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The Highs and Lows of Adoption in Cinema

November is National Adoption Month. First proclaimed by President Bill Clinton in 1995, it is intended to help build awareness of adoption by sharing positive stories and dispelling myths. There are currently thousands of children in foster care, waiting to be adopted into a “forever family,” and every day, women make adoption plans for their newborns because, for one reason or another, they are not able to keep them. This is a time for everyone to think about these kids. As an adoptive parent, I can attest that the experience is rewarding beyond measure. As a film critic, I can also attest that movies have addressed the subject many times over the years. Sometimes they get it right. Other times, they propagate harmful misinformation about what adoption is, and what happens when you do it.

Negative-themed adoption movies typically fall into one of two categories. The first is the “demon child story.” Films of this sort tell stories in which a good-natured couple adopts a child, only to end up with a holy terror that makes their lives miserable. The 1990 comedy Problem Child is the worst offender. John Ritter and his wife adopt an out-of-control seven-year-old boy named Junior. He terrorizes other children, drives his mother’s car into a building, and has a serial killer for a pen pal. It is later revealed that he was previously adopted and returned 30 times due to bad behavior. Another movie in this category is the 2009 thriller Orphan. Stylishly made and genuinely suspenseful, it nonetheless tells the story of a couple (played by Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga) adopting a nine-year-old girl who turns out to be a psycho killer with a sexual thing for her new daddy. She also harbors a shocking secret.

Movies of this sort push the dangerous — and patently untrue — notion that adopted children are damaged goods. They play on fears of adopting a “defective” child, while also implying that adopted children are somehow not as desirable as biological children. The truth is that adopted children are no different at all. Yes, sometimes birth parents have mental health diagnoses or other ailments that might be genetically passed down. But that is often true in biological families as well. Also, nurture plays just as much a part in any kid’s life as nature does. Probably more. What’s infinitely more likely to happen, and I’m speaking from direct experience here, is that you adopt a wonderful, sweet child who makes your life happier and more fulfilled.

The other category of negative-themed adoption movies is the “taking baby back” drama. These films are about adoptive couples who have their dreams of familial bliss shattered when a birthparent shows up to reclaim the child they relinquished rights to. In 1995’s Losing Isaiah, crack addict Halle Berry shows up to take the infant she threw in a trash dumpster away from loving adoptive mother Jessica Lange. Immediate Family, a film from 1989, finds Mary Stuart Masterson changing her mind about adoption and trying to get her baby back from James Woods and Glenn Close. A faith-based film from 2010 called Like Dandelion Dust is about a drunken wife beater (Barry Pepper) who gets out of jail and makes a play to gain custody of the son his wife (Mira Sorvino) never told him he had. There’s even a picture offensively titled Adopting Terror, in which a biological father goes to violent lengths to retrieve his daughter from the couple that adopted her.

Such stories, even if well-told and ending on a positive note, paint birth parents in a bad light, suggesting that they’re profoundly dysfunctional at best, criminal at worst. It demonizes them. In reality, most birth parents make sound, informed choices when they make an adoption plan. Perhaps they cannot financially support a child, or maybe they are living in a bad circumstance and don’t want a child exposed to unnecessary hardships. The choice to make an adoption plan often comes with much thought and support, both from adoption professionals and loved ones. Such films also send a fearful message that adoptions don’t stick, and that if you do adopt a child, he or she will probably just be taken from you. The truth here is that adoption laws make this kind of thing nearly impossible. Granted, it’s a scenario that makes for easy big-screen drama, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect reality.

Thankfully, there are a number of movies that get it right. One of the best films ever made about adoption is Jason Reitman’s Juno. Ellen Page got her breakout role playing a pregnant teenager who makes an arrangement to have a childless couple (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) adopt her unborn baby. While some people had a problem with writer Diablo Cody’s quirky dialogue, there’s no denying that Juno is filled with healthy pro-adoption messages. Here, we see a young woman making a smart, self-sacrificing, carefully considered choice that is in the best interest of her child. She picks a couple who she thinks will give her baby plenty of love and a good life. This is a much more realistic portrait of adoption.

Perhaps most powerfully, there is a scene toward the end in which the main character, having handed over her newborn, lies on a hospital bed and cries. This sequence illustrates a powerful, important fact about adoption: Birthmothers love their babies, now and forever. (See another great adoption film, Philomena, for more on this.) They do not, as myth has it, place their children for adoption because they don’t love them or don’t care about them. They make this painful decision because they want their child to have the best life possible. Additionally, Juno offers a positive portrayal of open adoption, a scenario in which birth parents and adoptive parents know each other, and even develop a personal relationship.

Open adoptions also figure into another great adoption movie, 2009’s Mother and Child. This is a multi-thread story that looks at adoption from many different vantage points. Annette Bening plays a woman wondering about the child she was forced to place for adoption as a teenager. Naomi Watts is a woman who was adopted and has gone through life assuming her birth mother didn’t care about her. Kerry Washington plays a woman wanting to adopt, but dealing with a husband who views not having a biological child as “unnatural.” (Another of those pesky myths.) As its story lines play out, Mother and Child celebrates the things that are wonderful about adoption, while turning the harmful myths on their ear. It also argues, convincingly and correctly, that openness in adoption is beneficial for all involved. When everyone understands the whys of it, the process is healthier and happier.

Parents of adopted children who want to help their kids understand the situation are fortunate to have a number of good family films broach the subject. Kung Fu Panda 2 finds the title character making peace with the fact that the goose who raised him since infancy has been a father in every way possible. Despicable Me depicts an evil supervillain’s heart being warmed after adopting three little girls. And while many critics derided it for slapstick humor and overall silliness, The Smurfs 2 is actually an uplifting tale of adoption. In the movie, Smurfette (voiced by Katy Perry) struggles with the fact that she was created by nemesis Gargamel, then later rescued and raised by Papa Smurf. She feels that, because she came from somewhere else, she is not really like the other little blue creatures in her village. After a series of plot twists in which she temporarily returns to Gargamel, Smurfette goes home, secure in the knowledge that she is exactly where she belongs — surrounded by family. “It doesn’t matter where you came from,” Papa Smurf proclaims at the end. “What matters is who you choose to be.”

There are plenty of other examples of positive-themed and negative-themed adoption movies out there. The ones cited above are just a few. Hopefully, with ongoing education and advocacy, Hollywood will make more movies that portray adoption in a good light, and fewer that play it for exploitation. Adoption is a process that is done with vast amounts of love. One side makes a self-sacrificing choice because they love their child and want it to have the best life possible. The other side opens their heart to love a child fully, without regard for biology or origin. In the end, the child benefits from having so many people in its life doing what it takes to ensure happiness and contentment.

Postscript: For more information about the adoption process, the National Council for Adoption website is a wonderful resource.

Comment (1) on "The Highs and Lows of Adoption in Cinema"

  1. This article makes a lot really great points about how adoption is portrayed in film, but I’m a little uncomfortable with your using Philomena as an example, especially when you mention it in the same breath as Juno. Juno made the decision to give her child up for adoption. Philomena’s child was taken away without her permission or without being able to say goodbye. Anthony/Michael was more stolen, than adopted.

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