My children have all grown up reading the children’s classic, “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt,” so when it showed up on Amazon Prime as a 25-minute special we were all over it.
We expected a fun, endearing story, but we got more than we bargained for.
Published around 27 years ago and selling millions of copies (not to mention garnering quite a few awards), We’re Going on a Bear Hunt as a storybook is a classic in its own right. This particular production was done by the same makers of the 1982 made-for-TV short “The Snowman,” a beautifully-animated, haunting classic about a living snowman who goes on an adventure with the boy who made him. Like “The Snowman,” this adaptation features delightful music and simple, clear characters. It also takes Oxenbury’s illustrations — arguably the best part of the story — and translates them to screen with vibrance and subtle detail. The landscapes grow broader, more immersive, and more ominous as the quintet of children continue on the hunt.
The traditional story by Michael Rosen grows in this way as well, and the creators have translated this sense of scope well, while expanding on the narrative with natural extensions of the drama. One of these extensions is the recent death of the children’s grandfather. The children make many references to the things Grandpa loved, and the main character (a plucky little girl named Rosie) is particularly sad about his passing, donning his old green scarf as they travel.
The central encounter of the story is, you guessed it, finding the bear. This is the pinnacle of the book and is followed by a mad dash back through the elements to get home to safety. The animated version, however, develops the story further.
Rosie, the adventurer of the group, gets separated from the rest of the group and discovers the bear on its own, sniffling with a cold. She displays genuine kindness toward the bear — combing its fur, giving it her grandfather’s scarf to keep it warm, and feeding it a honey sandwich. The bear, in turn, seems lonely and very willing to have a friend.
Of course, when the rest of the children find her they are frightened of the bear and dash away, pulling Rosie with them.
This is where my daughter lost it.
You see, Nadia is a tender soul on the best of days. Her entire summer consisted of finding and “befriending” wild animals, and the very thought of losing a friend like Rosie lost the bear brought her to the brink of tears. And at the end, when the camera panned back to the bear disappearing, dejected and alone, into its cave, she wept openly. My wife and I were a little stunned and saddened ourselves, and promptly gathered her up and comforted her.
Apparently, the onset of tears has been a trend with this adaptation, prompting quite a few parents to denounce it for ruining their Christmas celebrations. Of course, the book had the same general feeling at the end, with the final two-page spread featuring the bear lonely on the beach with its shoulders slumped. Nadia already knew he was sad, long before we watched this adaptation. It’s just that the adaptation brought that sadness home in a deeper way, enough that it really grieved her.
But as Linnea and I discussed it after we’d calmed our daughter down, we both agreed that we were grateful for the grief.
There’s a moment in the house toward the end of the story where Rosie tells her grandmother how sad she is. And her Grandma doesn’t respond by saying, buck up, it’s Christmas, it’s time to be happy. Instead, she says, “There’s nothing wrong with being sad, Rosie, it’s just a way to remember the happy times.”
And as the camera pans back to the bear, the song “Me and You” is sung in the background:
“All the things we did
still fill me up with butterflies
and I still flutter, I still shine
whenever I remember your sweet smile
My heart keeps beating,
and I’m still dreaming of me and you.”
This is a grief that is not despairing, but takes joy in what had been before, all the more in its passing. There’s a truth to it and a hope to it, even in the sadness.
As a dad, I love a happy ending. I love to remind myself and my kids that there is a deep hope to be had in the reality of a future life together with Christ and those we love. I see happy endings as a weapon against the darkness in our world, a reminder that joy comes in the morning, spring follows winter, and Christ did indeed defeat death once and for all. Of course, those happy endings must be earned. We can’t have the resolution of Act Three without the tension and crisis of Act 2. We can’t have Easter Sunday without Good Friday.
The oft-repeated phrase in ‘Bear Hunt gains new meaning in the context of loss and grief:
“We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it. We’ve got to go through it.”
In the realm of very young children’s stories and their counterparts in movies and TV, happy endings are pervasive, and for good reason. I’m glad for happy endings! However, I also have noticed that the most formative stories that my children and I encounter are not happy from cover to cover, even when they end on a good note. They have struggle, they have sadness, and they stick with us because they are true. Our own stories and realities have struggle and sadness, even when they end happily, and children know this. How then, do we help our very young children to begin to understand and encounter these things?
By experiencing stories like We’re Going on a Bear Hunt with them.
This and other similar stories (like Charlotte’s Web or Old Yeller, and even A Series of Unfortunate Events) are boons to parents, because they handle sad or scary elements with gentleness and candor. They don’t look away from Good Friday in a rush to avoid the pain. Rather, they are present in the truth of it. In a way, they too are weapons against the darkness, a way to see things as they are, in truth.
As we watch stories like this together and take the time to discuss them (sometimes in tears together), we display to our children the truth of things like fear, anger, and grief, and ultimately help them to understand these feelings and concepts in a safe way.
In watching this one in particular we were able to affirm to Nadia that it was right to be sad about the loss of a friendship, about loneliness, and that it was good for her to feel this way. We let the feeling rest a little while, and we rested in it with her, knowing the sadness of it together. Then we talked about how Jesus’ death on the cross made a way for us to be with Him forever, and about the truth of a place where loneliness will be no more.
This is the gift of sadness in story, and we owe it to our children to show them stories that are true, to walk alongside them, and to let them feel the tension that draws us all to the truest of happy endings.