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10 Screwed Up Movie Orphans

10 Screwed Up Movie Orphans

This list was originally posted to SpoutBlog July 23, 2009.

By Christopher Campbell

When it was just the Adoption Community protesting the marketing of “Orphan,” a hackneyed horror flick about yet another evil adoptee, it was merely another minor controversy incited by a select interest group. But now members of the U.S. House and Senate have gotten involved with a letter campaign to Warner Bros. condemning the studio’s seemingly anti-adoption advertisements for and message in the film.

Is this really necessary after so many years and so many stories containing fucked-up orphans? Sure, Hollywood has given us too few Annie types in cinema over the past few decades, but certainly ‘80s television made up for this history with the likes of “Diff’rent Strokes,” “Webster,” “Small Wonder,” “My Two Dads,” “Punky Brewster,” et al. And adoptions were on the rise for most of that time, only dropping slightly in recent years, possibly due to the dwindling economy.

That isn’t to say we agree with cinema’s consistent misrepresentation of orphans or adoptees. So to expose the unfair reputation of parentless kids, we take a look at ten types of screwed-up orphans, which potentially keep more people from adopting them. Check out our list of characters and films after the jump:

The Wild Child

Reason for not being adoptable: dirty, smelly, can’t speak, doesn’t understand human language or, worse, etiquette.
Examples: Tarzan (numerous “Tarzan” films); Mowgli (numerous “Jungle Book” films); Victor, l’enfant sauvage (“The Wild Child”); Nell Kellty (“Nell”)

The story of the orphan raised in the wild has been around for a long time (see myths from Ancient Egypt and Rome), though most film examples are adapted from either Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Tarzan” novels or Rudyard Kipling’s “Jungle Book” stories. Feral children have existed in real-life, too, but the concept has become so steeped in legend and fiction that we never take the claims seriously (it doesn’t help that many have been hoaxes). And it’s hardly plausible that any potential adopters would worry about acquiring a kid raised by apes or wolves. However, if some brave prospective parent finds a kid in the wild, it might do them well to view a more realistic exploration of the type in Francois Truffaut’s “The Wild Child.”

The Alien

Reason for not being adoptable: strange powers, threat of alien invasion and/or abduction.
Examples: Tony Malone and Tia Malone (“Escape to Witch Mountain,” et al.); Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman (“Superman,” et al.); Stitch (“Lilo & Stitch”); E.T. (“E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial”); Gonzo (“Muppets from Space”)

There are few of this type that appear human, and therefore prospective adopters may not think of the possibility of getting an extra-terrestrial through adoption. It’s interesting that the recent “Witch Mountain” movie, “Race to Witch Mountain,” didn’t concentrate on the orphan aspect as much as the original, but then Disney isn’t as big into orphans as they used to be. The fact that Tony and Tia don’t even know they’re aliens at the beginning of that first film is key, because it could have allowed real-life wannabe parents to be even more wary. In the decades since, most alien orphans have been more like pet adoptees, but there are probably some foster parents out there who keep a close watch for super powers in their new dependents.

The Superhero

Reason for not being adoptable: strange powers, vigilantism, antisocial behavior.
Examples: Bruce Wayne/Batman (“Batman,” et al.); Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman (“Superman,” et al.); Peter Parker/Spider-Man (“Spider-Man,” et al.); James Howlett/Logan/Wolverine (“X-Men,” et al.)

To some extent, we can throw in Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker, but really if we’re going to strictly focus on screwed-up orphans, we should basically concentrate on Bruce Wayne, as he’s the one who grows up with the most psychological issues. Then maybe Wolverine, then maybe Spidey, while Superman primarily fits in the alien category above. Anyway, the orphan-turned-superhero seems to have more antihero and vigilante tendencies than the well-adjusted kids, and in Wayne/Batman’s case, it is likely his orphan status that caused him to remain such a man-boy, living the double-life of a bachelor and a crusader with “so many toys.”

The Hallucinator

Reason for not being adoptable: sees creatures and/or other imaginary foreigners.
Examples: Pete (“Pete’s Dragon”); Albert Franklin (“Bogus”)

Most movies involving imaginary friends don’t center on orphans, but the two examples listed seem particularly concentrated on the idea that adoptees and abused foster children will probably see and talk to giant dragons or giant Frenchmen in order to cope with their situation. To be honest, we might have preferred being a slave to Shelley Winters than crazily hallucinating cartoon creatures, but then again living in a lighthouse with Helen Reddy and Mickey Rooney sounds cool, too. Oh, but so does hanging with Jim Dale and Red Buttons. Man, no wonder that poor orphan was insane with all those lovable actors to have to choose from. Meanwhile, Haley Joel Osment got a step up when he went from seeing Gerard Depardieu to seeing dead people.

The Orphan Who Doesn’t Understand Love

Reason for not being adoptable: cold heart, naiveté, inability to relate to others.
Examples: Unity Blake (“Stella Maris”); Luisa Ginglebuscher (“The Good Fairy”); Will Hunting (“Good Will Hunting”)

This type can also be labeled “the melodrama orphan,” and may crossover with other categories. Mary Pickford’s Unity (also portrayed later by Mary Philbin and others), for instance, becomes a murderess. Margaret Sullivan’s Lu daydreams so much of fairy tales that she may as well have an imaginary friend. And Matt Damon’s Will is pretty much a mathematics superhero. But they all have in common the difficulty to love and be loved due to that figurative wall they’ve built around them after losing their parents. Lu has the most interesting issue, in that it reflects a fault in the Freudian idea that girls choose husbands who remind them of their father. Orphans, of course, aren’t familiar with their dads, so this becomes difficult for her.

The Orphan with Other Issues

Reason for not being adoptable: being an orphan is the least of his/her problems.
Example: Agrin (“Turtles Can Fly”)

It would be very difficult for any prospective adopter to change his/her mind about orphans after seeing the great Kurdish film “Turtles Can Fly.” Anyone who didn’t want to take care of these kids (not that this is the intention of the story) is a heartless son of a bitch. The same kind of terrible soul who doesn’t cry for the animated orphans of “Grave of Fireflies” or want to rescue Ricky Schroeder (and maybe a koala to boot) from “The Earthling.” Still, that said, there’s something very unpleasant about young Agrin, though her status as an orphan isn’t so much to blame. There’s also the fact that she’s a Kurd in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, she’d been raped and impregnated by a soldier and she gave birth to that bastard’s child. It’s not that much a surprise that she despises the kid, though it is shocking and horrifying what choices she makes in the end.

The Orphan Who Grows Up to Be a Serial Killer

Reason for not being adoptable: he/she’ll kill you and many others one day.
Examples: Hannibal Lecter (“Hannibal Rising,” et al.); Billy Chapman (“Silent Night, Deadly Night”); Annakin Skywalker/Darth Vader (“Star Wars,” et al.); Erik Lensherr/Magneto (“X-Men,” et al.)

It would be one thing if movies simply alleged that orphans are evil, but it’s far worse for orphans to be exploited as an excuse the way they are in many origin stories. Oh, let’s forgive Hannibal “The Cannibal” and Magneto because their parents were killed by Nazis. Or, if we don’t forgive them, let’s at least explain their pain by pointing out that they lived the hard knock life of an orphan. Sure, usually it’s Nazis or a man dressed as Santa Claus or Tusken Raiders who are really to blame for the violent futures of these unfortunate kids, but don’t think people don’t associate serial killers with always having orphan pasts thanks to what they’ve seen in the movies.

The Orphan Who Doesn’t Mean to Grow Up to Be a Serial Killer

Reason for not being adoptable: he/she’ll accidentally kill you and others someday.
Example: Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (“Perfume: The Story of a Murderer”)

Yes, Jean-Baptiste (Ben Whishaw) ultimately becomes an intentional serial killer, but not in the same way as those in the above category. He’s no slasher or world-dominator. He’s merely out to produce the perfect perfume, and killing virgins just happens to be the means to that end. Besides, he’s already fucked up before he sets out on his mission by being a curse to everyone he meets. Whether he’s inadvertently suffocating plum sellers or simply encountering multiple characters who soon die darkly comic deaths (Dustin Hoffman’s being the saddest, mostly because of the architectural damage).

The Horrific Problem Child

Reason for not being adoptable: he/she’ll kill you and others very shortly.
Examples: Rhoda Penmark (“The Bad Seed”); Damien (“The Omen,” et al); Esther (“Orphan”)

As if it weren’t bad enough to assume that your adopted child will grow up to be a murderer, there are also those movies that present us with orphans who are demonic creatures from the get go. It’s so much more difficult to accept the idea of a kid killing people, especially if they superficially seem like little angels, which is why The Bad Seed was such an anti-adoption movie way before Orphan — and even way before the original The Omen — came about. The only way to ensure that your child isn’t this fucked up is to be certain he or she isn’t the offspring of a serial killer or Satan. Of course, if you aren’t aware that your kid isn’t your own you have little hope in being prepared for raising the antichrist.

The Comedic Bad Seed

Reason for not being adoptable: annoying, sadistic, annoying.
Example: Junior (“Problem Child,” et al.)

Truthfully, if there was one film that made us wary of adopting, it was “Problem Child.” And if there were three films and a television spin-off, they were still the “Problem Child” franchise. At least if you somehow got a Rhoda or a Damien you’d have legal reason to kill or incarcerate the kid when you realized he/she was evil. With Junior (Michael Oliver), the boy is just an obnoxious and destructive nuisance. He may do some illegal things, but otherwise he’s just a fucked up, annoying brat who almost provides an argument for justified child abuse. John Ritter should have beaten some order into that ginger, and he would have been applauded for doing so. And then he should have kicked Gilbert Gottfried’s ass, too. Although, he should have known better than to adopt a kid from a guy like Gilbert Gottfried in the first place.

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