The Addams Family, what started as a spooky subversion of family sitcom tropes of its day has turned into a franchise that has been going strong since 1938. The creepiest, kookiest family has its fingers in television, film, and Broadway musicals with people falling in love with them all over again every time. However, despite the size of the family itself, and all their individual strange qualities, there are some standouts. First is the relationship between Gomez and Morticia, the parents who have been completely enamored with and devoted to each other since the beginning, setting the gold standard for fictional relationships for decades to come. The other is Wednesday Addams, the twin-braided daughter.
The fanfare behind Wednesday is a more recent development, however, and was a direct result of two movies and one iconic performance. Christina Ricci‘s performance as the character in both The Addams Family (1991) and Addams Family Values (1993) turned Wednesday into not only a star, but a child’s first goth icon, with many additions to the franchise being centered on her, including the upcoming Netflix series. But how did we get here?
What can you say about Wednesday Addams before the 1991 film, looking at the New Yorker cartoons and the 1964 sitcom? She has the look, of course, the plaited hair and little black dress, but her personality is pretty lacking. She’s an adorable little girl for the most part. Her tastes, like the rest of her family, are appropriately macabre, but she’s pretty standard as far as sitcom kids go, especially next to her brother, Pugsley.
This was during a time when children in sitcoms were more vehicles for childhood antics rather than their own people with individual personality traits. Both Pugsley and Wednesday’s identities were “child” — endearing and a little mischievous but innately innocent. In short, they were boring, unlike the adults in the show, coconspirators but duplicates of each other. Wednesday is an Addams of course, so she stuck out from other little girls with her, at the time, very unfeminine enjoyment of spiders and dynamite, but she didn’t truly come into her own until 1991.
Christina Ricci: A Highlight In a Brilliantly Cast Adaptation
The first Addams Family movie is a masterclass of brilliant casting, up there with the Scooby Doo live action films. Anjelica Huston and Raul Julia absolutely shine as Morticia and Gomez, no doubt about that, but the best example of pitch perfect casting is Christina Ricci as Wednesday. Not for the things that remained the same necessarily, though she definitely encapsulates the look, but what her performance, and what director Barry Sonnenfeld, and screenwriters Caroline Thompson and Larry Wilson changed behind the screen.
Wednesday’s child is full of woe — that was the old quote that originally inspired the name, but no version of the character made good on the quote until the 1991 movie. While Pugsley, here played by Jimmy Workman, takes the personality of a regular little boy with incredible resistance to pain and a love of all thinks dark and grisly, Wednesday becomes something of the Lisa to his Bart. She is an incredibly intelligent girl, and with that intelligence comes an incredibly serious and dour demeanor, delivering her lines with a straight-faced glower and a monotone voice. This became the birth of the version people have come to know and love, especially as, with censorship removed, she is actually capable of violence, and her hobbies become rather more macabre, such as electrocuting her brother.
As iconic as Wednesday and Pugsley’s scenes are in that first movie, their school play and their game of “is there a God?”, they take a back seat to their parents and especially Uncle Fester, played by Christopher Lloyd. It wasn’t until the sequel that we got to see Wednesday Addams take center stage.
‘Addams Family Values’ is Wednesday’s Movie
Addams Family Values (1994) is widely regarded as the superior product of the two live action films for several reasons, one of which is a cracking performance by Joan Cusack as the villain, Debbie Jellinsky, and the other is giving practically half the movie to Wednesday. This is definitely reflective of living in an era of “Kids Rule” family movies filled with childhood rebellion, but Ricci finally got her chance to change Wednesday from standout to icon. From the attempted murders of her new baby brother to her misadventures in Camp Chippewa we get to see her both in her element and out of it. We get to see her a few years older, as a preteen, and the parts of her that stood out from other versions of the character are magnified. Her intelligence has advanced with age, she’s also shed her adorability to make her, ironically since it would come out four years later, a smaller, spookier Daria. Staunchly anti-establishment, sardonic, and insightful, this is the film that truly made Wednesday Addams what she is today.
Influential is the best word to describe Ricci’s performance, as there are so many things about it that many adaptations in a wide range of mediums took from her alone. From there, it became established that Wednesday was the older sibling, and the mastermind to Pugsley’s madness, still conspiring together but with more organization and a clear chain of command. More importantly, from Chloe Grace-Moretz in the animated films, to Melissa Hunter in the gone but not forgotten web series Adult Wednesday Addams, to Jenna Ortega in the upcoming Netflix series, they are not so much crafting themselves after the original character as they are Ricci’s interpretation.
The reason for this is simple: Ricci made Wednesday Addams an actual character, an individual rather than just one of two kids. The character her performance created is a merchandise machine, beloved by those in the Goth/alternative community for being gloomy, brutally honest, and mildly homicidal. Most important of all is that she knows who she is, and she gave her a fleshed out personality, quirks that belong to her alone, and incredibly memorable quotes.
Wednesday, the Netflix series, coming out on November 23, will see Ortega’s Wednesday alone being taken to Nevermore Academy, a school with fellow outcasts and its fair share of paranormal mysteries. We can already see by the footage released that she has Ricci’s dry wit, extensive vocabulary and subtly violent tendencies, and homage is paid to who created this version of the character we see today, including Ricci herself appearing in the show.
It’s important to respect the legends, fictional or no. And even though it’s only been 31 years since, it is clear by the merchandise sold, Halloween costumes worn, lines quoted, and people inspired, that Christina Ricci as Wednesday Addams is undeniably one of them.