Adoption in Fiction. Comment on how adoption is portrayed in fiction, either as a fiction reader or writer. Adoption in classic fiction often centers on the orphan experience, from Oliver Twist and Little Men, to orphan Jane Eyre living with her aunt and cousins. Today there’s the Twilight series and others that use adoption to explain “families” comprised of various vampires. Talk about other examples of adoption used as a plot device in fiction. What types of adoption stories or adopted characters have resonated with you? Or haven’t? Are the feelings and experiences described authentically, accurately? Discuss. As a writer, do you have a fictional adopted character? What issues is this character dealing with? What is their deepest secret or desire? If you have a desire to educate your readers about adoption, what do you want them to learn?
I love this topic. Because I never got too old to watch cartoons, I’ll be discussing that form of fiction. I once wrote a paper on adoptees in Disney movies, centering on Hercules and Tarzan. Of course neither of these characters in the movies are legal adoptees, but I think they comment on adoption and our attitudes about adoption.
Since it came out in the 1990s, Hercules reflects newer attitudes about adoption: his Twelve Labors are essentially presented as a “birth parent” search. And his adoptive parents don’t resent this, but encourage it.The only backward thing about the movie’s presentation of adoption is that his adoptive parents don’t tell Herc he’s adopted until he’s a teenager. At the end, when he should be going to Mount Olympos to join his true parents (because that’s been his aim all along), Herc decides to stay no earth with his adoptive parents and love interest instead. This is the kind of thing that annoys me not because it was wrong for the story, but because it always seems to happen. The adoptive parents always seem to “win” the battle of divided loyalties in fiction. Disney’s Jungle Book does have Mowgli go live among people at the end, but his natural parents aren’t part of the story, so nobody really “wins” this tug-of-war although Baloo, who likes to think of himself as Mowgli’s father loses (and then breaks into song for an upbeat ending).
Tarzan’s ape mother Kala is very like a human adoptive mother. In the beginning, she’s the type who deals with her adopted child by denying differences, as seen in the scene where she insists she and Tarzan are just alike because they both have two ears, a heart, and so forth. She even makes the mistake of encouraging his desire to be “the best ape ever.” Um, no, Kala, that can’t be. (And I’ve posted about that before, but I’m too lazy to go look it up.) By the end of the movie, she’s less insecure and has come to accept differences if not celebrate them, and her reward is that Tarzan doesn’t leave Africa to experience human society (WAT).
It’s worth noting that while Tarzan knows he doesn’t belong, he doesn’t know other humans exist. when he finds this out, he feels angry and betrayed like a late discovery adoptee, as he should. How cruel is it to let one’s child grow up believing he’s a freak of nature, entirely alone? It’s a different take on not telling a child he’s adopted…kind of like the celeb who said her adoptees knew they were adopted but not that this meant they had another mother. (In other words, they don’t know they’re adopted really. I also posted about this, you know the rest.)
Tarzan really resonated with me whereas Hercules somehow didn’t. Of course, Disney usually simply has a character lose a parent or parents simply to make us sympathize with him or her. It’s a cheap, cheesy ploy, and I wish they’d cut it out.
In Japan, where adoption isn’t as popular as in Western nations, adoptee-type characters in animated features are different. In Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, a girl is raised by wolves (or wolf-gods) after her parents literally fling her to them in hopes of not being eaten themselves: yikes. Not the way we generally portray a relinquishment in this country. Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers tells the story of three homeless people trying to return an abandoned baby to her mother. The “mother,” Sachiko, turns out to have stolen her from the hospital after miscarrying her own baby, a sort of illegal adoption after infertility. There’s a disturbing scene in which Sachiko, having lost all touch with reality, insists the baby drink from her breast, saying “We’ll never be close if you don’t” while the baby cries. It sums up my feelings about adoptive breastfeeding perfectly.
Of course neither of these characters is literally adopted either, but to me these stories feel like comments on adoption from a society that doesn’t celebrate or candy coat it.
One semi-animated film that annoys me a bit in its portrayal of an orphaned character is Hugo. (I don’t mean Hugo himself is a bad character.) Hugo is trying to build a mechanical man left in his father’s care because he’s sure it will have a message for him from his father…but no. This is handwaved away at the end when he gets a new family. Well, yay–but this moviegoer felt cheated. The movie just used the dead father as a device to explain why Hugo is so dead set on solving the mystery. I loved the movie in general, but I didn’t like his not getting that message from his dead father.
Most of the adoptee characters I’ve read in books are like Disney characters: their parents are killed off so we’ll sympathize with them, and the realities of how it feels to not have one’s parents around barely enter the story. Very few authors really deal with how it actually feels to be adopted.
As a writer, I’ve written one adopted character, one orphan, and one…kindasorta adopted character. (By that I mean she’s the institution of adoption that doesn’t exist in the setting I used, but she was taken from her mother and raised by others.) The adopted character is a child, and much of the story concerns her fantasies of natural parents. I did want to educate with that one; I wanted to put across how it feels to be an adopted child.
I don’t know what I was thinking when I orphaned the second character; it just kind of popped in there and wasn’t meant to educate at all. But the third character is in a tale/ghost story that is all about the bad things can happen when a person is denied her identity and the bad things that do happen in societies wherein women are essentially the property of their fathers or husbands. This character struggles with (literally) trying to become human, and fails. I wrote it as a warning.
I can’t help writing about people who are, as one reader put it, “on the outside looking in,” because I’ve always felt that way myself. (And now I don’t feel so bad about having written very short answers to some of these prompts. Whew!)