Horror Film 'Orphan' Wins Box Office, Stirs Debate

The new horror movie, Orphan, had a strong showing at the box office this weekend. But the film, a tale about an orphaned girl and the terror she inflicts on her new adoptive family, struck a nerve with some parents and critics who believe the movie sends harmful messages about adoptees. Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday, an adoptee, and Dr. Jane Aronson, founder of the Worldwide Orphans Foundation, discuss the fallout.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

MARTIN: They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. We visit with a diverse group of parents each week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice. Today, we want to talk about a new film and whether it pants a disturbing, even dangerous picture of international adoption.

Hollywood's latest horror offering doesn't involve Jason, Freddie or any of the other deranged madmen who star in some of Hollywood's most famous horror franchises. The new movie "Orphan" opened this past weekend. It took fourth spot at the box office with $12.7 million in receipts.

The movie follows a supposedly sweet, well, orphan girl with a secret past who then tries to destroy her new adoptive family. When many movie fans see this film as scary but harmless, some critics argue that the whole premise of the film sends a terrible message to potential adoptive parents and plays up on stereotypes that can keep older children from being adopted.

To talk more about this, I'm joined by Dr. Jane Aronson. She's a pediatrician who specializes in adoption medicine. She is herself an adoptive parent. Also with us is Ann Hornaday. She writes film reviews for the Washington Post.

Ladies, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. Ann HORNADAY (Film Critic, Washington Post): Thank you for having me.

Dr. JANE ARONSON (Pediatrician, Founder of the Worldwide Orphans Foundation): And thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Dr. Aronson, I just have to ask: What is adoption medicine?

Dr. ARONSON: It is a specialty of pediatrics, wherein you specialize in the care of children adopted both domestically or internationally. Of course, the international aspect is a challenging aspect of medicine because there are many conditions that children may experience from being in developing nations, many of them infectious disease in nature and malnourishment.

MARTIN: Now you raised alarms about this film even before it was released, but you have seen the film now. So tell us, what is your concern about the film?

Dr. ARONSON: I have a number of concerns. I did raise a lot of questions about it from the minute I saw the title of the movie. And then once I saw the trailer and saw a number of very, very uncomfortable statements made in it, I realized that it was going to be like many media pieces. Over the 20 years that I've been in adoption medicine, there are many, many pieces in the media, print, and TV and radio that accentuate this sort of "Bad Seed" philosophy around internationally adopted children. But I did see the movie in its entirety on Wednesday evening, unfortunately for me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And I think that's important, though, because I think that oftentimes, trailers exist for the purpose of playing up the most sensational aspects of a film. So tell us, now that you've seen it, does it fulfill your concerns?

Dr. ARONSON: I think for me - I'm going to say very simplistically here - and that is that the concept of featuring a movie that uses the word orphan and the concept of the orphan as someone who is evil and demonic just simply perpetuates the stereotypes of what people think of the stranger. It's xenophobia in its worse form.

MARTIN: Ann, let's bring you into this. You, too, have seen the film. I think it's fair to say you did not love it at all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: In fact, let me read a couple of lines from your review, which ran in the Washington Post Weekend section on Friday.

It's hard to know where and with whom to begin when assessing the depraved, worthless piece of filth that is "Orphan," a high-gloss horror show about - as we said - a well-meaning couple who bring home a nine-year-old girl to join their family, only to discover way too late that she's a homicidal psychopath.

So tell me why you think this is such a terrible film?

Ms. HORNADAY: Well, I do concur with Dr. Aronson about the message that it does send. And just by the way, I adopted my daughter internationally, I and my husband, and I'm also an adoptee - a domestic adoptee. So I'm kind of coming at it from that point of view, as well. And I totally agree with the sort of normative messages that media can send and that people can internalize which should make us all the more, sort of, alert to these messages.

But, you know, I want to know - it's not as if, you know, adopted children can't ever be portrayed in movies or even portrayed less than rosily. It's just the movie had better earn it, and this movie does not earn - you know, it's so gratuitous. And finally, at the end of the day, it's just a bad movie, which I think might actually be a piece of good news. So I'm sort of hoping that it's own sort of ludicrousness and - I mean, the production values are very high, but the story itself is just so over-the-top.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Dr. Jane Aronson - she's a pediatrician who specializes in adoption medicine, and she's an adoption advocate - and film critic Ann Hornaday. We're talking about the new horror film "Orphan," whether it plays on stereotypes of adopted children.

Let me just play a short clip just so that people who may not have seen the trailer - It is R rated, so let's just play a short clip.

(Soundbite of movie, "Orphan")

Ms. VERA FARMIGA (Actress): (as Kate Coleman) Everything about her could be a lie. Everything.

Mr. PETER SARSGAARD (Actor): (as John Coleman) But we have her passport, her birth certificate, school records, medical records.

Ms. FARMIGA (as Kate Coleman) These are papers. Honey, they're papers from halfway around the world.

MARTIN: And that's the mother, I guess, explaining that because this is a foreign adoption, that the family can't really know the full story of Esther. But again, I'm going to ask each of you - and Ann, I'll start with you - there were who say it's just a movie. It's R-rated, so kids really shouldn't be seeing this movie, anyway. What do you say to that?

Ms. HORNADAY: Well, that's true. And I think it's also true that somebody mentioned "The Bad Seed." I mean, there is sort of this long cinematic tradition of scary children, you know, all the way back to the '40s. You can defend the use of sort of the scary child trope. But again, the movie has to earn, and this movie just takes it to such a perverse extreme that it can't claim to have earned it at all.

MARTIN: Dr. Aronson, talk to me a little bit more, if you would, about what your concerns are because I heard what you said about it. It plays on these stereotypes. But as we've seen and as we've discussed, they're a number of films this summer that play on stereotypes. I mean, the robots in "Transformers" that some people are offended by. In "Bruno," a number of people are offended by. And people say, well, you know what? It's summer. That's what some films do. You don't have to see it. Nobody's requiring you to go see it. So talk to me a little bit, if you would, about what you're concern is.

Dr. ARONSON: But the movie made $12 million. So let me just take a few ideas, here. The fact that people, anybody will see the movie means that people will be exposed to yet more damaging information which many naive individuals who are not educated about adoption and about what an orphan is can take into them - into their souls and their minds. And then when they're in a classroom or they're working at a local business, this becomes part of society.

MARTIN: Can you give me an example of - having worked, as you have, with so many adoptive children - can you give us some examples of how they have absorbed negative messages about themselves that you have personally experienced or seen or heard?

Dr. ARONSON: Oh, my God, hundreds of examples of it. In fact, in the last few months since this has come up, many children saw the trailer either on TV or in the movie theaters where they were seeing other movies that were actually okay for them to see and then came home to their families and discussed it.

I have yet another story yesterday, too, actually, someone I know very well who was really not, in a way, very naive about that possibly this movie could affect the child. And the child actually had seen the trailer weeks ago and never mentioned anything to the family. And then when they saw the poster -this is a five-year-old who saw that horrible, evil poster and then came home to the father and said you know, is that who I am? Is that who people think I am? She went on and on about it and got very teary and upset. And this is the kind of thing you will hear from kids when they're exposed to any information.

It could be very simple in a classroom, Michel. It could be where kids are assigned the wrong kind of assignment regarding Father's Day or Mother's Day or family tree assignments, anything that makes a kid realize that somehow they've been isolated from the world and they're not normal like other children is not a great thing. So it's not just about adoption or orphans. It's the way in which we treat children. Children need to be respected and they need everybody to understand that developmentally, they understand a lot.

MARTIN: So Ann, so the final question to you is - and forgive me if this is beyond the scope of what you feel is appropriate for you as a critic. But I did want to ask your take on this question of what kind of social responsibility do you feel the movie industry has.

Ms. HORNADAY: Well, I think, you know, the movie industry is comprised of individuals, and individuals each - who has a conscience. And I just think it's a - it's, you know, I think they can be held accountable. But it's a - and it is a two-way street. And I think that when something like this comes up - we live in a democracy. I'm not for prior restraint, but, you know, they deserve every bit of push back that they're getting from people like Dr. Aronson and other critics. And that's part of the process, and that's part of, you know, I think the larger issue here is really media literacy and making sure that filmgoers - from children on up - are critical viewers and critical thinkers.

MARTIN: Ann Hornaday is a staff writer and film critic for the Washington Post. She joined us from her office in Washington. Dr. Jane Aronson is a pediatrician specializing in adoption medicine. She's also the founder and CEO of the Worldwide Orphans Foundation. Dr. Aronson was in New York.

Ladies, moms, thank you so much.

Dr. ARONSON: You're very welcome.

Ms. HORNADAY: Thank you.

MARTIN: Of course, we called Warner Brothers for a response. A representative gave us the following written statement. It reads: "Orphan" is a work of fiction. It is not a depiction of any real life events or situations and has never been portrayed as anything but an entirely fictional story. We apologize if we appeared insensitive with the initial trailer, as it's never our intent to offend anyone with our products.

And, of course, we'll post this on our Web site at the new npr.org. And go -just go to programs and look for TELL ME MORE. And remember, you can hear any story from today's program, as well as stories in the NPR archives through the new npr.org. Stories, topics, programs and free transcripts are easier to navigate, search and share. And you can find out more at NPR.org.

We did not get to our story about tensions in Portland, Maine between Sudanese immigrant communities and that city's police force. We plan to have that for you tomorrow.

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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Statement From Warner Bros.

"Orphan" is a work of fiction; it is not a depiction of any real-life events or situations and has never been portrayed as anything but an entirely fictional story. We apologize if we appeared insensitive with the initial trailer as it's never our intent to offend anyone with our products.

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