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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Prodigies (originally published 1/02)

I have this theory that we're all born as geniuses. Think about it: we're born knowing absolutely nothing, not even how to roll over, and yet in five years' time most of us have a pretty good handle on how to function in the world. The skills we acquired in that time starting from ground zero are truly staggering to consider, including walking, language acquisition, and programming a VCR. Who but a genius could accomplish so much in so short a time? Leo Tolstoy put it this way: "From the child of five to myself is but a step. But from the newborn baby to the child of five is an appalling distance."

All too soon, however, our native genius fades, exhausted perhaps after carrying us through that first tidal wave of learning, and we settle in to become just average folks. In a few of us, this heightened capacity for learning persists, although often confined to just a single category of learning, and it is those people whom we label as "geniuses."

Most fascinating of all are the youngsters, known as "child prodigies," who not only exhibit normal development, a prodigious enough accomplishment in itself, but actually progress beyond childish proficiencies to attain a level of mastery unusual even in adults. These remarkable youngsters are universally irresistible to storytellers of all types, from journalists to filmmakers. The producers of the recent release, "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius," have tapped into this premise by creating a 21st Century variation on Tom Swift, the fictional boy inventor whose exploits have introduced many a youngster to the wonders of technology. Naturally, there are plenty of earlier movies that have dealt in some way with child prodigies. Here are a few examples that can be found on home video.

"Village of the Damned" (1960). In the English town of Midwich, a number of women become mysteriously impregnated. In due course, they give birth to a group of somber, extremely intelligent children with intense, penetrating eyes. Gradually it becomes clear that these children are not of this Earth, and that they represent a threat to humanity. Unfortunately, by the time this is recognized they have achieved such a level of superiority that no attempt to thwart them is likely to succeed. This classic science fiction film, based on John Wyndham's novel, "The Midwich Cuckoos," inspired both a sequel, "Children of the Damned" (1964), and a 1995 John Carpenter remake.

"Dear Brigitte" (1965). Most college professors would be delighted to have a child who turned out to be a genius. In this film, James Stewart plays a humanities professor who is chagrined to learn that his son, Erasmus (Billy Mumy), is a mathematical prodigy. Stewart's character holds math and science in utter disdain, and was hoping that his children would have a special affinity for painting or music, areas in which Erasmus shows no aptitude whatever. Young Erasmus's head for figures is not, however, confined to equations. It seems that he has developed a crush on French screen star Brigitte Bardot, and has made it his goal to meet her in person.

"Little Man Tate" (1991). Those alien children in "Village of the Damned" were more than just stock villains. They were a metaphor for the reality of hyperintelligent children. To those who interact with them, and even to their own parents, infant prodigies can indeed seem like alien beings. "Little Man Tate" deals with this theme without the overlay of fantasy metaphor. Jodie Foster (who also directed), plays Dede Tate, whose son, seven year old Fred, is a transcendant genius. Dede, an average working class mom with no special intellectual abilities, knows all too well that she can't provide him with the stimulation his vast intellect requires. She decides to entrust Fred to a child psychologist, played by Dianne Wiest, who will oversee his mental development. But Wiest's character becomes so engrossed in training Fred's intellect that she neglects the emotional nurturing that all children need.

One way or another, that is a theme that is central to most child prodigy movies: no matter how much of a prodigy a child may be, he or she is still a child, with a child's emotional needs. Despite the fact that we call such children "gifted," the hard truth is that the gift exacts a price. And that, as all storytellers know, is a perfect recipe for drama.

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