Warner Brothers’ latest horror movie, called Orphan, is scaring the bejabbers out of thousands of Americans well in advance of its July 24 debut.
The posters display the single word OrPHAN, scrawled in red over black in that font we all recognize as the favorite of kidnappers, assassins, and sociopaths. The movie trailers, already in theaters and on TV, include the ominous line: “It must be difficult to love an adopted child as much as your own.”
“Older children from orphanages are incapable of love!” you are warned. “They set fires! They hoard food! They kill pets! Beware!”
Truly horrified—not happily, screamingly horrified, not throwing-the-popcorn-and-hugging-your-date and getting-what-you-paid-for horrified, but horrified at the callousness of Warner Brothers—adoptive and foster parents and others concerned with the fragile welfare of the world’s most vulnerable citizens are calling for a boycott of the movie.
None of them have seen it yet, though some have tried. (Two screenings in New York were canceled.) But when a movie’s trailers are this offensive, it’s hard to imagine the feature-length version will lighten anyone’s mood. It’s difficult to love Warner Brothers as much as you love your own children by adoption.
In the trailers, we learn that an affluent white American couple with two cute biological children are grieving a miscarriage when they decide to adopt an older child, a black-haired thick-browed creepy 9-year-old girl of obscure provenance named Esther. They drive to an old-fashioned orphanage (what year is this?), talk to a nun (what year is this?), and then leave with a 9-year-old Russian girl who lives there for some reason.
There’s no hint that parents actually spend months and years on legal work, social work, background checks, home visits, and courtroom appearances in order to adopt a child. The trailer gives the impression that any couple with a yen for “a replacement child” (as this psychologically unhealthy practice is known) can stroll into an orphanage, pick one out, and take her home.
Even Humane Societies have an application process before handing out kittens and puppies. Even civic groups who want to “Adopt a Highway” fill out a few forms first.
Almost immediately it becomes clear that Kate and John have not brought home a sweet little girl but have introduced into their family a mythic amalgam of Rosemary’s Baby, The Bad Seed, Grendel, and the shark from Jaws. Pure evil has appeared in this upscale family home, and you can tell it’s pure evil because of that scary font, the disturbing soundtrack, that black hair, and the fact that she’s a Russian orphan adopted as an older child. Can it get scarier than that?
Grassroots protests began against the film’s PR campaign. Protesters include parents of older children adopted from foreign orphanages, aware that their own children waited a long time for families because most prospective parents are looking for healthy babies to adopt. Protesters include people who believe that TV newsmagazines and sensationalistic reports have demonized orphanage children from Eastern Europe enough already and that OrPHAN is just piling on.
With the overthrow of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, a concentration camp-like world of imprisoned children was exposed to the world. A majority of them were black-haired, brown-skinned Roma children discarded in a land of unrepentant racism; many of the white children had been born with conditions like cleft palate, Down ayndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome, crossed eyes, or club feet in a society that found disabilities shameful. Thousands were adopted by families in North America and Western Europe. Few arrived unscathed.
It turns out that profound neglect, prenatal exposure to alcohol, exposure to extreme heat and cold, malnutrition, denial of health services, silence, and cruelty give children a rough start in life!
While the vast majority of the post-institutionalized children—fondly called “resilient rascals” by one researcher—adapted to family life and thrived, a few (the stuff of headlines) showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder or other psychological challenges. Some began to steal, to lie, and to act out violently, especially toward their new mothers. A handful of stories, real or exaggerated, entered popular culture. No one knows this better than adoptive parents of older post-institutionalized children (of which I am one) because of the dire warnings freely offered by concerned friends and relations. “Older children from orphanages are incapable of love!” you are warned. “They set fires! They hoard food! They kill pets! Beware!”
The movie OrPHAN comes directly from this unexamined place in popular culture. Esther’s shadowy past includes Eastern Europe; she appears normal and sweet, but quickly turns violent and cruel, especially toward her mother. These are clichés. This is the baggage with which we saddle abandoned, orphaned, or disabled children given a fresh start at family life.
Dog lovers (of which I am also one) wouldn’t stand for a movie like this. What if last summer’s hit, Marley & Me, had been a horror flick called SHeLTeR Dog, in which a rescued Golden Retriever turns out to be Satan’s spawn, mutilating Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson with bloody pointed teeth and tearing apart their baby? Animal lovers everywhere would have been up in arms, fearing that such myth-making could actually scare people away from taking in shelter dogs.
Adoptive parents organized a Facebook group called "I Am Boycotting Warner Bros’ 'Orphan' Movie," which has 4,392 members (of which I am one). The Christian Alliance for Orphans launched an initiative called Orphans Deserve Better. Its poster keeps the scary font and the word "OrPHAN," but replaces the chilling face of Esther with a chubby smiling brown-skinned toddler under the tagline, “There’s something beautiful in the face of an orphan.”
Someone in the Warner Brothers hierarchy must have said, “Uh oh.” In the minds of movie-industry people, the word “BoYCOTT” appears scrawled in red over black, in the Font of Evil.
Scott Rowe, senior vice president of corporate communications at Warner Bros., contacted Bethann Buddenbaum, co-founder of the Facebook group, to say that her concerns had been heard. He explained that there is a “hook to the plot that ultimately removes the child/orphan stigma.”
What does that mean? That Esther is neither a child nor an orphan? What a spoiler! Rowe also promised that the offensive tagline, “It must be difficult to love an adopted child as much as your own” was being replaced.
The new tagline is: “There’s something wrong with Esther.”
Is this an improvement? Jane Aronson, head of the nonprofit group World Wide Orphans and a pediatrician devoted to institutionalized and post-institutionalized children, doesn’t think so. “There’s something wrong with Esther” continues “to perpetuate negative stereotypes that there is something dysfunctional or inherently wrong with children who need families,” she recently wrote. “The fact remains that millions of children around the globe are parentless due to circumstances beyond their control.”
I didn’t see this one coming. I was watching basketball on TV with my 14-year-old son Jesse, who is a Rom adopted at age 4½ from an orphanage in Bulgaria. The movie trailer came on. The word OrPHAN caught our attention. “Adopting an older child is not an easy decision,” says the nun, but the couple chooses Esther anyway. They show her a beautiful house, a pretty room. Then all hell breaks loose, involving thunder, lightning, squealing tires, broken glass, screaming, pop-outs, and car accidents.
“There’s something wrong with Esther,” appears in black letters, filling the screen.
Jesse’s jaw dropped. Then he looked over at me with a half-laugh and offered, “That’s kind of weird.”
It’s more than weird. It’s lazy, irresponsible, and cruel. There’s something wrong with Warner Brothers.
Melissa Fay Greene is the author, most recently, of There Is No Me Without You: One Woman's Odyssey to Save Her Country's Children, and she is the mother of nine, five of whom joined the family at older ages from orphanages in Bulgaria and Ethiopia. Visit her online at www.thereisnomewithoutyou.com