide an entertaining and informative window into the wild side of life. When we create documentaries for children at National Geographic Television, our programming group faces tough editorial choices about how to graphically portray violence and the life-and-death struggle for survival that characterizes the natural world. When we have to make judgment calls about what’s in or out of bounds, we turn to the experts-kids.
We called on the experts when producing Tales from the Wild, a new series for five- to 10-year-olds that is derived from our nature documentaries for families and adults. Each episode narrates the dramatic story of a young animal’s life in the wild. In ‘Tau the Lion,’ the story of a real-life lion king, we follow a cub’s harrowing struggle for survival after his mother is killed. It’s a classic coming-of-age story, drawn from scenes of the young lion’s life and narrated by the cub, Tau. The cinematographers had captured vivid footage of the killing of young Tau’s mother by a pack of hyenas, and we debated how much, if any, of that footage to include in the episode.
We tested several different cuts at our weekly focus groups with seven- and eight-year-olds at a local school in Washington, D.C. Based upon the kids’ responses, as well as guidance from teachers and child psychologists, we decided to delete that scene altogether. The fact of the mother’s death wasn’t too harsh for children, but showing it on-screen was. Instead, we narrated the event with a voice-over, followed by an extremely poignant scene in which Tau discovers his mother’s inert body and realizes that he is now an orphan cub. Tau’s voice-over narration seemed to help children viewers make sense of the cub’s loss. After his mother’s death, Tau is forced to fend for himself. ‘Tau the Lion’ has a happy ending, though the story is a fact, not a fairy tale. After surviving a perilous solo journey into young adulthood, Tau finally fights another male to take over a pride of his own.
If our focus groups with kids and their parents are an accurate indicator, much of Tales from the Wild’s appeal lies in its unvarnished depiction of life and death. Children have an extraordinary ability to identify with animals and love gripping dramas that teach them lessons about their own lives-in this case, the importance of tenacity in the face of daunting obstacles. Children have an affinity for tales of survival, and an intuitive understanding that part of the job of growing up is to discover their own safe passage through an adventure-filled and sometimes perilous world.
Ericka Markman is the vice president of business development for children’s programming at National Geographic Television.