Reel/Real Impact: Children of a Lesser God (1986)

Children of a Lesser God is a film that changed the image of deaf people in popular culture. The film accomplished this feat principally through the character of Sarah Norman, who was played by the young deaf actress, Marlee Matlin. Matlin’s performance infused the film with her strong feelings about the rights of the deaf. The character of Sarah Norman was an image of a stubborn deaf person, who was not weakened by her handicap. This was a new image of the deaf person for Americans, who had not seen a major movie about a deaf person since The Miracle Worker almost twenty-five years earlier. The message of Children of a Lesser God was that the deaf have the same feelings as anyone else, that they are human beings just like anyone else.

Children of a Lesser God was overall a progressive film for deaf people. Kevin Nolan, a guidance counselor for the deaf, explained after viewing the film that “Hearing people still have so many misconceptions – like deaf people can’t read or dance or cry or laugh. The movie shows that we have the same worries and feelings, abilities and aspirations as anyone else.” The movie even showed that, yes, deaf people even have sex like anyone else.

The scene of Matlin and co-star William Hurt making love in an indoor swimming pool was one of the most memorable scenes in the movie. David Davis, a deaf Harvard student, expressed his opinion of Children of a Lesser God to the New York Times that: “Deafness is the most crippling of all handicaps because it strikes at the very roots of communication. I like to think the film is about opening up those lines of communication. Obviously, this is a movie for the hearing that was financed by a major studio that wants to make money, but the more exposure people have to the deafness on the screen, the sooner the worlds of the deaf and the hearing are going to be able to understand each other.”

Besides aiding the National Theater for the Deaf, Children of a Lesser God was also a great help to the ASL, or the American Sign Language. Children of a Lesser God introduced the general public to ASL, giving the language legitimacy and respectability. The film showed that ASL was a true language with its own beauty, like any other language. Signing was a prominent element in the film, with both Hurt and Matlin signing to each other throughout the movie. It was a love story told in ASL.

While Children of a Lesser God made such progressive inroads in society for the deaf community, the film became a great subject of debate inside of the deaf community. This was generally because the film was seen as a film for the hearing. For instance, many deaf people laughed off the ending of the film, which was changed from the play into a more happy, romantic ending. The happy ending was implausible to many deaf people who were all too aware of the harsh realities awaiting deaf people in a hearing society. The deaf community debated whether Children of a Lesser God was at all plausible or not. Still, the general consensus among the deaf was that although most felt it was a movie for the hearing only, they saw it as a breakthrough nevertheless. Kevin Nolan put it this way: “Deaf people are like hearing people – they all have different opinions about the movie. But the movie is still a very important work for the deaf because it educates the hearing.”

It was not Paramount Picture’s original intention to discover a new market when the company picked up Children of a Lesser God, yet this is what happened. As a major film about the deaf had not been made since The Miracle Worker in 1962, Paramount Pictures did not know what to expect. After the film’s release, however, Paramount quickly learned that there are some 20 million hearing-impaired people in America. Many of them wanted to see the film.

Unfortunately, Paramount was not equipped to handle this undiscovered market of hearing-impaired people for Children of a Lesser God. Although Hurt and Matlin sign in the film, the movie was incomprehensible without subtitles for deaf people. Ms. Matlin signed too angrily and fast, for one thing. And the film was cut so that the signing was not always visible. Of the 215 theaters showing the film, only 10 had subtitled versions. Moreover, the subtitled versions were screened only once a week, on a Saturday or a Sunday. Deaf people who wanted to see the film were usually out of luck. There were no subtitled screening for the deaf in the evenings anywhere, while most deaf people of course work in the day. Paramount’s for excuses for these oversights were that subtitles were too expensive, and that they were not sure how the deaf would respond to the subtitles.