This weekend we watched the 1993 version of Heidi, starring winsome little Noley Thornton, Jason Robards (as Grandfather, known by the villagers as the “Alm Uncle”) and Jane Seymour (in an atypically severe role for the actress, the tight-lipped Frauline Rottenmeier).
I didn’t enjoy this movie nearly as much as I enjoyed the classic novel when I was a girl (my mother named me after the title character, the orphan girl who is sent to live with her curmudgeonly old grandfather). This version of the movie takes considerable liberties with the book (including the opening sequence, in which the grandfather witnesses the deaths of Heidi’s parents).
As I watched the movie, I couldn’t help but wonder how the story would have changed, had little Heidi come under the watchful eye of social services. On the face of it, the grandfather is not exactly a “desirable” adoptive parent for Heidi, though he is related to her. The old recluse has a foul temper, and leaves Heidi to her own devices for most of her waking hours in the company of an older child. Neither of them attend school (despite the remonstrations of the village pastor), and the Alm Uncle’s cabin lacks the most basic conveniences, including refrigeration and indoor plumbing.
Heidi’s cousin, Dete, forcibly removes the little girl from her grandfather and takes her to Frankfort, where Heidi is to become the companion of a wealthy young girl in a wheelchair. (Dete is paid for the referral, casting her motives into question.) Heidi has every possible material and educational advantage, including the affection of her friend’s family. Even so, Heidi pines for her grandfather’s home. Once again Dete is called upon to take the child back up the Alp to visit with her grandfather (again, she is paid to do so), with the understanding that Heidi would be reclaimed by the Sesemanns in a month’s time. At first reluctant to welcome Heidi back on these terms because of the emotional fallout involved, the Uncle ultimately relents. The remainder of the story is set on the alp, where the Sesemans journey to visit Heidi and regain Clara’s health.
For a long time after the credits rolled, the underlying themes of the story stayed with me. Each life she touches, Heidi transforms. A bitter old man becomes a nurturing caregiver. A sick little girl grows strong and hale. Even Fraulein Rottenmeier (the incomparable Jane Seymour) softens a bit in the mountain air. The only person who remains immune to Heidi’s charms is the person responsible for her, the cousin Dete, who consistently chooses the expedient solution over the compassionate one.
In retrospect, I should have known how the kids would respond to Heidi’s story. “Why are they taking her away from the grandfather? Why does he say he doesn’t want her back? That’s not FAIR!” Clearly, they identified with the plucky little orphan.
Of course, “fairness” has little to do with it. It wasn’t fair that Heidi’s parents died. It wasn’t fair that Dete put her own interests ahead of the little girl’s. It wasn’t fair for the old man to be forced to take in his granddaughter — and it wasn’t fair to Heidi to leave her in the hands of someone who so clearly didn’t want her there at the beginning. It wasn’t fair to uproot the little girl … or to place her with strangers not because it is in her best interest, but because it was in theirs.
Johanna Spyri’s classic novel (even more than this movie) explores the question of “What is family?” and celebrates the healing power of love. For adoptive and foster parents, it also provides an opportunity to explore with your children their own feelings about family.