“Orphan” — The Anatomy of a Film-Release Controversy
by Adam Perry for the Daily Camera
[Weekend Cover Story]
Friday, July 23, 2009
BOULDER, Colo. — “Warlocks are enemies of God,” North Dakota pastor Becky Fischer adamantly preached about the “Harry Potter” series in front of a spellbound gathering of grade school kids in the startling 2006 documentary “Jesus Camp.”
“Had it been in the Old Testament,” Fischer continued, “Harry Potter would’ve been put to death.”
Some Christian groups have been divided over the past few years on whether the “Harry Potter” books and movies promote paganism among children, although the Vatican recently changed their tune on the controversy. According to Vatican’s daily newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, the latest “Potter” installment (“The Half-Blood Prince”) is a story that portrays the young wizard as “aware that the world of magic…is not exempt from malice” and admirably endorses “friendship, altruism, loyalty and self-giving.” Controversy or not, “The Half-Blood Prince” led box-office sales last weekend, earning almost $80 million in the U.S. alone.
Here in Boulder, controversies over Hollywood films are few and far between. Kathy and Robin Beeck, co-founders and co-directors of the Boulder International Film Festival, told the Daily Camera “the only [controversial film] that comes to mind is ‘Milk,’ and that was not based on film content but distribution,” alluding to Cinemark’s well-publicized hypocrisy for reaping the financial benefits of showing Sean Penn’s Oscar-winning Gay Rights film last summer while simultaneously funding the successful campaign to ban same-sex marriage in California.
“We have lived here for 32 years and just can’t think of other controversial films,” Kathy Beeck said.
Enter “Orphan,” which comes out in theaters this weekend. In the movie, a family adopts a little girl named Esther who turns out to be a violent psychopath with murderous tendencies. Adoption agencies and advocates around Colorado and the rest of the country are extremely upset about the film, and the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute even sent a letter of complaint to Warner Bros. CEO Barry Meyer recently, stating:
“We are concerned that in addition to its intended entertainment value, this film will have the unintended effect of skewing public opinion against children awaiting families both in the United States and abroad. [“Orphan”] may impede recruitment efforts by feeding into the unconscious fears of potential foster and adoptive families that orphaned children are psychotic and unable to heal from the wounds of abuse, neglect, and abandonment.”
Some may say that movies are just movies – did “Beethoven” make people not want to become dog owners or “Fatal Attraction” reduce the American desire to marry? – and we may never know whether the R-rated terror of “Orphan” really dissuade prospective foster parents from adopting or create insecurities in children who are in need of families and manage to see the film. But by taking the line “it must be hard to love an adopted child as much as your own” from commercials promoting “Orphan,” Warner Bros. has hinted at apparently realizing that they may have gone a little overboard.
Even with the censoring of that one line, “Orphan’s” trailer still features a nun saying “adopting an older child is not an easy decision,” followed by clips of the 9-year old girl pushing her foster brother in front of a moving car; setting a tree-house on fire; and even coming on to her foster-father.
“If this came out when I was younger, I might’ve been really sensitive to it and been offended,” says 15-year old Amanda Kae Serett, who experienced varied hardships in foster care as a young girl and now lives under the care of her older sister in Boulder, where she attends New Vista High School.
“When you’re taken away and put in another family, it’s really difficult,” says Serett. “I could imagine a foster kid being a scared, sad child after seeing something like ‘Orphan.’ And it’d be crappy to watch if you’re trying to adopt; you’d think of all the negatives [such as] ‘it might be a crazy little thing that might not love me.’”
Then again, as the cliché goes, any publicity is good publicity. On that note, Gabriel Bernier of the Family Enrichment Team (Boulder County’s official adoption agency) initially told the Daily Camera “my supervisor thinks that weighing in on this would do more to advertise the film than speak to our need of finding foster parents.”
Then the agency sent over a statement, part of which is excerpted here:
“In Boulder County alone, there are nearly 200 children and teens in foster care at any given time, and an average of twelve children in need of permanent adoptive care. These are the children of our community, and it is up to the individuals that comprise this community to take responsibility for raising them into the beautiful adults they will become.”
“I believe that our community members are stronger of mind than to be persuaded by a cheap Hollywood flick. However, this movie does perpetuate stereotypes, and negative stereotyping does nothing but damage to our whole community.”
In light of the love/hate relationship movie studios have with all this hype-feeding hullabaloo, New Line Cinema clearly could’ve made 2007’s “The Golden Compass” more financially-successful film had they not made Philip Pullman’s amazing fantasy novel about a little English girl’s quest to kill organized religion into a shallow Potter-like adventure where the Church is known as the “Magisterium.” Ted Baehr of the Christian Film and Television Commission said of “The Golden Compass” in 2007 that “children who buy into it are going to be trapped in a sad, desperate world,” but the film’s sales were tiny compared to that of “Lord of the Rings.” As a result, New Line may not even finish Pullman’s sensational trilogy; one has to wonder whether their effort to thwart a controversy over the film’s agnostic foundations actually thwarted its success.
As for “Orphan,” Warner Bros. is getting all the heat it can handle, and just might be loving it. A coalition of more than 50 orphan adoption and advocacy organizations has launched a national campaign with the website http://www.orphansdeservebetter.com as its keystone, attempting to squelch adoption myths.
Psychosocially, movies like “Orphan” seem like a pretty unnecessary and unhelpful way to present concepts about adoption. Whether efforts to stifle “Orphan’s” success actually make it a hit might be seen in the receipts from this weekend, but one hopes the average citizen – especially in Boulder, where 48-year old Lisa Novak is out on bail after stealing $40,000 from clients at her phony adoption agency — knows that malevolence can come from any situation or background.