When I was a kid, CBS aired a Children’s Film Festival, with a different international film each week. Two have stuck in memory all these years, possibly for two reasons: they enchanted me before I could read, and they were friendship tales in the years when I was forming my first friendships.
In the award-winning British film Hand in Hand, Michael and Rachel become best friends after he protects her from grade-school bullies. They love spending time with each other, and it seems no dream is out of reach if they embark on it together. When they come across an abandoned shed in the woods, they work happily to clean it, repair broken steps and turn it into a homelike bungalow, complete with a pressed cloth and flowers on the table.
Rachel dreams of going to London to have tea with the Queen. Michael plans to go to Africa, starting by borrowing the rubber dinghy in his father’s shed. But first they have to push through their fears by doing something very scary: facing the gruff owner of the secondhand shop, where Michael very much wants the pith helmet in the window.
In fact, they face a number of fears. They make a commitment by becoming blood brothers. The vow of friendship isn’t sealed so much in mingling their blood as in the voluntary pinpricks that draw it.
They’re aware of a weekend difference; Michael’s family goes to the Catholic church on Sundays and Rachel’s goes to the synagogue on Saturdays. When a schoolyard critic plants seeds of suspicion in Michael’s mind and puts Rachel on the defensive, they figure out an adventurous solution: Each will attend a service with the other, even though they fear that doing so might kill them.
Truth be told, I didn’t remember all these details from decades ago; I recently watched the movie again. As a child, I hadn’t noticed how kind some adults were in supporting their play. When they tried to hitchhike to London to have tea with the queen, a kindly gentlewoman took them to her estate for tea and let them think it was one of the queen’s homes (luckily, her own corgis helped make the story plausible). And when they entered the dark, scary secondhand shop and Michael said he’d saved up sixpence for the pith helmet, the shopkeeper told him that was its exact price.
Once he’s properly outfitted, they do attempt to raft to Africa, with perilous consequences. The story begins with an anguished Michael seeking help for the friend he fears he’s killed. It ends in relief and hope. In short, theirs is a great friendship tale.
So was the other film I remember, a Japanese movie with a title that would never fly today: Skinny and Fatty. Their partnership begins reluctantly when a new student, Komatsu, is assigned to the empty half of Oyama’s desk. Komatsu is chubby, awkward and gives up easily; Oyama is popular, athletic, and a hard worker (partly because, unlike Komatsu, he comes from a poor family and is expected to help with many chores at home).
Oyama also takes up for Komatsu when he is teased, but over the course of the film, he’s frustrated by Komatsu’s complacency and his own sacrifice. It’s not until the end of the movie, when his family has moved away and he writes Komatsu a letter, that his “You can do it if you try” encouragement gets through. And that is enough to push Komatsu to triumphantly complete a physical trial he’d given up on early in the movie — not someone right there cheering him on, but the power of written words from a trusted friend. Another great friendship tale.
What makes a great friendship tale?
Sometimes it’s a tiny tale of origins, especially if they’re unlikely or uncanny. Sometimes it’s a travel tale, especially if it involves facing adversity and real or perceived danger together; even better if there’s laughter, song and maybe tea along the way. Often, it’s a subtle tale of how we are strengthened, encouraged and developed a little more fully because of something a friend brings out in us.
Did I say we? I did. Editor-me says that last sentence isn’t parallel to the others in the paragraph. Writer-me says yes, and isn’t that also part of a great friendship tale? It shows us something about ourselves and, if we’re lucky, how we’ve been drawn more fully into life by our friends.
So many beloved stories from childhood and youth involve great friendships. Pooh and Piglet. Wilbur and Charlotte. Bert and Ernie. Frog and Toad. Anne and Diana. X the Owl and Henrietta Pussycat. Betsy, Tacy and Tib. Jimmy and his magic flute. (Sure, H.R. Pufnstuf is your friend when things get rough; but in the possession-as-friend category, Freddy the Flute was more novel than a stuffed animal — toy, companion and vehicle of artistic expression all in one.)
Once I could read, I wore out several copies of Harriet the Spy, the classic by Louise Fitzhugh. No doubt the first copy was given to me as a gift because I, too, kept a notebook, wore glasses and sometimes a hoodie, and enjoyed roaming the neighborhood and noticing people. But I didn’t have any friends like Janie (an aspiring scientist whose parents were afraid to enter her bedroom because her experiments in explosion scared them) or her next-door neighbor, Sport, who basically ran the household, cooking, cleaning and taking care of the finances for his single writer father. I could be myopic, too, and as I matured, I felt grateful on Harriet’s behalf for Sport’s friendship, his patience with her, his way of questioning her that was generous rather than confrontational. And after he was stung by her betrayal, he forgave her.
That loyalty is also part of a great friendship tale, as Samwise Gamgee had to explain to Frodo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: “You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin — to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours — closer than you yourself keep it. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo. Anyway: there it is. … We are horribly afraid — but we are coming with you.”
One of my favorite “coming with you, to the bitter end” friendship stories is in a book I resisted reading.
It took a couple of starts to get into Larry McMurtry’s epic novel Lonesome Dove. Once I did, the main thread that carried me through 945 pages of men on a cattle drive from Texas to Montana was the friendship of Gus and Call, two retired Texas Rangers who are as different as night and day (or as different as Herefords and Longhorns). Captain Woodrow F. Call is quiet and believes in rules and duty. Captain Augustus “Gus” McCrae is quite a storyteller with a very different managerial style. We might call them friends with edges, and theirs the kind of friendship that flourishes precisely because their differences, and willingness to discuss them, lead to a mutual respect and love.
To Discuss With Friends (Or Use in Personal Journaling)
1. Looking back on the early stories you held dear, what friendships do you see in them? How did they help or influence your understanding of what it means to be a friend?
2. What mutual fears have you faced along with a friend, in childhood or adulthood? How did you approach them, circumnavigate them or conquer them?
3. Thinking of Harriet and Sport, what have you noticed about friendships between people with very different lives? In your own friendships, has this been difficult? How has it educated you, increased your empathy, illuminated some of your own blind spots?
4. Loyalty is one virtue often found in great friendship tales. What are others? When has loyalty been tested in one of your friendships? Is there a point at which loyalty ends, a point at which you would no longer journey to the bitter end?
5. C.S. Lewis has written of picturing friends “side by side, absorbed in some common interest.” A shared goal or quest is often a feature of great friendship tales — a trip to Africa, a journey with the Ring, a cattle drive. What common mission have you had with a friend? How did it strain and/or strengthen the friendship?
6. What other books (or films) would you put on a list of great friendship tales? Who are the friends, and what’s significant about their friendship?
7. Harriet and Sport’s friendship survived a betrayal. Call and Gus’s friendship endured many arguments. Once Oyama is no longer there to fight his battles for him, Komatsu finds will he didn’t know he had through a pep-talk letter from Oyama. Have you had friendships where friends with edges have pushed to find something within that was there all along, but it needed this friend to draw it out?
If you choose to write about any of the above, feel free to come back and share a link to what you’ve written. If you don’t have an online writing space, feel free to drop in an excerpt for our community to enjoy.
Photo by Sheila Sund, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Laura Lynn Brown.