The Best Adoption Movies

presented by j:

in the spirit of Chrismukkah, boxer-briefs, sweet-and-sour, and all other great combinations, i decided, hey, why not make a list that combines my love of movies with my love of adoption?

i’ll be the first to admit that not all of these movies are strictly about adoption, but they carry enough of the adoption spirit to qualify. i’ll explain in probably more words than you care to read.

so, without further ado…

Honorable Mention: The O.C.

okay…so the O.C. is not a movie, it’s a tv show. hence, the reason it is an honorable mention. on the surface it’s easy to pass off judgement on the O.C. as some kind of drama-filled teen show of the same ilk as One Tree Hill. and though it has plenty of drama-filled teens in its story lines, the central theme of the show is the acceptance and adoption of abused teen Ryan into the unconventional, upper-class Cohen family. the Cohens’ ability to see past Ryan’s rough exterior speak volumes for their compassion, and they even take efforts to help his biological family rather than demonizing them or forcing Ryan to be separated from them. all things considered, fairly accurate and compassionate for a teen drama.

Dis-honorable Mention: Tangled

dis-honorable not because it’s a bad movie – quite the opposite. rather, Tangled is more of an adoption story in terms of what is absolutely wrong and unethical. like many trafficked children, Rapunzel is kidnapped from her loving family by a woman who cares nothing for her as a person but only what she can get out of Rapunzel – not unlike those who baby-sell or forcefully coerce mothers into giving up their children in other countries. Rapunzel grows up imprisoned and with no idea that her “mother” is actually her captor. Mother Gothel emotionally abuses and manipulates Rapunzel on a daily basis – all for her own selfish reasons. and though it’s a good thing Rapunzel escapes, she feels guilty for doing so, feeling like she’s done something wrong, and even at the *SPOILER ALERT* death of her adoptive mother/kidnapper, Rapunzel reaches out for her, emotionally conflicted about this woman who raised her and yet was also her oppressor. so – great example of emotional abuse and child trafficking…not so great an example of what adoption should be.

11. Annie

this is really Christa’s entry to this list as i’ve never actually seen it (to my recollection). Christa’s point in including it was the transformation of Daddy Warbucks from adopting Annie for purely self-serving interests to building a bond and genuine affection with her. the point being that not everyone starts out adopting for the right reason or with the best motivation. it also points out that it’s rare for adoptions to start with an immediate bond between parent and child, but given time, that bond can develop. maybe not today, but maybe “tomorrow, tomorrow.”

10. Hercules

one of Disney’s least-remembered animated films of all time, Hercules departs from the Greek myth upon which it is based to tell the gospel-esque story of a god who is made mortal. the adoptive elements come into play in that infant Hercules is adopted by a childless mortal couple who raise him as their own and must then confront him with the truth of his past as he comes of age. like many adopted children, Hercules has a deep-seated need to find out where he came from and form a connection with his birth parents, but in the end is also able to realize that he is not necessarily defined by his past, but by whom he loves.

9. Man of Steel

though the first 15-20 minutes are an absolute wreck, Man of Steel puts a different face on the Superman mythos, that of a man disconnected from his home, trying to figure out who he is and why he is the way he is. it’s amazing how often people forget that Clark is adopted by the Kents when they find him in the spaceship his father Jor-El built to save his life. one of the most powerful moments of the film happens when Clark, learning that he is adopted, asks his father Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), “Can’t I just keep pretending I’m your son?” to which Jonathan replies, “You are my son.” It was also interesting to see the filmmakers include scenes of young Clark having seemingly manic episodes as his super-senses develop in eerily similar fashion to how many adopted children struggle with sensory issues. some complained that Man of Steel did not focus enough on the Superman-Lois Lane connection…but that’s because that’s not what the movie was about – it was about an adoptee connecting to his new home – and ultimately, saving it.

8. Despicable Me

though Despicable Me is not the most accurate in terms of the adoption process – one of it’s funniest gags, after all, is the fact that famous super-villain Gru passes a standard background check – it does a great job of making adoption a friendly and positive thing, rather than a scary one. like Daddy Warbucks of Annie, Gru’s motivations in adopting are less than pure – he actually intends on exploiting three orphaned girls for his own villainous plot to steal the moon. but the struggles of taking in three unique orphan girls transforms his villainous heart into a heroic one. when he pushes away from them and allows them to be returned to the girls’ home, he realizes how desperately he needs them – and how much they have come to need him too. it also is a unique take on how adopted kids can sometimes view their adoptive parents in a “villain” light at times and how it takes time for some adopted kids to attach to their caretakers. but we get to see in the sequel how both parent and children are attaching with each other, and – as goofy as both movies are – it’s quite touching to see their relationships develop.

7. Tarzan

apparently animated films are more willing to deal with the subject of adoption than live action films are. and sometimes, in a more honest light. Disney’s Tarzan begins the same way that every adoptive child’s story begins – with loss. faithful to its source material, Tarzan, a human orphan is adopted by a broken-hearted but endearing gorilla who raises him as her own. as he grows, Tarzan struggles with the fact that he looks so different than the rest of the “family.” and in one of the most touching scenes of the film, Kala, his adoptive gorilla-mom, reminds him that they both have eyes, noses, hands, and hearts. so it is with many adoptive kids who feel disconnected from their culture of origin, and we see Tarzan’s own struggle to face his past as he meets other human beings for the first time, and he’s able to come to grips with the fact that he belongs to “two worlds, one family.”

6. Kung Fu Panda 2

now some may argue, saying, “wait, didn’t we already know Po was adopted in the first movie? i mean, come on, his dad’s a goose.” yes, we did already know that Po was adopted, but the first movie didn’t explore that issue – more just used it as a throwaway gag. it becomes central to the plot of 2 as Po struggles to learn about his past and why he lacks “inner peace.” and this is true for many adoptive kids – they lack inner peace from past trauma, from not knowing about their past or why they were given up or what happened to their parents, etc. Po also discovers, like many adoptees, that trauma has blocked-out early memories that return to haunt him. the end of the film *SPOILER ALERT* suggests that Po could re-connect with his birth family, and it will be interesting to see what the filmmakers do with that particular plot twist should there be a Kung Fu Panda 3. we hope there is.

5. Paper Moon

okay, so this one’s a *tiny* bit of a stretch for this list, but we love it so much, we feel like it belongs. Paper Moon, for those who have never beheld its glory, is about a recently-orphaned girl who takes up with a con artist who may (or may not) be her father in Depression-era Kansas. what makes the film so endearing, though, is the way that the cynical, dishonest Moses comes to really care for Addie and the fact that Addie feels so protective of him – a common trait for adopted children who are afraid their caretaker might leave them at any moment. and while the film never resolves who Addie’s father actually is, it’s clear where she’s meant to be.

4. Million Dollar Baby

this is another one that at first glance doesn’t really seem to be about adoption – or any kind of family – at all. but i’d argue the whole movie is about family, not boxing. allow me to explain: you’ve got Clint Eastwood’s Frankie, a cranky boxing manager who is estranged from his only daughter. every attempt to re-connect with his daughter is unfulfilled, leading to personal dismay that he hides from everyone but his priest (who doesn’t really like Frankie either). and so Frankie pours his energy into an ambitious female boxer, Maggie – a young woman from a family rife with poverty, abuse, emotional manipulation, and other dysfunctions. as hard as Maggie tries to please and help her family, she can’t seem to do anything right in their eyes and they distance themselves from her (until they want something from her, of course). and so these two broken souls find each other and enter a father-daughter-type relationship. and it’s only near the end *SPOILER ALERT* that we find out the nickname Frankie gives to Maggie (“Macushla”) is Gaelic for, “my blood, my darling.” and so, really without even meaning to, Million Dollar Baby is a story of an emotional adoption.

3. There Will Be Blood

yes, i know. another odd choice for this list. i’ll explain why, though. this is a great example of what NOT to do in an adoption. Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a cold, cold man with no personal attachments. after his business partner dies in an accident, he decides to take in his partner’s now-orphaned child, H.W., as his own. but he exploits his new-found son as a way to present himself to clients as a “family business man.” he keeps H.W.’s past a secret, pretending that H.W. is his biological child and making up stories of his “wife” dying in childbirth. in fact, he only reveals to H.W. that he is adopted *SPOILER ALERT* when H.W. is an adult and more as a way to spite him during a disagreement. when an accident impairs his son’s hearing, Daniel *SPOILER ALERT* sends him away to a special deaf school, essentially abandoning him on a train instead of going with his son to the school. no, it’s far too important for him to stay with his new oil well than to be emotionally present for his child. part of what makes There Will Be Blood so interesting as a film is that there are brief moments where we think that maybe Daniel can turn it around, become redeemed, where he genuinely seems to care for H.W. but he never quite gets there and ends up separated both physically and emotionally from his son. so yeah, this is more on the list because it’s a great depiction of what happens when an adoptive parent fails to connect with their adopted child and fails to help their child understand their past.

2. Juno

what’s so great about Juno is the fact that it focuses on the birth mother, a person who is all too often neglected, dismissed, or left out in adoption stories. Juno is imperfect, immature, and pretty selfish. in fact, probably the only selfless decision she has made in her young life has been to spare her unborn child – and only after a scary experience in the local abortion clinic. but by the end of the film, we completely empathize with Juno’s struggles to carry a child she knows she will not be keeping, and how stressful that is for her between all the extra hormones and feelings she is going through. and we also rejoice when that child *SPOILER ALERT* ends up in the arms of his adoptive mother who has longed for the day to have a child in her arms – yeah, i know, not much of a spoiler alert since you already knew it was about adoption. but the fact remains that it’s a nice change of pace to see a film about the one giving up the child – and one that does so in a compassionate light.

1. The Cider House Rules

and to top off this list is the too-much-forgotten The Cider House Rules, which follows life-long orphan Homer, who is twice-adopted and twice-returned to the orphanage run by Dr. Parcher – an ether-addicted yet sympathetic doctor who justifies his practicing abortion by saying he sees too many unwanted children who will never get adopted. and though i would disagree with his logic, his argument points out the clear fact that adoption saves lives. Homer, like other orphaned individuals, has a small worldview – that of the walls of his secluded Maine orphanage. so it’s no surprise that when he is older he decides to strike out on his own with some strangers and discover the world outside the walls, which leads to new emotions, experiences, and moral ambiguity he could have never imagined. Homer is a great example of how some kids from hard places never find a forever family. how different would the world be if they all did?

none of the movies in this list do a perfect job of expressing what adoption is – no movie can – but i think they do a much better job of dealing with adoptive issues than some movies.

so if you think i left something off this list or there’s one you’ve seen you would’ve included and i haven’t seen it, let me know!

4 thoughts on “The Best Adoption Movies

  1. Hey, friends! I like your blog! And this list! Luke and I just looked at it together and have to add Bella to the list. It's not a “great movie” but it is a beautiful story about adoption. Blessings!


  2. you know, i always meant to watch that one, but never got around to it. we'll have to check it out when we have the chance.

  3. Hi Guys. Just happened upon your blog through FB today. I love that you are here, and this list is awesome. I will warn you, though, “Annie” was an extremely hard story for my daughter, age ten, adopted at one from China. I love it for all the reasons you listed and more. I took her to see the play when she was 8.5. She didn't make it through the first song, which was “Maybe”, where Annie decides to run away in search of her birth parents. Mrs. Hannigan finds out and it was all downhill from there. She asked if we could leave, which is very unlike her, and my girl is still talking about how upset it made her. I thought the show would definitely bring up things for us to discuss later, and we did talk about the story some prior as well, but her reaction was one of deep anxiety and sorrow, and I did not see that coming! You never know what will trigger them.

    More importantly, congrats on Baby J!!!!! We have two children adopted from China, so believe me, I can relate to your journey and a that goes with it! Much love to all of you, your family is in my prayers!

  4. Hi Laurie – thanks for reading the blog. We totally agree with you. As with any such list, it must be taken with a grain of salt – not every film is fitting for every kid to watch and as adoptive parents, you're right, it's SO important to be sensitive to what is best for our kiddos, and sometimes we learn that the hard way. Again, thanks for reading and for the support – we are so glad to be home with him.

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