Children of a Lesser God is only the second film ever made by mainstream Hollywood to consider the experience of deafness in an often hostile world. The first was Johnny Belinda, made in 1948 and starring Jane Wyman. Both films examine the conflicts between assimilation and difference, and both challenge the patronage – and tyranny – of the hearing world over the non-hearing. In both films, the female protagonists live through extreme sexual abuse. But there the pictures diverge, with Children of a Lesser God offering a complicated, funny and often very moving portrait of a spirited and tortured heroine in Sarah Norman (Marlee Matlin).
When speech teacher James Leeds (William Hurt) takes up appointment at a school for the deaf in a remote part of New England, he seems, for the moment, the stereotypical trope made flesh: maverick teacher with a heart of gold who will come up against authority and transform lives. On a first viewing, one’s heart initially begins to sink. But we will learn there is more to him, and there is much more to the story than that. Certainly, James believes in the empowerment that the spoken word offers. He is an evangelizer with unorthodox means. He teaches his young charges to speak through engaging them with the popular culture they enjoy but feel marginalised from, he teaches them how to chat up the opposite sex, he freely encourages a vocabulary liberally sprinkled with Anglo-Saxon, and, with the aid of enormous sound speakers cranked to the max, he teaches them to sing. I mentioned that sinking heart. Well, we soon come to see that as much as James’s warm approaches to the beauty of speech and to helping his young deaf students make their way in the hearing world may be good things, they may spell wrongness – and selfishness, too.
Early on, in the school canteen eating lunch with other staff, James sees a beautiful young woman having an altercation in the kitchen with a chef. She is letting go of profanity after profanity with wildly gesticulating hands (one of many poetic and witty depictions of the beauty of sign language). James is intrigued. He learns that she is Sarah, a former student of the school, who, despite her clear intelligence, stayed on after graduating and well into adulthood to become the cleaner. James initially – albeit good-naturedly – sees her as a project. Several times he attempts to engage her in lessons. He wants to teach her to speak, to assimilate. She rejects his patronage and turns the tables, mocking his relatively poor signing skills. She even initially manages to con him that she cannot read lips. And this aspect of Sarah’s brilliance against his limitations is perhaps one of the most triumphant techniques of the film. James is so rusty he must speak out loud her rapid signing to process it – he is on the back foot and is shamed by his lack of ability, his laziness in not developing. And so are we. We watch Sarah sign and long to connect with immediacy. But we are shut out from her world, just as she is shut out from ours. Except that we have a choice.
Sarah is constantly angry, bitter and sarcastic. James becomes increasingly bewildered by her power over him, his growing sexual and emotional attraction towards her. He perceives her hurt. He wonders why she is so removed from her family. Their strange tango leads to a revelation. In fury, to shock him and drive him away, she tells him her secret: that as a young teen she was abused by her sister’s male friends, who queued up to have sex with her. Her sister was, essentially, the junior madam. ‘They didn’t even take me out for a Coke first,’ she remarks in a scene so sad it is almost unwatchable. What is interesting is that Sarah herself doesn’t classify this as rape, which, of course, it is. For her, it is distilled into her disempowerment and perceived de-humanisation by other(s) (all, of course, essential components in rape). The able world violates the perceived disabled. She expects James to be disgusted, charging that he thought he was being kind to the young virginal deaf girl. Afraid of dependency on another, she thinks this will end his interest. Instead, James now finds the attraction has become love.
His eventual declaration comes in one of the most beautiful scenes in modern mainstream cinema. Walking the streets in the rain, he knows he cannot go on. He strides to the swimming pool in the school, where Sarah spends many an evening alone. He stands at the edge of the water, she knows he is about to declare his feelings. Afraid, she swims away. He makes a joke out of it and falls into the pool, swimming toward her. They kiss, and she pulls him under – and into her silence. It is the only moment in the film where we see the two apparently united: physically, emotionally and psychologically.
For one of the great aspects of this film is that, unlike most pictures where desire is exhausted the moment the couple get physical, this film shows that desire is a lot more complicated than sex. It’s about the need for closeness, completeness, harmony, and for feeling understood. It’s about the distances between people. And this is where the couple run into trouble.
Once their relationship is established, James takes charge and moves Sarah into his house without even bothering to ask her how she feels about it. Their cohabitation quickly illuminates the difficulties and dangers of their dependency on one another. No matter how hard he tries, and for all his promises, James wants Sarah to speak – lost in the moment he asks her to cry out his name during sex, with terrible results. He wants her to share his joy when he listens to Bach, and this need eventually means he can’t enjoy the music without her. Sarah tells a dismayed James that if she had children she would want them to be deaf. Sarah, partly through his love, comes to rightly wish to assume her independence – even from that love. She wants to do something with her life. But she also does not want to assimilate to the hearing world’s expectations of how she might accomplish that. When she meets a successful, deaf female scholar who does not speak at a dinner party, Sarah wonders whether she too can become something in the world herself and yet maintain her integrity and her dignity. The incident prompts her flight from James – and an important and overdue confrontation with the mother who rejected her in favour of normalcy and the wider world that Sarah feels did the same.
One of the laudable aspects of this film is that deafness never becomes reduced to mere metaphor for the difficulties of relationships. Central to the film – adapted by Mark Medoff from his stage play – is a challenge to a society which seeks to marginalise the deaf (a society that includes even James and the kindly, if patronising, headmaster who cares for his students and adores Sarah). But, of course, the film benefits from a wonderful Oscar-winning central performance from Marlee Matlin: the first depiction of a fully sexual, brilliant and politically conscious female deaf person ever in mainstream film. She is aided by a quizzical William Hurt as a teacher who thinks he has all the answers – and realizes he is not even sure what the questions are until it is almost too late. The film’s complementary meditations on intimacy and alienation – and on idealization and pragmatism – attracted a wide audience.
How do we negotiate the way we wish to be accepted, loved and desired with the way others wish to accept, love and desire us? Can we and should we compromise? Is another’s vision for us perhaps better than the one we anticipate for ourselves? Can we be true to ourselves and be in the world? We have to give in here and there, whoever we are, if we want society – but, suggests the ending, we must first fight for our rights in order to understand what it is we can live with losing.