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The Child Prodigy Trope, Explained

"Everyone is born.

But not everyone is born the same."

Child prodigies are objects of enduring cultural fascination -

are they born or made?

Do they deserve our envy,

or our pity?

And what happens to them when they become adults?

"She had not completed a play in seven years."

Looking at the Child Prodigy Type in movies, TV, and literature

over the years, we can spot some patterns:

They’re not like other kids.

"By the time she was two, Matilda had learned

what most people learn in their early 30s:

how to take care of herself."

Actual kid geniuses might not be so easy to pick out,

but in popular culture, child prodigies stand out

like sore thumbs from their "normal" peers-

they don’t fit our expectations of how a child looks and acts,

"Chas Tenenbaum had, since elementary school,

taken most of his meals in his room standing up at his desk

with a cup of coffee to save time."

Often, the child prodigy behaves like a mini adult,

"Tonight's my bill-paying night."

and tends to speak with extraordinary verbal sophistication.

"You're under no obligation to investigate,

you need merely report suspicion of.

It's your ethical responsibility as an educator!"

Whether they’re strong writers or readers,

brilliant with math, or unusually strong game-players,

they usually have a specialty area.

"You forgot the negative sign on the exponent.

It all went downhill from there."

They feel the weight of the world.

These gifted kids often seem to be robbed of a carefree childhood.

"She wanted her to have friends... and to play...and to be happy.

"You realize the consequences of boredom for a gifted child, Mr. Adler?"

Filmmakers tend to use child prodigies to explore the melancholy side

of childhood.

"So what is it, Will has an attachment disorder?

Fear of abandonment?"

And these characters often falter as they grow up.

Ultimately the disappointment the child prodigy feels

when adult life doesn't measure up to overhyped expectations,

is an exaggerated version of what we all feel as we age and

so much potential fails to be realized.

"You used to be a genius."

"No, I didn't."

"Anyway that’s what they used to say."

Here’s our Take on what the Child Prodigy represents

in our culture, and why we project our dreams

and disillusionment onto these wunderkinds.

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In real life, genius is a mystery: Who qualifies for that description?

Where does genius come from?

"Newton discovered Binomial Theorem aged 22.

Einstein wrote four papers

that changed the world by the age of 26.

As far as I can tell, [laughs] I’ve barely made par."

As much as Hollywood loves movies about geniuses,

especially prickly geniuses played by certain actors,

"Genius billionaire playboy philanthropist."

often these stories aren’t really interested in investigating

the nature of intellect; the onscreen brainpower is

mostly being applied to pursuits like solving or fighting crime.

Child prodigy stories, on the other hand,

offer an opportunity for filmmakers to explore deeper inquiries of

what genius really is and how it comes into being.

"It's funny, because I think I can even remember being born."

Child prodigies are very real - some people seem to be blessed

with preternatural skills that result in amazing accomplishments

at very young ages,

"Now, we all know how old Mozart was when he did all that."

"Like, one."

"And Keats, big poet Keats.

Keats was DEAD by 24."

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (who began composing as a five year-old)

is the go-to example, not least because

there’s a whole movie about another composer being vexed

by this natural master’s extraordinary talent.

"or this?...yes.."

[piano] "Better?"

These early-blooming geniuses who pull off major accomplishments

at a young age are referred to in one study as "conceptual innovators,"

and they tend to garner more dramatic attention and envy

than later-blooming "experimental innovators"

who make progress through experimentation and arrive at

their most significant achievements later in life.

"Interesting concept!"

But even within the realm of conceptual innovators,

there are debates over whether child prodigies

come from environment, or genetic luck—

the old nature-versus-nurture question.

In 1989, Hungarian psychologist László Polgár wrote a book

called Raise a Genius (or Bring Up Genius!)

which claimed "geniuses are made, not born."

The author proceeded to make a very compelling case

for his argument by raising three daughters who were prodigies

at chess (and the youngest, Judit, became arguably the top

female chess player ever).

On the other hand, notable child prodigies in history-

like 17th-century Mexican writer Juana Ines de la Cruz

and early 20th century mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan-

grew up poor, without access to formal education,

and were largely self-taught.

One extensive study of child prodigies found that while they tested

at a variety of IQ levels, they tended to have something

in common: an exceptional "working memory,"

which is responsible for both remembering and processing information.

Basically, the study suggested that- whether their field is

art, math, science or music- child prodigies tend to have brains

that operate like an extremely high-speed computer processor.

"Meet Linguo, the grammar robot!"

Pop culture depictions of child prodigies are often in line

with this portrait of a young brain that’s

just inexplicably extraordinary.

Movies and TV shows rarely seem to focus on how exceptional children

come out of a fragile, just-right combination of

environment, talent, opportunity, and practice.

Instead, they tend to depict kids who are just plain

miraculously brilliant, often in spite of their upbringing.

"I want to go to school."

[laughs] "It's out of the question!"

Who'd sign for the packages?

We can't leave valuable packages

on the doorstep.

Now go watch TV like a good kid."

But while we might find it more mysterious and fascinating

to think of these kids as simply born this way,

in many iconic examples from fiction and history,

these wunderkinds have both nature and nurture aiding

their genius.

"Etheline Tenenbaum kept the house and raised the children and

their education was her highest priority."

Just like Polgár, Etheline Tenenbaum raises three

geniuses and pens a book about it.

"She wrote a book on the subject."

Both explanations also apply for some of the all-time

most influential fictional prodigies:

the Glass family, who appear in J.D. Salinger’s

short fiction collections like Nine Stories and Franny and Zooey.

All seven precocious Glass siblings appeared on a fictional radio quiz show

as children.

While it’s clear they must share genetic aptitude,

the rigorous intellectual pursuits of the oldest siblings have formed

the minds of the younger ones.

The most brilliant prodigy among the Glass Family is the eldest,

Seymour Glass, who’s also the most troubled.

In fact, the Glass Family stories are haunted by the mystery of

why exactly Seymour kills himself... and this question-

of why the former child prodigy can’t fit into or accept life

as an adult-gets at the potential tragedy inherent to

gifted kid characters overall.

The second-born Glass sibling, Buddy, is sometimes thought to be

an alter-ego for Salinger himself.

We can see that mix of the fictional

and the autobiographical, the fanciful and the deeply sad,

influencing later stories like Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums,

"Royal Tenenbaum bought the house on Archer Avenue in

the winter of his 35th year."

and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia.

"This French playwright and actor joined the Bejart troupe

of actors...Stanley."

"Moliere."

"I'm afraid I'm going to need a full name, Stanley."

"Jean-Batiste Poquelin Moliere."

A few decades later, another literary child prodigy

spoke to young readers.

Roald Dahl’s 1988 children’s novel Matilda

(made into a movie in 1996) was the first of several major

’80s and ’90s works that added superior intellect

to the scrappy kid adventure stories popularized earlier in the ’80s.

"What is this trash you're reading?"

"It's not trash, Daddy, it’s lovely.

It's "Moby Dick", by Herman Melville."

1985’s Ender’s Game featured the youngest of three

child prodigy siblings being tasked with leading the planet

in a fight against aliens.

"The International Fleet decided that the world's smartest children

are the planet's best hope.

Raised on war games,

their decisions are intuitive, decisive, fearless.

1989 saw the premiere of Doogie Howser, MD, starring

Neil Patrick Harris as a teenage doctor.

"Your angiogram showed extensive coronary artery disease."

as well as The Simpsons, which gave frustrated smart kids everywhere

a face in the form of Lisa Simpson.

"Lisa, there’s no room for crazy bebop in "My Country 'tis of Thee"!"

"But Mr. Largo that’s what my country’s all about!"

"I’m wailing out for the homeless family,

living out of its car..."

(Even Lisa wondered if she might be more of a prodigy, though,

if she had the "nurture" side of the equation working in her favor,

as we see when she makes a friend who’s even more impressive

due to having intellectual parents.

"I'm Allison's father, Professor Taylor.

I'm glad we have someone who can join us in our anagram games.

"Jeremy Irons?"

"Jeremy's...Iron."

In 1991, Little Man Tate explored the emotional challenges

facing precocious children.

"Don't worry so much."

1993’s Searching for Bobby Fischer investigated the psychology

of a chess prodigy.

"I'm so scared."

"I know."

and Good Will Hunting gave the child prodigy

an angry-young-man form in 1997.

"It’s me, Will, Remember? we went to kindergarten together!"

It’s probably no coincidence that Little Man Tate was the first movie

directed by Jodie Foster, who’d been something of

an acting prodigy herself.

"Now girls, you’re not children any longer; I feel that I can speak

with you as adults.

Many young performers have an eerie poise about them,

and some child prodigy movies feel like they combine

the self-possessed composure of child actors with

the complex psychology of Salinger’s stories.

"The gentleman in the blue cardigan, please."

It’s important to distinguish between the child prodigy and

a couple of other tropes that seem similar on the surface-

firstly, the chosen one.

"You’re a wizard, Harry."

Chosen-one narratives are often about characters—

usually boys, but not always- who seem normal or humble,

and are revealed to have either hidden talents or meaningful lineage

that they must learn to grow into.

The child prodigy, on the other hand, is not usually presented as

undergoing a transformation or revelation;

they are almost always presented as gifted from the jump.

"It's the Trachtenberg method."

"But she is...I mean...

She's seven though."

Some stories blur the lines between the two;

Anakin Skywalker, for example, is a hybrid of prodigy and chosen one.

He’s directly referred to as a "chosen one" for the Jedi knights.

"You were the chosen one!"

and his origin as a slave child on a remote desert planet

is certainly humble.

"You’re a slave?"

"I’m a person, and my name is Anakin."

But he also has prodigy-style skills, and exceptional Force-sensitivity.

"The reading is off the chart.

Over 20,000.

Even Master Yoda doesn't have a midi-chlorian count that high."

Like with a lot of child prodigies, his great potential winds up

causing a lot of disappointment— and worse.

Another semi-related variant is the Bad Seed story,

where the child turns out to be evil.

Like prodigy stories, Bad Seed narratives play on fears

that a precocious child isn’t quite right.

"I’ll give you five dollars if I can throw a rock at you."

And they focus on the question of whether nature or nurture

is responsible for the child’s behavior

(or in this case, to blame).

At its core the Bad Seed story offers, as Ruth Franklin wrote

for The New York Times, "a lens that reflects darkly

on our assumptions and anxieties about parenthood."

"I want you to tell me...why?"

But the Child prodigy tale isn’t really about the parents

raising these geniuses; it’s about us projecting ourselves

onto these special kids, to work out our feelings

about youthful potential, growing up and aging.

"And the book says we may be through with the past,

but the past ain't through with us!"

The best child-prodigy narratives illuminate the complexities

of both childhood and adulthood.

Child prodigy characters may sometimes be depicted

as wise beyond their years,

"Remember, dad, all glory is fleeting!"

but they also have a certain innocence that derives from their talent.

They typically aren’t trying to use their abilities for

vast personal gain, or to hurt other people.

"You have to have contempt for your opponents.

You have to hate them."

"But I don’t."

But that earnestness lends the child prodigies a sadness, too.

Many of them must grapple with whether they can live up to

their early promise.

"I’m losing my perspicacity!"

The inability to translate childhood passions into

functional adulthood is what’s both funny and moving

about The Royal Tenenbaums, where the three brilliant

Tenenbaum children all find themselves nominal adults

who may have peaked decades ago.

"In fact, virtually all memory of the brilliance of

the young Tenenbaums had been erased by two decades of betrayal,

failure, and disaster."

They’re even stuck in childhood, down to wearing some of

the same outfits they wore as kids, signaling that they don’t want to

move on from this era of past glory.

We only meet Will Hunting as an adult,

but he’s completely crippled by the abuse he endured as a child

and needs to let the past go.

"It's not your fault."

"It's not your fault.

It's not your fault."

In Searching for Bobby Fischer, the sad real-life fate of

chess prodigy Bobby Fischer hangs over the lead character Josh,

even though Fischer himself is only seen in archival clips.

"In school, before he dropped out...

Bobby studied chess books while teachers taught other things."

If child-prodigy movies don’t show adult versions of the characters,

there might be other grown-ups to serve as cautionary tales.

In Magnolia, Stanley Spector is an unhappy quiz-show champion,

berated by his controlling father.

"Stanley, you could have been in front, c'mon."

And it’s implied that, if he continues on this path,

he could be headed for the sad adulthood of

William H. Macy’s Quiz Kid Donnie Smith—a former contestant

on the very same game show, grown up and miserable

after his parents took all of his money.

"I used to be smart...

I’m Quiz Kid Donnie Smith, from TV."

Child prodigy characters, with their heightened sense

of youthful promise and potential, stand in for our own goals,

and our own inevitable adult disappointments.

"There's obviously something wrong with him.

He's taken off his shoes and one of his socks and...

actually, I think he's crying."

The average kid growing up may not be subject to the same exterior pressures

as a prodigy, but it can feel that way inside their head.

"Cool kids whispering at 3:00!"

"Did you see that look?

They're judging us!"

We all have certain talents, abilities, or qualities that

make us feel unique or special in some way or another.

Plenty of conventional Hollywood narratives tell us

that this specialness will help us triumph in the end,

achieving our goals and realizing our dreams,

as The Lego Movie spoofed:

"And the prophecy states that you are most important,

most talented, most interesting, and

most extraordinary person in the universe."

Another one of Wes Anderson’s movies, Rushmore, features the youth Max Fisher

who wants badly to be treated like a child prodigy.

My top schools where I want to apply to are Oxford and the Sorbonne.

My safety's Harvard."

"That's very ambitious."

so he founds amazing clubs, writes his ambitious plays,

and romantically pursues sophisticated women twice his age.

"I saved Latin.

What did you ever do?"

He wants all of this so much that he winds up failing out of

his beloved private school out of sheer obstinacy.

"He’s one of the worst students we’ve got."

Anderson is aware that the difference between obsessive kids

and genuine child prodigies may not be all that huge.

And they can both lead to adults who feel let down by

failing to sustain an existence that’s magnificently impressive

and larger than life.

"I always wanted to be a Tenenbaum, you know?"

Magnolia stresses this, too.

Ultimately, the amazing ability of the young quiz-show contestants

won’t do much to help them emotionally later on;

it barely helps them in the moment.

"Wait for the commercial break, then you can go.

Just hold it."

Stanley’s most impressive act in the film is his realization of this,

and his quiet but firm insistence that his father must treat him better.

"Dad, you need to be nicer to me."

Matilda, too, must find the strength to assert herself, which in her case

involves breaking away from her toxic family entirely.

"Adopt me, Ms Honey.

You can adopt me."

"Look, I don’t have time for all these legalities!"

"One second, Dad - I have the adoption papers!"

Child prodigies in movies and TV, like so many tropes,

can be used in lazy or clumsy ways.

The most common pitfall is creating a child prodigy

who is essentially a supernatural, all-knowing being.

"Henry, remind me again why we can't put you in a gifted school?"

"Cause it's better for my psychosocial development

to interact with a peer group in a normal school environment."

Screenwriters love to create kid characters who basically sound

like omniscient miniature adults.

"Fundamentals are the building blocks of fun.

"Says who?"

"Mikhail Baryshnikov, who I'm sure you've never heard of."

"I know that you think that she was the one, but I don’t."

When this tendency is applied to a child-prodigy character,

"It's got to be a high grade ependymoma or glioblastoma."

"My MRI."

It can turn into exactly what Stanley in Magnolia is alluding to

when he has his breakdown: a cheap parlor trick.

"Because I'm not a toy.

I'm not a doll.

"I’m made to feel like a freak, if I answer questions or I’m smart?"

Then again, sometimes these gimmicks can lead to genuinely

heartfelt depictions: Doogie Howser, MD

is a sitcom that uses a child prodigy

for an easy high-concept hook, sure, but it’s also

a pretty thoughtful sitcom, especially considering it debuted

in the era of Full House and Step By Step.

"There’s no proof that he did.

It’s totally unfair for me

to suspect him.

It’s racist, and I feel lousy about it."

Cumulatively, the best child prodigy stories

do their part to demystify the idea of genius in the first place.

Instead of either glorifying or villainizing kids with

enormous intellectual capacity, these stories offer a window into

the struggles and frailties we all experience growing up.

"Well did you at least think the characters were well developed?"

"What characters?

It was a bunch of little kids dressed up in animal costumes."

"Good night everyone."

And whatever your IQ, the path to a satisfying adulthood is

the same: develop emotional maturity, face the past, and learn to

appreciate a life that's far from perfect.

"Well sure life is full of pain and drudgery, but the trick is

to enjoy the few perfect experiences we are given in the moment."

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