Oskar's refusal to grow up, when on his third birthday he receives what is to become his ubiquitous tin drum, is seen as a rejection of the responsibilities that come with adulthood. He wants a darker version of a Peter Pan-like freedom to do as he pleases. Not only does he want to march to his own drum, he wants everyone else to march to it as well. When he discovers that his high pitched screams can shatter glass, he learns that he can manage the adults and get them to do what he wants, without any responsibility for his behavior. On the other hand, given the childish often immoral behavior of the adults around him, his rejection makes sense. His mother, father and uncle are engaged in a love triangle. They do little to keep their sexual peccadilloes quiet. The German neighbors and townsfolk fall prey to the Nazi pomp and propaganda. If this is what it is like to be an adult, why not remain a child?
Punctuating Oskar's narrative of some of the major historical events of first half of the last century are a series of memorable set pieces, unforgettable moments and images that will bury themselves deep in the consciousness: Oskar's birth as we emerge with him out of his mother's womb almost fully grown, the horse's head filled with eels pulled out of the ocean by a fisherman as the family walks the beach, the Nazi rally that turns into a waltz fest, the Nazi attack on the nuns walking on the beach. Not to mention the troublesome sexuality of the scene in the bath house between Oskar and Maria the young girl who is destined to become his stepmother—a scene, along with one or two others that was to create some trouble for the film with censors in Canada and Oklahoma.