As the only literate Reject, it’s my duty to find the latest, the greatest and the untouched classics that would make great source material for film adaptations. I read so you don’t have to. This week, Print to Projector presents:
A Child Called It
by Dave Pelzer
“March 5, 1973, Daly City, California – I’m late. I’ve got to finish the dishes on time, or no breakfast; and since I didn’t have dinner last night, I have to make sure I get something to eat.”
A man recounts the worsening abuse he endured as an adolescent from his alcoholic mother and passive father. From beatings to starvation to actions labeled illegal by the Geneva Convention.
There’s a powerful story here. I remember when the book first surfaced because it was passed around my middle school like a copy of a porno mag pilfered from someone’s father’s stash. It was read with both intense empathy and exploitation.
For those who haven’t read it, the story is a harrowing one (and a true one) in which an elementary schooler slowly becomes ostracized from his own family at the hands of an alcohol-dependent mother. When we first meet Dave, he’s being hit for taking his hands out of scalding hot dish water, but in a few chapters he’s begun sleeping in the basement, becomes banned from eating with his family, and his mother starts calling him – her own child – “It.”
There are a few problems with adapting this that range from the possible exploitation of the subject to the question of its source’s veracity.
There have been a ton of cruel films made, but they are mostly relegated to horror or the margins of film fandom. This book was meant to be inspirational, and it would take a talented mind to walk that balance. However, after the praise lobbed on Precious, it seems like the door would be more open for a film like this to walk through into the mainstream.
Also, not everyone agrees that these events actually happened. From everything I’ve read, one of Dave’s brothers has asserted the entire story is fictional, a cry for help from a spoiled brat who demands attention and will do anything to get it. Despite that, the court cases all sided with the social workers and Pelzer, and a few teachers corroborate Dave’s story.
The real issue would be that the same criticism of Pelzer as profiting from child abuse might give the film similar hurdles. This, of course, is moronic. This is America – and the least we can do is make sure that if you are nearly starved to death by your mother growing up, and you can make some money telling that story, then you should go right ahead.
This would be hard to do within a studio system, and it’s definitely a story more suited to an indie outlet that can handle the nature of the subject matter.
I only had one director in mind when thinking about this book, and I was shocked to know that she’d only directed two films. Shainee Gabel directed the fantastic documentary Anthem and went on to write the adaptation for and direct A Love Song For Bobby Long which is a careful handling of difficult family issues. Content-wise, the films have nothing to do with “A Child Called It,” but there’s something thematically there that stuck her in my mind. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense.
This all hinges on the shoulders of a young child and his mother.
Max Records as Dave Pelzer: In order to do the character justice, you can’t age him up and you have to find an actor that can knock the material out of the park. As a whole, it might be a bad example, but it’s similar to Dakota Fanning doing Hounddog. A young kid put through hell on screen. It would be torturous, and Max Records is the only child actor I’ve seen in recent years that could shine here. He could also play anywhere from 9 years old on. Either go for a complete unknown, or go with the emotive strength of a kid who we can instantly empathize with and who can handle the intensity of the role.
Jennifer Coolidge as Catherine Pelzer: On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got a woman who has to be human and hated. I’ve admired Coolidge for a long time for many reasons, but after seeing her in Bad Lieutenant, it’s obvious that she can handle material far beyond most actresses, and far beyond what she’s normally handed. She could certainly stand up to Nic Cage, and that’s a feat in itself. This would be another torturous role – for different reasons – and I have full confidence that Coolidge could earn her Best Supporting Actress nod for it.
Daniel Stern as Stephen Pelzer: Daniel Stern is a powerhouse with the right material. He’s been in some awful, terrible movies, but if you notice, he’s elevated every single one. Even in a comedy like City Slickers he can still manage earnest, telling emotion from a lonely, depressed man in the pit of his mid-life crisis. Here, he would play a weak man who feels powerless to do anything to stop the abuse of one of his sons.
CCH Pounder as Athena Konstan: Here’s where we have to build a narrative direction that the book on its own doesn’t necessarily have. The subsequent novels go further into abuse and into his time in foster care when caring teachers took notice. I honestly know nothing about the real Ms. Konstan other than she backs up Dave’s story, but as the archetype of the teacher who cares enough to get involved, my mind almost always goes to CCH Pounder. She has a balance of empathy and strength that’s difficult to match.
Who Owns It:
To my knowledge, the film has never been optioned for the screen. There was a low-budget inspirational film called Courage Under Fire clearly made for a religious channel, and there are a few strange clips if you search around YouTube, but the book has never been taken under the wing of a serious film producer with the goal of bringing it to the big screen.
It’s impossible subject matter, and it would take a careful guiding hand to take it from Self-Help to serious drama. A bit of the story would need to be fleshed out, and the characters would need to be both rounded out and sharpened, but with the right talent, it could be an incredible experience on screen. One that will most likely be nominated for an Oscar and dismissed as torture porn.