SUBJECTS — U.S. Depression/ Literature; Animals;


MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Perseverance; Fairness.

AGE: 8+; MPAA Rating: PG;

Drama; 86 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.

TWM does NOT recommend showing this film to children. It trivializes personal interactions, shows a child, in effect, being rewarded for lying to his parents, and is devoid of respect for animal life, other than for the dogs who serve the economic and entertainment needs of their owners. One of the low points of the story occurs after the child protagonist, Billy Coleman, has promised his dogs that he will kill the first raccoon they tree. The technique is to chop down the tree once the raccoon takes refuge in its branches. The first raccoon takes refuge in a magnificent tree, one of the largest in the woods. Young Billy, after trying manfully, cannot chop it down. His own efforts frustrated, he resorts to prayer and God obligingly sends a microwind to knock down the tree and allow Billy to kill the hapless raccoon. It demeans the concept of religion to tell children that God will destroy a beautiful tree so that a ten-year-old can keep a promise to his dogs and kill a raccoon, a magnificent creature in its own right.

If the book is required as a part of the school’s curriculum and if students have already read it, the movie might be of benefit to show young people how words are shifted into visual images and how adaptations change significant details. However, there are many other excellent filmed adaptations of novels that can show this. Some are suggested on TWM’s Adaptations Index. Because of the movie’s lack of artistic merit, it is not recommended as a reward film.

The information and cautions in this Guide relate to BOTH THE BOOK AND THE MOVIE. The Guide does not attempt to provide materials sufficient for a full lesson plan based on the novel many of which are available on the Internet.

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TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students’ minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film.

Film Study Worksheet for ELA Classes and

Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.

Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Movies as Literature Homework Project.


The setting is a poor community in the Ozark mountains during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Billy Coleman is ten years old and wants hunting dogs in the worst way. His “dog-wanting disease” inspires him to work endless hours over a period of two years in order to earn the money it costs to purchase two redbone hounds. He trains his dogs to track and kill raccoons. They become so skilled at hunting that they eventually win a championship. In the training period, animosity between Billy and two local bullies results in a tragic outcome as a boyhood bet unexpectedly goes wrong.

The movie is an adaptation of the popular children’s novel of the same name by Wilson Rawls.


Selected Awards: None.

Featured Actors: Joseph Ashton, Dabney Coleman, Ned Beatty;

Director: Lyman Dayton, Sam Pillsbury.


Students will be able to appreciate the value of determination and the importance of a relationship between people and pets. They may also gain insight into the changes that have occurred in American culture in terms of hunting and killing animals for sport or for fashion. Writing assignments based upon backing up opinion with reference to the film or the novel can be helpful to students just learning to complete writing assignments.


MODERATE. Students sensitive to the treatment of animals may have a difficult time accepting the casual killing of raccoons. The death of the dogs and the subsequent sentiment may be disturbing as well.


See the comments at the top of the page.


The following questions and assignments focus on comparing the presentation of ideas as seen in the book and seek to provoke a deeper look into what Wilson Rawls intended to express in his writing. The questions also seek to provoke thought about how changes in culture might make the story obsolete.


1. In the novel, Billy cries often. He says that his eyes fill with tears in several places associated with his dogs, his family, and in response to various experiences. This sentiment is largely absent from the film. What is lost or gained in this apparent shift in characterization?

Suggested Response:

Answers will vary. Students should be asked to give their attitudes about the expression, “Big boys don’t cry.” Students may reflect on changes in the expected behaviors of young people concerning such cultural imperatives as expression of feeling that have occurred in society since the 1930s.


2. The Pritchard boys in the book are portrayed similarly to the bullies in the film. In each case, the death of one of the brothers can be seen as retribution for being mean. Do you think the feeling that the boy deserves to die is an appropriate response to the event?

Suggested Response:

Answers may vary. Some students may believe the boy got what he deserved. Others will not. The important value to be discussed here is the concept of just rewards. As mean as Rubin was, did he deserve to die? Since Billy had no responsibility for Rubin’s death, revenge is not an issue.


3. Billy clearly loves his dogs. He is growing up at a time and in a place where walking the dog or playing catch with it would be superfluous and wasteful. The concept of “pet” does not seem to apply in this story; a more appropriate term might be “partner.” In what sense are Billy, Dan and Ann partners? Have you ever had an animal that was more than just a pet?

Suggested Response:

Billy, Dan, and Ann cooperate in the hunting experience. Billy would not be able to capture and kill the raccoons alone and the dogs are skilled hunters because of the training they have received from Billy. In the discussion bring up the situation of show dogs. They are trained and groomed to win prizes for their owners at competitions. Students should be encouraged to share their experiences with their own pets.


4. Billy’s family is supportive, forgiving and loving. His parents allow him considerably more independence than parents would be willing to allow their children today. What accounts for this change?

Suggested Response:

Answers will vary. Students should be able to compare and contrast the dangers of hunting at night, facing a mountain lion and carrying an ax or a gun with the dangers a young person may face today, whether in a city or a rural area. Students should be encouraged to share their personal experiences.


5. Billy never gives up on a hunt although there are times when he contemplates the idea that he may have failed. What keeps him going?

Suggested Response:

Billy seems to care deeply about his dogs and he does not want to disappoint them. Since they will never give up out of apparent devotion to him, his loyalty to his dogs drives him onward.


6. Some readers or viewers may feel that cutting down a big tree is wasteful and wrong when the intention is simply to kill a raccoon. Do you think Billy’s decision to spend hours hacking down the sycamore is justifiable?

Suggested Response:

Answers will vary. Environmentalism has created deeper respect for nature, trees in particular. The act of killing a tree is no longer an example of an expression of character and strength as it was in the early 20th century. Modern readers and viewers no longer see Paul Bunion as heroic.


7. When Dan and Ann tree the ghost coon, Billy climbs up, comes face to face with the animal, and decides not to kill it. He had killed many raccoons before and will again. What could be the reason he lets this raccoon live?

Suggested Response:

Answers will vary. One is that Billy now has seen this raccoon as an individual and he cannot kill it. Another could be that Billy seems to feel that the death of this animal will come because of a bet, rather than as a normal part of hunting. Even though the Pritchard brothers see him as cowardly, Billy feels this raccoon shouldn’t die just to prove that his dogs are the best. This point is contradicted, however, when Billy enters his hounds in a hunting competition. Another possible answer may be that he does not feel the Pritchard brothers deserve the satisfaction of seeing the ghost coon die.


8. The setting of this book was in a poor community almost a hundred years ago. Billy Coleman killed hundreds of raccoons. His actions left many raccoons without their mates and many baby raccoons without one or both of their parents. However, we don’t consider Billy to be a bloodthirsty killer. Why is that?

Suggested Response:

Billy’s family needed to sell the raccoon skins for money to pay their bills and use the raccoons for meat to supplement their diets. Otherwise, we would not have thought too highly of Billy Coleman.


9. What helps Billy move beyond his grief over the loss of his dogs?

Suggested Response:

Billy believes that Dan died trying to protect him from the mountain lion and that Ann died out of loyalty and love for Dan. These beliefs mitigate the pain of loss. Billy’s father suggests that the dogs died to enable Billy to move with the family to the town where he will be able to get an education. His mother says that the dogs will go to heaven. Billy spends time alone, allowing time to grieve, and he hears the legend of the red fern, a rare plant which he sees growing in abundance between the graves of his two dogs. The legend adds a sacred feeling to their deaths.



See Discussion Question #9.


Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.



(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)


See Discussion Question #5.



(Play by the rules; Take turns and share; Be open-minded; listen to others; Don’t take advantage of others; Don’t blame others carelessly)


See the Quick Discussion Question.



Narrative, descriptive writing and opinion essays flow easily from the story about Billy and his dogs and can be differentiated to suit the age and skill level of students. Students can select from the following list of topics or they may well be able to come up with subjects of their own:



1. Narrate an experience you have had with an animal. The best narrations are those that show an idea or a lesson. Try to think of an experience from which you learned something important.


2. Narrate an experience that awakened you to animal rights or gave you a new way to look at animals.


3. Narrate an experience in which an animal that you love died or had to be given up. Be sure to describe the feelings involved in the experience.



Describe, using as much detail as possible, an animal that you know or have known well. Be sure to describe not only the way the animal looks, but its personality. Write about something the animal has done that serves to show aspects of its unique personality.



Do you agree or disagree with the following statements? Select one.


1. Animals should not be used for human entertainment in circuses, marine shows, or zoos.


2. Animals should not be used for sports such as bullfighting, horse racing, or rodeo competitions.


3. Pets should not be subjected to surgeries such as declawing, tail bobbing, or ear trimming.


4. People should not eat animals, especially mammals such as cows, pigs, and goats, because we can get the nutrition we need from plants and most animals in the factory farming system are tortured and brutally killed. This means that the only reason for people to eat meat is for the reason that we like its taste and texture and because it’s part of a traditional diet. However, each year millions upon millions of these “food animals” suffer an early and brutal death.


The book by Wilson Rawls is a classic and frequently assigned for late elementary grades.

This Learning Guide was written by Mary RedClay and James Frieden. It was published on June 29, 2010.

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