Cartoonist Charles Addams first created the Addams Family without naming them. In their first appearances in The New Yorker, they weren’t even a family. Almost a century later, when every member of the central Addams Family is a household name, this weird bit of knowledge is ironic. Nowadays, nearly every kid has heard the characters Gomez, Morticia, Pugsley, and Fester, thanks to movies, TV series, computer games, and Broadway musicals.
Wednesday Addams icon, the sole child of Gomez and Morticia, is often considered the most tragic kid in pop culture. The Addams Family films, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and starring Christina Ricci as a ruthless and possibly homicidal antihero, are primarily responsible for Wednesday’s transformation from a “solemn” youth whose personality is defined by a gloomy yet deceptively sweet disposition into a Goth icon by the end of the 20th century.
Rising actress Jenna Ortega is recreating the character in her darkest era yet: high school, and she’s taking center stage in her very own Netflix series, Wednesday, just in time for the holidays. It’s been a diabolical progression through nearly all kinds of media, from cameo appearances in cartoons to the lead role in her own Netflix show. Let’s all tag along while we track down Wednesday’s kid.
Classic Cartoons by Charles Addams
As was previously noted, Charles Addams never meant for his zany cast of characters and animals to function as a nuclear family. True, in the pilot episode of “The Addams Family,” only one of the familiar characters was present: a Gothic, pale beauty, who we’d come to know as Morticia Addams, sits next to a massive behemoth who could never be mistaken for Gomez. An excessively hopeful door-to-door salesperson tries to sell this couple a vacuum cleaner in a 1938 single-panel cartoon.
It’s the genuine thing, man. As a youngster growing up in the New Jersey countryside at the start of the twentieth century, Charles Addams delighted in exploring the many abandoned and crumbling Victorian homes that dotted the landscape. Charles’ gloomy cartoons were inspired by his fascination with such dwellings; this preoccupation lasted his whole life, manifesting in the form of an ongoing fondness for cemetery picnics shared with his wife.
The character of Wednesday Addams icon was created in 1943 as the ethereal younger sibling of another kid who would become the pudgy Pugsley. Almost immediately, the adults were spotted putting the girl’s dolls into a guillotine, perfect for decapitating them. However, Wednesday’s early attitude toward the cartoons differed from how the character is today viewed in popular culture. She was depicted with a constant grin while showing content that some may find frightening. Wednesday was the only member of Charles’s family to be displayed with black almond-shaped eyes, giving her an uncanny doll-like quality beneath her high forehead and lengthy locks. Everyone else in the Addams family had black pupils in their white eyes. This made her much more gloomy than usual.
Even in Charles’ first drawings, there was that hint of mischief. You can see the characters we now know as Gomez and Morticia telling a babysitter, “We won’t be late, Miss Weems,” in the preceding tweet. Put the kids to bed at eight, and don’t let anyone see your back. Pugsley, with his mischievous grin, and Wednesday, with her blank expression, observe their new charge from behind the blandly happy babysitter.
Gomez and Morticia won’t be late, but the kids will keep Miss Weems up all night, so the joke goes. The animation indications point to Pugsley being more obviously evil, while Wednesday’s sweet grin masks what may be a more sinister intent. It’s an early version of the iconic Wednesday screen graphic that would come to be.
“The Addams Family” TV Show
Charles didn’t take the time to correctly identify and characterize the Addams Family gang until the ABC television series premiered. Even yet, he often found himself at odds with American television’s standards (and censorship) in the 1960s. Take Charles’s bio for the dad role, in which he suggests they poke fun at bastardy by saying things like, “Gomez, spouse of Morticia if indeed they are married at all…” This nuance, along with Charles’s initial character name for Pugsley, “Pubert,” did not make it to television.
Still, this show established most of our familiarity with these characters, and their theme tune, complete with snapping fingers performed by Vic Mizzy, is a mainstay of Halloween celebrations everywhere. Charles also took his name for his third child, Wednesday, from a 19th-century English rhyme called “Monday’s Child.”
The poem “Monday’s Child” was first published in 1838 in an issue of Traditions of Devonshire, along with numerous others that James Orchard Haliwell had compiled. Halliwell claims that the practice of predicting an individual’s future based on the day of the week they were born dates back centuries. The complete poem is reproduced here.
She is a serious kid, prim in attire, and on the whole, very lost,” Addams wrote as part of a complete mini-biography of Wednesday Addams icon she sent to the television writers alongside the poem. Discreet, creative, lyrical, seemingly disadvantaged, and prone to occasional outbursts. It possesses the unique trait of keeping six toes on a single foot.
ABC never broadcasted the part when Charles had six toes; honestly, not much else about his persona made it to the network. Lisa Loring’s portrayal of Wednesday Addams in the original live-action series shows her as a charming and warm-hearted little girl who occasionally shares her New York City neighbors’ interest (although on the show, she merely lets Pugsley behead her dolls as opposed to doing it herself). Despite her gothic clothing and harsh braids, she is a cheerful youngster who might be mistaken for any of the kids from any 1950s or 1960s American comedy.
In the premiere episode of The Addams Family, she assists the school board superintendent in his search for her father while wearing a cheerful, helpful expression. In another episode, she teaches Lurch (Ted Cassidy), who looks like Frankenstein’s Monster, how to be “groovy” by dancing like a “swinger.” Kick off a series of cute kids doing hilarious things, including dancing like beatniks.
Many people’s formative years were shaped by Loring’s virtuous portrayal of Wednesday, which aired on ABC and then in syndication and became a staple of American pop culture for decades. Moreover, Charles Addams claims that the program stayed true to its original concept of having the characters portray a loving family, although in a way that would be more acceptable to middle America. They’re “just half as wicked as they were in my cartoons,” the animator said later.
Wednesday Addams is a Goth Icon Due to Christina Ricci
The film’s director, Barry Sonnenfeld, told reporters afterward that he didn’t watch The Addams Family when he was a kid in the ’60s. In the opening sequence of the 1991 live-action film, the Addams family pours boiling oil on Christmas carolers who knock on their door (in good fun, of course). This scenario is a recreation of one of Charles Addams’ most iconic cartoons.
Sonnenfeld, a visual stylist who had previously worked as the Coen Brothers’ go-to cinematographer in the 1980s, was learning the ropes of plot structure with the release of The Addams Family in 1991. Fortunately, he was already well-versed in the language of aesthetics. He also had a knack for encouraging the best performances out of his performers, whether it was Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston as a sexier Gomez and Morticia or the up-and-coming Christina Ricci as the secret weapon of deadpan comedy as Wednesday.
Ricci and costume designer Ruth Myers returned to the “sullen child” memo Charles handed to TV producers on Wednesday for inspiration. Ricci embodied the epitome of gloom with his ghostly white complexion and seeming unable to muster even a fake smile. When primary filming began, Ricci was just ten years old, but the directors quickly saw that he had plenty of charm and a devastatingly dry comedic delivery. Playwright Paul Rudnick, who did uncredited rewrites of the original Addams Family script, reportedly drew primarily on Ricci’s talent for sardonic savagery.
Because of little Wednesday, the first film is a battleground filled with the corpses of lethal one-liners. Pugsley (Jimmy Workman) wonders what the game is when he sees her putting him in an electric chair. Her quick reply: “Is There a God?” In the film’s finale, when the villains are buried alive in open graves in the Addams family cemetery, her brother asks aloud, “Are they dead?” Wednesday picks up a shovel and turns her head indifferently as she replies, “Does it matter?” That, as the saying goes, settles the matter.
The true secret of the Addams family is that they are devoted to one another, and the actors and characters in the movie never lose sight of that. There is no sign of animosity among them; it’s only that the standard American way of showing affection or having fun wouldn’t even cross their minds. Unlike the ’60s TV program, the Sonnenfeld films recalled this fact and played it up in the case of Wednesday. In doing so, they established a role model for young, aspiring Goth girls everywhere in the modern day.
In Addams Family Standards (1993), one of the rare comedy sequels widely regarded as superior to the original, this trend intensified. And a big reason is that returning (and now-credited) screenwriter Rudnick promotes Ricci to a central role in the picture. In the story of Wednesday, she and Pugsley are transported (or, more accurately, sentenced) to spend the summer in a juvenile detention facility. There, Wednesday Addams icon is confronted with the blonde, Disney-fed WASPs who are openly shown as all the offspring of the affluent elite, and she is forced to cope with them in a sober, rational state of mind for the first time.
Wednesday is subjected to psychological torment as she is locked in bungalows all day while Disney movies and Annie are played. It’s exhilarating and maybe even a touch twisted for a family film when she finally gets revenge on them. Wednesday finally brings things to a head when she ties up her competitor and douses her with gasoline. As Wednesday lights a match and smiles at her victim, the Addams Family theme music begins to snap. The video abruptly cuts away, revealing that this was Wednesday’s first genuine summer smile for these preppy youngsters. The audience is left to speculate about the plot’s progression until the very conclusion.
Broadway’s Addams Family Musical
Several more television and direct-to-video adaptations of The Addams Family were released in the late ’90s, but the next significant one in pop culture came from the stage. When the Addams Family musical premiered on Broadway in 2010, it was met with critical and audience acclaim. The historically controversial musical had changed directors between its Chicago “try-outs” and its Broadway debut, but that didn’t rescue it from the scathing critiques published in the New York press. The show starred superstars Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth as Gomez and Morticia. A total of 722 performances were held off the show (a little under two years). It wasn’t terrible, but it didn’t have the successful run that studios hoped for when adapting well-known works of fiction.
Although the show’s original run was not a success, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (adapting songs with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa) continued to change the music while on tour. This version saw a resurgence in popularity in the 2010s, becoming the most performed musical in high schools and regional theaters. True, many members of Generation Z grew familiar with the Addams Family thanks to school productions of this musical. They also learned about an alternative to their typical Wednesday.
Wednesday, previously played by Krysta Rodriguez, is drastically different in the musical, even though she no longer has braids. The filmmakers decided against giving Wednesday braids because they thought they would make her seem too childish in her early 20s. The writers probably chose to make the switch so they could recycle the narrative from plays like You Can’t Take It With You and La Cage aux Folles, in which a “regular” young adult brings home a college sweetheart and urges their “weird” parents to act “normal.”
And it sums up Wednesday’s role in the show rather well. Wednesday sings about being pushed in a “different path” and wanting to be expected in her first significant ballad, “Pulled,” which not so quietly references the then-popular television show Glee. She talks to the sky and wishes for a permanent home. She even sings, “DisneyWorld—I’ll go there twice!”
To her credit, Rodriguez gave it her utmost to embody Wednesday Addams’ dismal and dreary demeanor in the show’s opening sequences, particularly in the original Chicago production produced with a more sinister aesthetic by Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott… But under Jerry Zaks’s direction, those directors were let go in favor of making the program more mawkish and blandly uninteresting. In any case, Wednesday’s writing is quite close to outright character assassination. Ricci imagined that her camp counselors, who had her watch Disney movies against her will, were being slowly cooked over an open fire. Just think what she’d do to the authors who dared predict she’d become a Disney Adult!
Animations of the Twenty-First Century
After a long hiatus from theaters, MGM’s The Addams Family (2019) and The Addams Family (2019): Dead and Loving It brought Wednesday back to the big screen in a significant manner (2021). This time, filmmakers Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan try to faithfully revive Charles Addams’s original animation concepts for the figures.
The appeal of these films is that Wednesday (Chloe Grace Moretz) has a huge forehead and wears her braids like nooses in the first movie. By mostly omitting the devastatingly nasty deadpan that Ricci and screenwriter Rudnick put into the character, this adaptation of Charles also tries to swing back to his earlier concepts partially. Instead, the tone of this animated Wednesday is reflective and melancholy, choosing a general malaise over sadism.
Both films are passable reimaginings of the character. Still, they fail to live up to their potential because of a lack of imagination and reliance on modern lazy animated movie clichés, such as an overreliance on cultural references, musical cliches, and stunt celebrity voice casting (including Moretz). While Wednesday is essential to both animated features, she acts in ways that are entirely out of character for the Addams family: she wants to wear pink in the first film, and then in the second, she is anxious to establish that she was swapped at birth and is not an Addams. A tech millionaire like Elon Musk would be a great role model for her, and she is now hoping that is her parent.
Isn’t it a desecration of the Addams family’s notion that they’re supposed to be a kind and loving family despite their horrific appearance? Although the movies are poorly written and undeveloped, they primarily imply a lack of concern in dealing with issues like character motivation and narrative arcs.
Wednesday by Jenna Ortega on Netflix
Teenaged Wednesday (Jenna Ortega), in the pilot episode’s voiceover narration, states, “I act as though I don’t care if people detest me.” “But secretly… I like it.” There have been lesser origin stories for successful Young Adult television Wednesday series.
Wednesday is the first big adaption since the ’90s to embrace Christina Ricci’s history with the character, and the new Netflix series even has an adult Ricci in a starring role. Yet Ortega and the show also managed to put their spin on the classic Addams Family characters. Ortega’s Wednesday, now 16 and in the throes of adolescent rebellion, is scathingly cynical and frequently brutal in her deadpan bombshells. She uses this as a weapon to get through life in high school.
Wednesday, angry that jocks had harassed her brother, sends piranhas into their swimming pool as retribution. This is the sole happy moment in the whole episode. This character depiction is simultaneously more realistic and less exaggerated than Ricci’s. Wednesday shows greater complexity and dimension between the one-liners since she is the protagonist of a television series rather than a supporting actor in a single-panel cartoon or film. Ortega relies on nonverbal clues and fleeting looks in her piercing eyes to gauge how others feel about her, and while she would prefer that they treat her with scorn, she does care what they think of her.
This Wednesday, Addams icon, like many others of her modern ilk, rebels against her parents, but not out of shame for them. Instead, she does so out of a selfish need to prove herself superior to them. She is shown to have an interest in fencing and a love of the romantic languages (Italian, French, and Spanish) more typically associated with Gomez and Morticia. (She also shows surprising affection for Uncle Fester and Thing, the clumsy household pet.)
It’s also worth mentioning that Ortega is the first Wednesday portrayed onscreen by a Latina actor, emphasizing a background trait of the characters that has been mostly ignored since Gomez was given a Latin name in 1964.
Even though Wednesday has only shown for one season, Ortega has painted an impressive picture of a resilient, determined, and resourceful teenage Wednesday. She is sucked into the usual YA plots (death mysteries, love triangles, a school dance), but one of her former foes admits, “Never had a single ‘F’ to give.” This Wednesday is unique, at least based on how Ortega moves on the dance floor. This feels like the perfect ending for this character.