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The Child Prodigy Trope, Explained

Are child prodigies born or made? Do they deserve our envy or sympathy? And what happens when they grow up? In this video we take on the Child Prodigy trope on screen, what they represent in our culture, and why we project our dreams and disillusionment onto these wunderkinds.

TRANSCRIPT

Narrator: “Everyone is born. But not everyone is born the same.” Matilda (1996)

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?

Narrator: “She had not completed a play in seven years.” Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

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. 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. Often, the child prodigy behaves like a mini adult and tends to speak with extraordinary verbal sophistication.

Narrator: “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.” Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Whether they’re strong writers or readers, brilliant with math, or unusually strong game-players, They usually have a specialty area.

They feel the weight of the world. These gifted kids often seem to be robbed of a carefree childhood. Filmmakers tend to use child prodigies to explore the melancholy side of childhood.

Will Hunting: “So what is it, Will has an attachment disorder? Fear of abandonment?” Good Will Hunting (1997)

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.

Here’s our Take on what the Child Prodigy represents in our culture, and why we project our dreams and disillusionment onto these wunderkinds.

A Brief History of Child Prodigy Stories

In real life, genius is a mystery: Who qualifies for that description? Where does genius come from? As much as Hollywood loves movies about geniuses, especially prickly geniuses played by certain actors, 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.

Child prodigies are very real some people seem to be blessed with preternatural skills that result in amazing accomplishments at very young ages. 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. 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.

But even within the realm of conceptual innovators, there are debates over whether child prodigies come from their 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.

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. 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. Just like Polgár, Etheline Tenenbaum raises three geniuses and pens a book about it.

Narrator: “Etheline Tenenbaum kept the house and raised the children and their education was her highest priority.” Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

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 and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia.

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.

Harry Wormwood: “What is this trash you’re reading?”

Matilda Wormwood: “It’s not trash, it’s lovely. It’s “Moby Dick”, by Herman Melville.” Matilda (1996)

The 1985 novel Ender’s Game featured the youngest of three child prodigy siblings being tasked with leading the planet in a fight against aliens.

Ender: “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.” Ender’s Game (2013)

1989 saw the premiere of Doogie Howser, MD, starring Neil Patrick Harris as a teenage doctor, as well as The Simpsons, which gave frustrated smart kids everywhere a face in the form of Lisa Simpson. 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. In 1991, Little Man Tate explored the emotional challenges facing precocious children 1993’s Searching for Bobby Fischer investigated the psychology of a chess prodigy; and Good Will Hunting gave the child prodigy an angry-young-man form in 1997.

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. 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 Child Prodigy vs. Other Exceptional Child Tropes

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.

Chosen-one narratives are often about characters usually boys, but not always (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) who seem normal or humble, and are revealed to have either hidden talents or meaningful lineage that they must learn to grow into (Harry Potter, The Matrix). 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.

Frank Adler: “It’s the Trachtenberg method.”

Bonnie Stevenson: “But she is…I mean… She’s seven though.” Gifted (2017)

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, and his origin as a slave child on a remote desert planet is certainly humble. But he also has prodigy-style skills and exceptional Force-sensitivity. 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 (The Bad Seed, We Need to Talk about Kevin, Sharp Objects). Like prodigy stories, Bad Seed narratives play on fears that a precocious child isn’t quite right. 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.” 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.

Jimmy Gator: “And the book says we may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us!” Magnolia (1999)

What Child Prodigies Tell Us About Childhood—and Adulthood

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, 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.

Bruce Pandolfini: “You have to have contempt for your opponents. You have to hate them.”

Josh Waitzkin: “But I don’t.” Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)

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. 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. 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.

Lisa Simpson: “I’m losing my perspicacity!” The Simpsons, 6x21

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. 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.

Donnie Smith: “I used to be smart…I’m Quiz Kid Donnie Smith, from TV.” Magnolia (1999)

Child prodigy characters, with their heightened sense of youthful promise and potential, stand in for our own goals, and our own inevitable adult disappointments. 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. 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:

Wildstyle: “And the prophecy states that you are the most important, most talented, most interesting, and most extraordinary person in the universe.” The Lego Movie (2014)

Another one of Wes Anderson’s movies, Rushmore, features the youth Max Fisher who wants badly to be treated like a child prodigy, so he founds amazing clubs, writes his ambitious plays, and romantically pursues sophisticated women twice his age.

Max Fisher: “My top schools where I want to apply to are Oxford and the Sorbonne. My safety’s Harvard.” Rushmore (1998)

He wants all of this so much that he winds up failing out of his beloved private school out of sheer obstinacy. 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.

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. 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. Matilda, too, must find the strength to assert herself, which in her case involves breaking away from her toxic family entirely.

The Pitfalls of the Child Prodigy

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.

Mrs. Evans: “Henry, remind me again why we can’t put you in a gifted school?”

Henry: “Cause it’s better for my psychosocial development to interact with a peer group in a normal school environment.” Book of Henry (2017)

Screenwriters love to create kid characters who basically sound like omniscient miniature adults. When this tendency is applied to a child-prodigy character, it can turn into exactly what Stanley in Magnolia is alluding to when he has his breakdown: a cheap parlor trick.

Stanley Spector: “Because I’m not a toy. I’m not a doll.” Magnolia, 1999

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.

Doogie Howser: “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.” Doogie Howser, 2x2

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. 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

Lisa Simpson: “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.” The Simpsons, 23x19