Adoption—when a child legally becomes a member of another family—is a frequent theme in cinema. The story of orphans still resonates with people, as we have seen with the success of the eight Harry Potter films (and seven novels). Though never adopted, and mistreated by his aunt and uncle, Harry experienced benevolence at Hogwarts that outweighed the malevolence that threatened him his entire life.
Adoption films are packed with dramatic power created by the emotions of loss, love, the search for identity and blood relatives, mystery, suffering, grief, hope and joy.
Juno (Ellen Page) becomes pregnant at 16. She goes for an abortion, changes her mind and finds a couple to adopt her baby. The husband (Jason Bateman) shows signs of cold feet, but the wife (Jennifer Garner) is desperate to be a mother. This film is filled with humor, heart and humanity while highlighting issues connected to adoption. Juno won an Oscar for screenwriter Diablo Cody.
Heaven on Earth
Orphan trains were established in 1854 (through 1929) to transport homeless or orphaned children for adoption from congested cities to wholesome farm families. The 1987 Canadian television film Heaven on Earth shows the sad and tragic history of the resettlement of children from England, Ireland and Wales through the story of three teenagers.
While the intention was that the children be adopted into good homes—and the girls find a home and a husband—the boys were exploited and treated with great cruelty. The fact-based 1979 film Orphan Train tells a similar story and can be seen in its entirety on YouTube.
In 1932, one of the most famous adoption stories was born via the imagination of DC Comics’s Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster: Superman.
Superman was born Kal-El on the planet Krypton and sent to earth by his father, Jor-El, just before the planet exploded. Kal-El’s rocket ship crashed into a Kansas field, and he was found and adopted by a farmer and his wife. The story has been through many film, television, comic book and video game incarnations. The last highly successful version was the CW Network’s Smallville, showing a young Clark Kent (Tom Welling) and what led up to his becoming Superman. Smallville just ended after 10 seasons, and all episodes are available on DVD.
Kung Fu Panda 2 and Toy Story 3
This year’s Kung Fu Panda 2 garnered some criticism because it shows Po, the panda, searching for the truth about his birth family and village, giving the impression to some that all adoption searches end happily. This is not always the case.
When I reviewed Toy Story 3 last year, a colleague who was adopted reminded me that the toys’ problem in the film was rooted in being abandoned by Andy, a concern that most adoptees deal with when searching for their identity. The question of why they were given up for adoption is a mystery most adoptees long to discover in their lives.
Secrets & Lies
Mike Leigh’s 1996 film, which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival that year, is about Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), an adopted black woman who begins a search for her white birth mother (Brenda Blethyn) after her adoptive parents’ death in London. The film follows the inevitable domino effect that Hortense’s search causes. Because all adoption records were opened in the United Kingdom in 1975, she was able to find her mother, adding another layer of complication.
The film wasn’t really written: Mike Leigh set up the scenes and let the characters develop the dialogue. This technique made the story seem realistic, insightful and moving.
Perhaps the most famous female orphan in English literature came from the pen of Charlotte Brontë in 1847. Jane’s parents are deceased and an aunt is raising her with much reluctance and no love. Jane’s aunt and cousins abuse her, and she is exiled to a girls’ school. She eventually becomes a governess who falls in love with the master of the estate after many obstacles and the passing of time.
Jane Eyre is a gothic mystery filled with pathos, romance and the author’s struggle to find a worldview that is good and an image of God that is benevolent. This year’s latest film adaptation, starring Mia Wasikowska as Jane and Judi Dench as the housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax, was the most authentic interpretation I have seen. Though Jane knew her family origins, her happy memories were few with security and comfort lacking. But, through the goodness of strangers, she finally creates a family of her own.
Daughter From Danang
Heidi Neville-Bub—born Mai Thi Hiep in 1968—was part of the 1975 Operation Babylift that evacuated Vietnamese children, many of them orphans, from Saigon. Because Heidi’s father was an American serviceman, her mother, Kim, knew that, as an Amerasian, Hiep’s life would be difficult in Vietnam.
Heidi was adopted by a single woman, Ann Neville, and raised in Tennessee. When Heidi was in college, their relationship broke down. As a wife and mother, Heidi began searching for her birth mother in Vietnam. Though their meeting was joyous at first, no one explained the Asian custom of a child with means caring for aging parents. The demands for money were a shock to Heidi, and the reunion ended in disappointment.
This 2002 documentary won the Grand Jury prize for documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival. The DVD is available at pbs.org.
Against the Wall, Lifetime, Sundays: A police drama that focuses on a Polish-Catholic family in Chicago, especially the detective-daughter, Abby (Rachael Carpani), who joins Internal Affairs and causes family havoc. A recent episode revealed the secret that the mother (Kathy Baker) had her oldest son out of wedlock; the baby was adopted by the man she later married (Treat Williams).
Secrets are found out, sooner or later, and truth can free us. I like the show. Though the characters are flawed, repentance and prayer are a part of life. How will this adopted father-son story line develop?