Michael Rosen’s Bear Hunt is reimagined as a poignant story of grief and loss in Channel 4 spectacular

Has C4 caught a big one with its Christmas adaptation?

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“We’re going on a bear hunt…We’re going to catch a big one…”

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Yes if you’re a parent, chances are you’ve read that refrain hundreds of times to your children. You may even know Michael Rosen’s story, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, off by heart.

If you don’t, it’s a lovely story of a group of kids led by their elder brother for a bear.

They traverse high grass, a stream, a mudlflat and eventually a snowstorm. They can’t go round it, they can’t go under it they have, as the narrative goes, to “go through it”.

At the end of course they rather magically do find a bear, in a cave by the sea. They flee, terrified and vow never to go on a bear hunt again.The final image in the book is of the bear, trudging mournfully back  – the final twist being that readers who have been following the children are then asked to identify with the bear….

It’s a story that takes four minutes to read So how did Lupus, the animators behind The Snowman and the Snowdog and Ethel and Ernest, use their skills to make it a 30-minute adaptation.

By stretching the story, that’s how. The children are on their own because the parents – voiced by Olivia Colman and Harry Potter actor Mark Williams – have to go an attend to the kids’ gran (played by former Call the Midwife star Pam Ferris). She is recently widowed – and the children miss their granddad.

So the crucial line “we have to go through it” is, in the TV version, a description of the grief felt by the children, a call to arms about what they must do in life, they have to get through the day. And the bear? Well he is clearly a metaphor for that grief, representing the loss granddad. But we also see much more of him and explore the fact that he is a lonely old ursine in desperate need of company.

Because in this story – unlike the book – the younger girl befriends the bear – and seems reluctant to flee when her siblings take fright from the cave where they found him.

You may think this tampers with a much-loved simple narrative but (for me at least) it works. As Michael Rosen tells RadioTimes.com “the story can represent whatever you want” and he whole heartily approved of the treatment. As much as anything he claims it isn’t really his story.

“I have a very open attitude to the text,” he added, pointing out that his tale is adapted from a folk song favourite sung round the fire by US girl guides.

Rosen (below), who often performs the story live, insists that the real author of the book is Oxenbury who illustrations provide the drama and complexity.

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“Everything to do with the characters, the landscape and everything is Helen. She create the many stories in the books, all the character shave stories and they were created by Helen.”

Both the book and the TV adaptation capture the story’s essentially profound subjects  – it is a journey, full of fear and ultimately survival. The moving picture animation is simple and homespun – but effective. It carries enough of the watercolor and pencil of Helen Oxenbury’s book, but it works as moving (in every sense) animation.

It is peppered with nice little details – the dog shaking itself after the trip through the river was brilliant and I loved the way the baby moved – in exactly that unbalanced way babies do.

It is located in the real world, but also adds element of magical realism. This is a world where children are free to roam on their own, in a world without health and safety where a summer’s day turns immediately into a snowstorm There is something timeless about it.  And I’d thoroughly recommend you watch it.

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We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is on Channel 4 on Christmas Eve at 7.30pm