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‘Nell’: Not Alone in the Wilds : Children Raised in Isolation Is Familiar Film Theme

NEWSDAY

With her feral crouch, her wild screams, her eerie crooning in a language all her own, she seems at first more an animal than a human being.

But if Nell--the title role played by Jodie Foster in the film that opened last week--is an admittedly offbeat character, she’s hardly unique.

In fact, this tale of a young woman hidden from birth in a backwoods cabin by her mother is part of a long tradition of books, plays and films with an oddly compelling, shared subject: Call it the feral child, the “wolf” child, the wild child--it’s the child raised, by accident or design, without normal human contact.

Think, for openers, of Kipling’s “Mowgli,” raised as a wolf (also resurfacing this season in Disney’s new live-action “Jungle Book”). Or of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Tarzan of the Apes”: A British nobleman by birth, he becomes a son of the jungle after his true parents die.

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In a more contemporary vein, think of Francois Truffaut’s haunting 1970 film, “The Wild Child,” based on a true story; the 1984 movie “Greystoke” (“Tarzan” for grown-ups), or this year’s Alice Hoffman novel, “Second Nature.” It seems as though creative types have hardly lagged behind scientists in their fascination with these wild and mysterious beings.

“It’s a romantic notion, really. We have this image of wildness being somehow pristine and wonderful,” says Mark Handley, who wrote the play on which “Nell” is based and gets co-screenwriting credit with William Nicholson.

Even when wildness is a lot less than wonderful (remember the young, unreachable Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker”?), it intrigues us, suggesting what’s locked beneath the lid of civilization.

As one character in “Nell"--part of the battalion of psychologists eager to study her--puts it: “How is the personality formed? We don’t know. What is innate? We don’t know.”

Because, as he explains, “You can’t take a baby and have it grow up in a lab.”

The appearance of a “wild child,” then, offers unique opportunities for study--but not necessarily for change. (In fact, modern research suggests that such children often have permanent learning and language problems.)

Certainly, disappointment was the outcome of the most famous such case: the “wild child of Aveyron,” whose story was popularized by Truffaut.

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The boy appeared one day in 1800, naked and covered with scars, on the edge of a forest in France. News of the young “savage” who made only meaningless cries intrigued a Paris doctor, Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard, who decided to teach him to be human.

Based on Itard’s journal, Truffaut’s “The Wild Child” (with the director as Itard) recounts the doctor’s partly successful efforts to educate and socialize “Victor,” as he’s called. While the movie ends on an ambiguous note, the real story ended more sadly: Discouraged by his failure to teach the boy language, which he considered the key to human identity, Itard ultimately abandoned his effort and his charge, who was left in the care of a kindly old woman. Victor died in 1828, forgotten by all and belonging nowhere.

A similar case in Germany, involving an abused teen-ager, helped inspire the Mark Handley play on which “Nell” is based. In fact, the sad tale of Kaspar Hauser--an emaciated, mute 16-year-old who mysteriously showed up in 1828 in the town square of Nuremberg--has also inspired no fewer than two German films, by Werner Herzog and Peter Sehr, and a play by Austrian writer Peter Handke. It has even given rise to a psychological term for a special kind of child abuse: “soul murder.”

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Other than his name, which was written on a note attached to his clothes, Kaspar Hauser’s origins always remained a mystery. His unfolding memory, though, suggested a horrific life among unnamed captors.

“Evidently, the people who took care of Kaspar (later) decided he had been locked in a closet for the first years of his life,” Handley says. “How do you survive something like that?”

It was reading Handke’s play, which explores how the acquisition of language affects Kaspar Hauser, that “planted the seed” of his own work, Handley says.

The seed blossomed into the play “Idioglossia"--a term for speech so idiosyncratic that it seems to be a language of its own--after Handley read a news account of 6-year-old San Diego twins who did, indeed, speak a language only they could understand. The story of their “twinspeak” eventually gave rise to “Nellish,” as Nell’s almost impenetrable speech is dubbed by her handlers.

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“Language is the most precisely human trait we have,” suggests Handley, and adults such as Nell “offer a glimpse at a stage of development that we associate so much with childhood.”

The issue of written language figures in Alice Hoffman’s bestseller “Second Nature,” a novel that has been described as part “Pygmalion” story, part wild child comes to Long Island.

The only survivor of a plane crash in Michigan, Hoffman’s wild child is brought up from age 3 by wolves. The Wolf Man, as the doctors call him, is brought as an adult to an island off Nassau County by a well-meaning woman who believes that “once he could read and write he could decide his own fate.”

Life, of course, is more complicated than that, and the Wolf Man feels “as though he were losing something” every time he writes a word.

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Perhaps he is. It is one of the messages of “Nell” that the world’s well-meaning civilizers risk obliterating the very traits they most admire in the wild child: The link with nature and an unclouded sense of self. With each superimposed bit of civilization, Handley says, “they destroy the gift.”


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