You have to look a good long while to find a work of fiction where someone doesn’t die. It happens all the time, from the most blood soaked of Goodfellas style movies to the most seemingly innocent of Bambi like stories of fluffy animals frolicking through the forest. Inevitably, someone is going to take anything from a tumble to a bullet. But there are a few no-nos in such stories, namely that killing a child is generally frowned upon.
It’s one of the things that most fiction writers try to steer clear of, be they screenwriters or novelists or anything in between. Generally there’s a fear that doing something like this will turn off one’s audience, and often this type of thing is used for no other purpose then to stir controversy. Sometimes though, taking that extra step can help a story, and be used as a great dramatic device. Let’s start with the death of a child in something relatively well known, like Jaws.
Jaws, both the book and film, has a child getting horribly killed before the closing of the first act. The film is especially graphic in its depiction, a fountain of blood surging out of the water as the child is torn to pieces by the shark. I’m honestly surprised it didn’t get an R from this scene alone.
The scene does help the film though. The unexpected violence of the scene puts the audience on edge, and the stakes are raised immediately. The film’s hero, Chief Brody, has several children, and now their safety is not guaranteed to him or us. More interestingly, the aftereffects on Brody become an important part of the plot, him getting angrily confronted by the dead child’s mother, and sinking into an alcoholic stupor afterwards. The death of the young boy does serve the story well. Alligator is not nearly as good an example.
Alligator is nothing special, a Jaws knock off from the 80s. There’s a scene where the monster is hiding in a backyard swimming pool during a child’s birthday party. Seeking to bully the the toddler, his older brother pushes him into the pool, where he is killed in a geyser of gore in front of horrified onlookers.
This scene fails for a number of reasons. One, it should be horrific, but unlike Jaws, it comes across as laughable. Worse yet, it in no way effects the plot. The leading characters are never aware of this attack. It doesn’t clue them in to the monster’s location, and afterwards it’s never mentioned again. What could have been a terrifying and even poignant scene is but a brief aside in the story. Cutting this element out of the film, it moves just as smoothly with no sense of anything being lost. It has no effect on the plot, so it has no place in the narrative. While the scene in this film is useless, it doesn’t come across as insulting and is actually good for a laugh. That isn’t the case for Aliens. vs. Predator Requiem.
Words cannot express how much I despise this picture. Not only does it ruin my two favorite science fiction icons of all time, but it contains some of the most shameless and exploitive violence ever put on film, and all for the purpose of garnering controversy. The film gets off to a poor start when a child is attacked by a facehugger and gives birth to the chestburster inside of him on camera. It is well known to fans of the series that the facehugger is a rape allegory, so using it on a child, and onscreen, was incredibly ill advised. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the film sinks to new lows when we witness one of the leading monsters massacre a nursery and a ward filled with pregnant women.
Now, the previous films in both the Alien and Predator series are not family material by any stretch. Aliens for example does kill many children, but it’s off screen. When either series was at its best, they were tense, suspenseful and well made films with well rounded characters that didn’t need gore or violence to sell themselves. There is no such tact or skill to be found in Aliens. vs. Predator Requiem. The above mentioned scenes are not well made in any sense of the word, and are blatant attempts to sell the film by stirring the pot. It’s only appropriate that the film failed. Now that doesn’t mean you can’t have something in bad taste and still have it serve a story. Arguably the best example on this list is one of the most disgusting sequences ever put to film.
John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13 is an underrated gem that serves as the first in a series of incredible films from the talented director, and is easily one of the best action films of the 1970s. The plot concerns a team of police officers and convicts who try to fend off an attack on their precinct by a violent street gang.
In the film’s most famous sequence, a child is shot with a silencer by the head of the gang. It is sickening, in bad taste, and absolutely brilliant in how it’s executed. You could teach an entire class on editing from this scene alone, but lets take a look at how it effects the plot. After the little girl is killed, her father takes revenge on her killer, retreats inside the titular precinct for safety, and is followed by the gang bent on revenge. In one fell swoop, Carpenter both gets the plot of his siege thriller started, and removes any sympathy the audience might otherwise have for the gang. The entire story hinges on this horrific scene, for it creates the conflict that the characters must resolve.
In closing, killing a child in your story doesn’t have to be purely exploitive. It can be a very potent, dramatic, even tragic device. It can get your plot rolling, let your characters know how serious a situation is, or just put your audience on edge for the rest of the ride. There are however many other ways to do this. Use this dramatic device as you would any other that could be controversial, and use it responsibly.