We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (Lupus Films, 2016)

This might be a very niche adaptation to review, but it did generate a lot of discussion from some of my immediate circles so I wanted to write down my own thoughts about it. For those who aren’t aware, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is a popular children’s picture book written by Michael Rosen and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury; published in 1989, it is one of those books that everyone of my generation seems to remember having read to them in their childhood. There are very few of my British friends for whom the title will not bring a nostalgic smile and the memories of a parent or guardian reading familiar words in a sing-song voice. So when news began to spread that a half hour adaptation would be aired on Channel 4 on Christmas Eve, there was a lot of excitement about it: that single half hour was apparently Channel 4’s most-watched show of 2016.

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, very simply, tells the story of a group of siblings who decide one day to go and look for a bear. They encounter many obstacles along their journey but eventually make it to the bear’s cave, only to run all the way back home in fear. I have to admit that I was a little confused as to how this book would be turned into an adaptation that filled a full half an hour of television, but the use of a different media actually gave the adaptors the freedom to explore and clarify the narrative implied in the children’s story. For example, it was only in watching this programme that my family realised that the brown-haired boy and the blonde-haired girl were not, in fact, the Mum and Dad but the eldest siblings. This has apparently always been the case, as this 2012 interview with Helen Oxenbury reveals, but it was through the expanded narrative that the original premise was given context.

The main aspect of the programme that had people talking was the realisation that the Bear was lonely and wanted to be friends with the siblings. This was actually something that has caused a lot of debate: the beauty of a children’s book such as We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is that you could read it either as the Bear being scary or lonely. This adaptation went for one over the other, and it gave the narrative a powerful emotional impact; there were definitely some of us tearing up as it finished with the image of the Bear returning to his lonely cave without the friendship of Rosie. I think this was actually a strong adaptation choice that added a layer to the narrative I had not previously seen.

From a business point of view, it was a very smart decision to air the adaptation on the day Channel 4 did at the time they did. The evening of Christmas Eve is, for many, the time when all the family is spending time together, preparing for Christmas Day and not wanting anything too difficult or heavy to watch on TV. For my family, this was a book we loved to read as a family when my sisters and I were growing up so it felt fitting that we spent time on Christmas Eve watching it together as a family. I imagine we weren’t alone in that.

Overall this was an easy, nostalgic watch on Christmas Eve that engaged my whole family. For me, as an adult, it isn’t a programme I would necessarily seek out to rewatch: part of the whole experience was watching it with my family. However, I can definitely see that it would appeal to young children, despite the sadness, and it was an effective adaptation of such a popular book.

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