Friday, September 14, 2007

Friday Film Night : Children of A Lesser God

This Friday at The Pink Heart Society our lovely columnist Kate Walker introduces us to a favourite of hers ~ Children Of A Lesser God...


I can almost hear the questions already.

Kate’s first Film on Friday and there’s not a sign of Hugh in or out of a towel?

Well no. Because I’m working on a new book and, lovely as Hugh is, none of his films quite fit in with the mood I’m trying to create. None of them have quite that’ Presents’ type feel. The one about lack of communication and intense frustration and powerful sexual attraction . . . For those I’ve gone back to an old favourite. A really old favourite. Because Children of A Lesser God came out in 1986.

Those of you who know a bit about my writing career will know that my first book came out in 1984, and that after that there was a gap with nothing published until 1986. I was ill for almost two years, my mother died, I was struggling with second and third book – blues. I was close to losing the enthusiasm I had for writing romance – for writing at all. But as I started to get better I started to take an interest in life again and as part of that process I saw Children of a Lesser God – and I remember coming out of the cinema thinking that I wanted to write passionate, intense, powerful stories just like this one.

Watching this film taught me something – or, rather, it brought me back to something I knew but that life at the time had almost knocked out of me.

The trick of telling a love story is deceptively simple: You find a core of romantic energy so strong that nothing -- not the events of the story or the circumstances of the characters -- intrudes. And that's what Children of a Lesser God does. This is romance the way Hollywood used to make it, with both conflict and tenderness, at times capturing the texture of the day-to-day, at times finding the lyrical moments when two lovers find that time stops.

Children of a Lesser God by Mark Medoff won the Tony Award as Best Play of the 1978-1979 season. Hesper Anderson and Mark Medoff turned that into a screenplay which opens up the drama and makes the most of the story's romantic vibrancy. It’s also a film about communication – the different ways that men and women use words, the ways that we communicate without words. When no words are possible, what do you put in their place? And how can something as simple and everyday to most of us as speaking to each other become almost a form of tyranny, an imposition on another person? Because the point about these two lovers is that one of them – Sarah - is profoundly deaf.

The danger here is that the film could have been, as the stage play actually was, mostly about deaf politics. But in the film screenwriter Hesper Anderson jettisons most of the theorizing, boiling it down to the conflict between Leeds and Sarah. Those aspects of Children of a Lesser God that made it more a tract than a play are gone; it becomes a story about two people whose failure to communicate is simply more dramatic, but really no different, than everyone else's.

William Hurt is James Leeds, an idealistic speech therapist, is hired to teach at a school for the deaf. He uses innovative methods to inspire his eleventh grade class to read lips and speak. Even the sceptical principal of the institution is impressed with the new professor's success. Then, James meets Sarah, a twenty-five-year-old former student of the school who is now employed as a cleaner. Born deaf, she has refused to learn lip reading or speech. Realizing that Sarah is very intelligent (her signing is brilliant), James determines to help her communicate more effectively in the wider world and offers to tutor her. But Sarah refuses to regard herself as needy and rebels against his attempts to make her into a poor imitation of those who can hear and speak. Mesmerized by her fiery independence and sensual beauty, James falls in love with Sarah. The feeling is mutual, and she moves in with him. However, despite their valiant efforts to break down the barriers which separate them, they are unable to penetrate each other's universe. James is frustrated by her stubborn resistance to adapt to the hearing world; Sarah resents his attempts to dominate and reform her. Following a violent confrontation, Sarah walks out and goes to visit her mother. Eventually, after a separation which only accentuates their need for each other, Sarah and James are reunited. They vow to find a way of being together in a world which transcends both speech and silence.

James is an ex-hippie, something of a goofball, and Hurt builds into the character a series of raggedy, almost cartoon like effects and in his playful relationship with his students (all of whom are actually deaf), as they play games or learn silly songs, first-time director Randa Haines finds a way to lighten the movie's tone, to give the audience a release in humour. But there's something subtler in Hurt's performance, something that shows how Leeds' confidence about the good he's doing masks a gnawing uncertainty. He's a seeker, and he knows deep down that he still hasn't found what he's looking for. Till, of course, he meets Sarah, who impresses on him that teaching the deaf to speak (instead of to communicate through hand signs) is a form of aggression and control, a way to drag the deaf into the world of the hearing.

The sexual attraction between them is intense. In bed, like so many Presents heroes and heroines, they communicate wonderfully. But they can’t stay in bed all day long. Even ‘talking’ is a complicated process, more complicated than most where Sarah’s signing is painfully limited for real communication. . So if he wants to really get to know her, James has to learn to read what she’s saying with her eyes and her facial expressions as well as her flashing hand movements.

There are so many things they just can’t share. James loves music – particularly Bach – to relax he likes to put on a record and switch off, just lying there listening to something beautiful. Until he realises that even the music is no longer so wonderful because he can’t share it with Sarah. Which leads to some haunting scenes in the school's pool. Once underwater, Leeds is on Sarah's turf, a blue and quiet world -- that's where the real connection is made, where Leeds jumps out of himself and sees the world the way Sarah sees it - which is, after all, what love is all about.

This makes the movie intimate where the play wasn't. The choice of actors (and nonactors) who are actually deaf makes it more intimate still, particularly with the casting of Marlee Matlin who won the Oscar for Best Actress for the role.. She'd had very little acting experience, but you couldn't tell from Children of a Lesser God. The most obvious challenge of the role is to communicate without speaking, but Matlin rises to it in the same way the stars of the silent era did -- she acts with her eyes, her gestures. And from their first scene together, she and Hurt work up a sexual heat that makes the intensity of their relationship totally believable. In fact the two leads became lovers and lived together for a time after the film was made.

The one problem with this film is that because Sarah’s character never actually speaks, the director has to resort to around the convention of having James translate nearly everything Matlin says in sign language which is an obvious artifice in an otherwise lifelike story. But somehow William Hurt manages to make this part of his character’s growth, his intonations, his expressions showing how the man who was so sure he was right is learning how to adjust, how to really understand, really communicate with the woman he loves. Just as she has to learn to adjust to being with him.

Children of A Lesser God had the tag line - Love has a language all of its own. With the elements it has in it, it could be pure mush, instead it’s a heart-pounding love story – pure Presents.

Kate's 50th title THE SICILIAN'S RED-HOT REVENGE was published in Presents in July. Her next title will be THE GREEK TYCOON'S UNWILLING WIFE which is out in M&B Modern and Harlequin Presents in November.

Are you in to try and win tonnes of goodies with The PINK HEART SOCIETY TREASURE HUNT??

Today's Birthday Present for the Lil Pink Dancing Guy can be found at Donna Alward's Blog....


  1. I will have to search the movie out. I never have because I've so often been disappointment when I've seen a piece of theatre transferred to film but this sounds good.

    Deaf politics, in the UK at least, continues much the same. I touched on them in 'Millionaire Dad: Wife Needed'. It's amazing what's been done in the twenty plus years since this movie was released but there are still huge funding issues and a real need for communicators and interpretors.

  2. Oh, I love this film-- thanks for reminding me to watch it again Kate! It's incredibly atmospheric and has a beautiful, poignant autumnal quality that's hard to pin down in words but infuses every frame on screen.

    And the pool. The pool bits are just magical...

  3. This sounds a wonderful film - I've never watched it but I'm definitely going to buy it. Thanks so much, Kate, for telling us about it.

  4. I have three deaf and hard of hearing kids and I just realized that I haven't shared this film with them.

    I'm going to take a trip down memory lane and break out the popcorn next weekend!