Orphan Stories

Why We Love Movies About Orphans

We root for Harry Potter for the same reasons we root for Oliver Twist and Shirley Temple: because they’ve lost their parents.

by Steve Daly, Newsweek, November 18, 2010

In the avalanche of moody, broody clips heralding the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, there’s a segment more overtly melancholy than the rest. It’s a scene of Harry (as played by Daniel Radcliffe) standing at the graveside of his parents, James and Lilly Potter, in a churchyard on Christmas Eve. The setting immediately conjures other holiday-time tales of familial woe and loss. This is the sort of cold epiphany Ebenezer Scrooge had, contemplating his own headstone in A Christmas Carol. It’s the rock-bottom desperation of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, rubbing snow off the cemetery marker that shows his own brother, Harry (now there’s a quirky coincidence), drowned at the age of 9.

There’s nothing new, really, in stories of bereavement appearing around the year-end holidays. It’s a perfect fit, since they tie into our longings for connection and salvation. So what is it that makes Harry Potter’s brand of existential isolation so especially compelling? What is it that keeps global audiences coming back to these big-budget movies even when they feel like increasingly rote ritual reenactments of much better books?

In good part it’s because author J. K. Rowling made Harry not just another orphan, but an orphan wrenched as dramatically as can be imagined from parental care. Harry didn’t merely lose his mom in infancy, like Oliver Twist. He lost her, along with his father, to the murderous rage of a megalomaniacal wizard. He didn’t grow up suffering with a merely indifferent adoptive family. He was kept in a cupboard under a staircase—as pathetic a homestead as exists anywhere in children’s literature. And Harry’s not just a Dickensian agent of nuclear-family redemption, like, say, Pip in Great Expectations. He’s the savior of an entire wizarding-world culture, which without Harry as a charismatic resistance leader would succumb to the fascist, racial-purity-obsessed madness of Lord Voldemort.

With this amped-up orphan hero as her foundation, Rowling piled on multiple beloved, tried-and-true themes—and these, too, help make the Potter saga feel like the best of all orphan narratives. The books and movies play primarily like mysteries, since it takes Harry years to unravel clues about his past and about Voldemort’s weaknesses. But they’re also classic boarding-school chronicles, with Harry finding his way around good and bad classmates and teachers. They’re smart political allegories as well, tracing the chilling details of how totalitarian forces can eat away at more tolerant regimes.

Now it’s nearly time to turn out the cultural spotlight on Rowling’s mashup prowess. With the Potter movies wrapping up in Hallows: Part 2 next July, there’s going to be a big blank spot to fill. Need another lost-soul avenger with extraordinary abilities? Look no further than the two leading comic-book franchises. It won’t be long before new cinematic chapters arrive for Batman, whose parents were murdered when he was 7, and Spider-Man, who’ll never get over the killing of his Uncle Ben by a criminal.

This holiday season, there’s already an orphan-palooza at the multiplex. Before year’s end, the computer-animated fairy tale Tangled, the action-movie spectacle TRON: Legacy, and the Western drama True Grit will all showcase, with considerable gravitas, spindled kids torn from moms and dads. Circa Christmas 2011, Martin Scorsese will unveil the Parisian-train-station urchin Hugo Cabret in 3-D, while David Fincher physicalizes the brutalization of state-ward adolescent Lisbeth Salander in his remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Of course, orphan stories generally have the greatest traction during the hardest economic times. That’s why dimpled mop-top Shirley Temple sold so many movie tickets during the Depression-era 1930s. In a new epoch of financial upheaval, we’re likely to go on embracing any number of fresh heart-tuggers about struggling waifs. We’ve come a long way from the comforting image of a cute little girl vanquishing fear by singing about animal crackers in her soup. But in dark days, we’re still yearning for the same essential comfort food: The sight of boys and girls alone in the world, like Harry Potter, finding a way to help themselves while we eat popcorn.

Orphans in literature empower children

By Deirdre Donahue, USA Today, July 2, 2003

Quiz: Why are so many heroes and heroines in children’s literature orphans? There’s Harry Potter, who lost both his parents at age 1 at the hands of the evil wizard Voldemort. And James Henry Trotter from Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, whose parents are killed by an escaped zoo animal, leaving him in the care of his revolting aunts. And the flame-haired orphan girl in Anne of Green Gables.

“The literary orphan dramatizes the difficulty of being a child,” says Kansas State University assistant English professor Philip Nel, who specializes in children’s literature. “That is, to be a child is to be subject to the forces of people more powerful than you are. Well, being an orphan makes the powerlessness of childhood that much more visible. At the same time, many literary orphans are resilient characters who, despite their relative lack of power, find the emotional resources to beat the odds and make their way in the world.”

Now at work on Dr. Seuss: An American Icon, which is due next year, Nel wrote a scholarly examination titled J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter Novels: A Reader’s Guide.

Although the loss of a character’s parents is a tragedy, it also allows the author the freedom to let his or her imagination run wild. For example, James Trotter travels to New York in a peach with his insect pals. And some characters are not technically orphans, Nel notes, but they live as though they were. He points to Astrid Lindgren’s immortal Pippi Longstocking, who does everything her own way. This is why she’s so appealing to Tommy and Annika, the children next door. Lindgren describes them as ” ‘good, well brought up, and obedient children.’ Well, Pippi is anything but that — which is why she’s fun to play with.”

Adds Nel: “Another function of the orphan story may be to allow the child reader to think about growing up. That is, an orphan is prematurely separated from his or her family, but we all have to leave home eventually. In this sense, perhaps literary orphans offer a sneak preview of the excitement and anxiety of growing up and leaving home.”

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