Sunday, August 24, 2008



We read the book “My Side of the Mountain,” written in 1959 by Jean Craighead George, when K was six or seven years old. He re-read it on his own a few years later; in fact, he read the other two in the trilogy, “On the Far Side of the Mountain” and “Frightful's Mountain,” as well. I often think the book is partly to credit (or blame) for the first wave of his obsession with building forts (to “live in”) and lighting fires with flint and steel. He actually asked one day, when he was nine or ten, if we could all go on a hike somewhere in a nearby forest, and then just let him go off on his own, with his compass, his knife and flint. He had some hare-brained idea about how we would all meet up at the end of the day.

I laughed and laughed. He stormed off. Probably lit a fire somewhere I don’t want to know about.

(Before I forget, the Discovery channel shows “Survivor Man” and “Man vs. Wild” are to credit/blame with the second wave of K’s survivor fascination. If you have younger kids, and perhaps especially boys, you need to know that once they start watching these shows they honestly think that with a couple of handy tools in their pocket and the vivid memory of Bear Grylls eating the raw testicles of a camel that’s been dead for a day or two that they can survive anywhere on their own. And they will beg you to try.)

(I guess we missed a boat of sorts by not signing up for Boy Scouts. But we have issues there. So.)

“My Side of the Mountain” is the story of a 12-year-old boy named Sam who decides to trek off on his own to the wilderness after the family camping vacation is cancelled. He’s extremely bright and resourceful, unreasonably rational for his age (truly), and feels the need to prove he can do everything on his own. “That was part of it,” he narrates, “to see if I could do it all on my own.” He’s also a bit obsessed with Thoreau, and the concept of learning about nature by being one with it.

We rented this film with full anticipation of loving it, but, sadly, I’m here to tell you it moves as slow as sap running from a maple, and for some reason, it just did not hold K’s interest as much as I’d expected. We broke it up into three – three – viewings, which is unheard of in our house. (You just don’t interrupt movies!)

The acting is a bit bland in that 1960s way – in fact, the tone sometimes reminded me of “Leave it to Beaver” – and as charming as the boy star (Ted Eccles) and his little homestead in the woods was, something was missing. (No, not special effects!) The scenes where he trained his falcon chick Frightful to grow into a killing machine in order to bring home some bacon were pretty well done; I found myself wondering how long it took the actor to get comfortable with the bird and his pet raccoon, Gus, and the whole animal training process. The scenery is gorgeous (it was filmed in Canada) and the long cold winter is depicted with realistic harshness.

Still, I barely got K to finish the thing, and that’s saying something. It’s hard to think of movies he’s never finished, or didn’t want to finish.

I give My Side of the Mountain a slightly reluctant thumbs up. It’s earned lots of rave reviews from families and kids on film web sites, and I can’t ignore that. Perhaps if we’d rented this back when the books were exciting our son, we’d have fared better. It might be a simple age thing, too; the quiet tone and slower pace of the film may better speak to younger viewers.

If your kids are totally into the whole living-off-the-land adventure, and have enough patience to, say, actually tie their shoe properly or sit through an entire dinner without getting up seven times (two very arbitrary measures of a childs’ focus and tenacity, I know), you might give it a try.

And if you and your kids haven’t read this classic novel, put it on your list!

Caveat for ultra-sensitive kids who may really be into the book and therefore have a deeper attachment to these characters (hey, I’m trying to provide a service here): The film deviates from the book at several points, but one slightly disturbing creation was that Sam’s beloved Frightful meets his maker in a sudden, brief and violent moment. Honestly, what purpose did that serve in the film? None that we can think of.

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