Editor’s Note: This piece took second place for The Larry L. Stewart Prize For Critical Essay On Entertainment. Thanks to everyone who entered this year!
You remember being a kid, right? When the answer to “You want some magic powers? Magic powers for absolutely free?” was always “Heck yeah!” even if the wizard looked super shady? Of course! We all do. And due to the timeless nature of media, we can always revisit that time when things were simpler and more fun. However, it takes more than simply a will to reminisce to bring these feelings to life. Because the thought process of a child is unique, it takes a certain caliber of author to dip into the innocent, naïve mind of a child and make this mindset feel concrete and tangible to a general audience.
The style of the writing, then—the framing of ideas necessary in order to convincingly put the viewer into a childlike state—is the hard part. The easy part? The plot. Most books or movies that offer protagonism to a child involve some manner of emotional maturation or growth. The idea of a story of emotional growth, called Bildungsroman (coming-of-age), has been recapitulated time and time again, showing up in Peter Pan, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and everything in between. However, Bildungsroman is simply not comprehensive enough for the modern era, in which stories have branched out into another common trope.
That’s not to say that Bildungsroman is dead. It is alive and well, albeit mutated, sometimes beyond the point at which is is recognizable. In examining two very different characters–Finn, from the television show Adventure Time (seen by some as a modern-day coming-of-age), and Scout Finch, from Harper Lee’s classic “To Kill A Mockingbird”–we can get to the bottom of the ways in which the classical style has mutated. In understanding that these different worlds can be linked inexorably, it will be possible to prove any two child protagonists can follow the same pattern.
The classic idea of the Bildungsroman is that the youthful protagonist will in some way grow emotionally. For Scout Finch, this practically goes without saying—she is almost the archetypical example of growth in a novel. Through the course of To Kill A Mockingbird, Scout learns what it means to empathize, understands how not to judge someone on the color of his or her skin, and how to deal with intolerance in her everyday life through her trials and tribulations. Her character grows and matures emotionally, leaving the shell of her old self behind as a memento she reflects upon near the end of the novel, standing on the porch of a kind man she once assumed was a killer.
Finn, too, goes through a similar metamorphosis; however, because of the differences in their age, Finn’s change is focused more on pubescence. We see his initial childish crush on Princess Bubblegum, a character who is desperately and unattainably out of reach, eventually peter out as he discovers a peer with whom he has something in common, Flame Princess. The stagnancy and lack of character development one might expect from an episodic show like Adventure Time is subverted in Finn’s slow loss of interest in Bubblegum and increasing attraction to FP. The episode “Burning Low” highlights this internal crisis, as Finn’s transformation from a malleable child, subject to Bubblegum’s every whim, to an independent thinker finally boils (pun intended) over when he thinks the Princess is trying to lead him on:
“I was in love with you, okay?! And you didn’t love me back! Now I’m ready to move on, and it’s like…you’re gonna build me up all over again! Well, I’m done! I’m done.”
This emotional progress, combined with an aptitude to look back and reflect on a previous version of himself, qualifies Finn to fall into the same league as Scout.
Indeed, these two characters is the way they view their worlds through very similar lenses.. Though their ages are relatively different (Finn being 12; Scout, six), their lack of maturity and therefore implied purity changes the way they understand the things that happen around them. Both jump headlong into adventures that responsible, mature adult would shy away from. Scout sneaks into the yard of someone she suspects to be a serial killer simply to sneak a peek at him, fights boys in her class simply for insulting her father (even if she doesn’t quite understand the insult), and rushes headlong into a mob that’s intent on lynching an imprisoned man. It’s not that Scout has no sense of fear or danger—she makes it very clear several times in the novel that she is terrified—but instead conflates her callow worldview with what’s actually happening because, as a child, she views the world as a place where terrible things are rare. Scout’s memory on her mother’s passing being hazy, as discussed early in the novel, contributes heavily to the fact that she lacks a fundamental understanding of loss that comes with the passing of a loved one. This might be the reason that she confuses the lynch mob for a group of her father’s friends, or is peer pressured by her brother into Boo Radley’s backyard.
Finn, similarly, has an unreasonable expectation about mortality. Though Adventure Time does takes place in a silly cartoon world with ridiculously caricatured inhabitants, a sense of pain and loss can still be felt throughout the series. Yes, people die or are lost forever, and yes, this is an eventuality that all of Ooo’s residents (I’m talkin’ to you, Marceline!) must deal with. However, though it’s not yet clear if Finn remembers his mother and father’s passing (the story has remained frustratingly unclear on how Joshua and Margaret came to find Finn, much less what happened to his adoptive parents), he clearly has absolutely no regard for his personal well-being. While casual watchers may suspect that Finn puts his mortality at risk for the sake of the people of Ooo, various episodes (“Who Would Win” and “Morituri Te Salutamus” jump to mind) feature Finn facing death simply for glory or fun. Finn seems to regard death as an impossibility for him. In this regard, he is very similar to Scout: ignorance precipitates brashness. Their thirsts for adventure and perceived lack of dichotomy between the reality of pain and death and imagined immortality brings the two characters startlingly close.
The final similarity that cements the bond between the universes (not for the characters but for the readers themselves) is the implications of the characters’ background. The reader feels that these characters are similar because of the way we’re viewing their universes: as if we ourselves are a part of them. For Scout, this trope occurs many times throughout the book—most prominently, perhaps, with the names of our main characters, Jem and Scout. Though they were born Jeremy Atticus and Jean Louise Finch, the book provides no explanation as to why they’re known by these nicknames. It’s simply a fact of their life and a product of their shared environment, and it is up to the imaginations of the readers to determine why these names exist. This serves to strengthen the fact that these are real characters with real lives outside of the adventures in this particular slice of life we’re presented in the book, and creates a wide place for the universe to expand and breathe in our heads, instead of filling a reader’s mind with every detail, critical or not.
Adventure Time’s universe follows some of the same cues, but approaches them differently. It does explain the backstories of some of their more major characters (Why is Ice King so crazy? Why does Marceline hang out with him?), but it’s the so-called “C-Listers” that bear the brunt of the weight of this idea. Why is Royal Tart Toter so unabashedly insane, and what made him that way? What happened to Jermaine, and why don’t Finn and Jake bring him up? Why does Xergiok have a compulsion to spank butts? Real people don’t have clip shows to remember things, and the writers treat Jake and Finn like real people. They have organic interactions that don’t rehash the past for the sake of the fourth wall.
Though it might also be possible to compare non-child characters using this metric, it seems fair that this should also speak to the ever-evolving nature of Bildungsroman. While classically the tradition refers to a child who gradually and tenaciously achieves maturity, today’s Bildungsroman might involve an adult character going through the same struggle for societal acceptance. In this trope, we might list characters such as Parks and Recreation’s Tom Haverford, Futurama’s Philip Fry, and and Troy Barnes of Community fame. Interestingly, it’s much more difficult to think of “classical” adult characters that fit into this mold. Does this speak to the recent concept of the “Boomerang Generation” of adults (nearly three in ten adults, according to a recent Pew survey) who revert back to a childhood home and therefore, perhaps, a childish mindset? Does it speak to a society that is more accepting of “childish” hobbies (gaming, comic-reading, cosplay) as adult indulgences? It’s difficult to find a throughline that unarguably connects the change in trope with the trend in society, but it’s certainly interesting food for thought.
However, if we use To Kill A Mockingbird and Adventure Time, two seemingly discordant media, as a metric for comparing pieces that include child protagonists, you can see that it becomes easy to find similarities, no matter how wildly contrasting they seem to initially appear. With just a little imagination, in another time or another place, Finn and Scout might have grown up together, facing the same trials and tribulations, from Ice King to Boo Radley, with a dash of childlike wonderment and a heap of stupid bravery.