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Was "Escape to Witch Mountain"
based on Zenna Henderson's "People" stories?


Movie poster:


"Escape to Witch Mountain" (1975)
Directed by John Hough
Screenplay by Robert M. Young
Based on the book by Alexander Key

Starring: Eddie Albert, Ray Milland, Donald Pleasence, Kim Richards, Ike Eisenmann, Walter Barnes, Reta Shaw, Denver Pyle, Dermott Downs

MPAA Rating: G

Related webpage:
Zenna & Her People: The Zenna Henderson Homepage

"Escape to Witch Mountain" is a popular Disney movie released in 1975. Many adults who were children at that time remember the film with great fondness, and the movie has been popular on video and DVD. Disney even remade the movie as a direct-to-cable TV movie (with Peter Rader as director) in 1995, but the remake has not come close to achieving the beloved status of the original.

The movie "Escape to Witch Mountain" is based on the same-titled children's book by Alexander Key. Escape to Witch Mountain by Alexander Key was first published in 1968. But a question that is frequently asked is if the movie and/or book was based on the popular "People" stories by science fiction author Zenna Henderson.

Zenna Henderson was raised as a Latter-day Saint in predominantly Latter-day Saint communities of Arizona. As an adult she was not active in the Church, but many elements of Latter-day Saint theology and community life can be glimpsed in the richly detailed descriptions of the alien "People" featured in dozens of her stories.

"Escape to Witch Mountain" is not a direct adaptation of any of Zenna Henderson's short stories about "The People," but nobody can read Henderson's stories and Key's book (or see the Disney movie) without being struck by the many similarities. Henderson's "People" stories were written and published in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, some pre-dating Alexander Key's book by nearly two decades.

Henderson's stories were published in leading science fiction magazines and reprinted in best-selling book collections. Henderson was one of the best known female science fiction writers of her day. A TV movie based on her stories (titled "The People") aired in 1972. The movie starred William Shatner (best known as "Captain Kirk" of "Star Trek" fame). It is untenable to think that Alexander Key and the people who adapted his book to film could have been unfamiliar with Zenna Henderson and her "People" stories.

The central characters in "Escape to Witch Mountain" are Tia and Tony Malone, two young orphans played by Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann. Although they appear to be human, the siblings are actually aliens who have powerful psychic abilities such as telepathy and telekinesis. They were apparently orphaned when their spaceship crashed on Earth while escaping their dying planet. All of these details except for the names match the characters and situations found in "The People" stories. The superhuman powers exhibited by the alien children are essentially identical to the abilities possessed by Zenna Henderson's "People" story aliens, including the fact that each sibling has different "specialties."

Both Henderson's and Key's aliens fled their dying planet on multiple spaceships. Both sets of aliens had problems while landing on Earth, such that some ships crashed and some children were separated from their compatriots and raised as orphans. The orphaned aliens in Key's book and Henderson's stories are also alike in that they eventually leave their adopted homes and find their way to the remote mountain home where the other aliens live peaceably hidden from Earthlings.

Henderson was not the first person to write about aliens orphaned on Earth with superhuman powers. Even the seminal character of "Superman" matches this pattern, and he first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938. It is the combined similarities in characters, plot, origin, powers, destination, and even the subtly hinted-at religious beliefs of the aliens that have caused so many to conclude that Alexander Key's Escape to Witch Mountain was strongly influenced by Zenna Henderson's "People" stories. Key's book does feature an original plot not quite the same as any of Henderson's individual stories. With little or no change, his book could easily fit within the universe of Henderson's "People" stories, but the plot of Key's book is different enough that it is best described as inspired by Henderson's stories, and not copied or plagiarized from them.

The popular TV series "Roswell," which ran from 1999 to 2002, is a more recent example of science fiction which seems to have been strongly influenced by the "People" stories. The series aired first on the WB network, and then on UPN. The series was about teenagers with psychic abilities who were actually humanlike aliens stranded in rural New Mexico. As with Key's book, the psychic powers, origins and setting in "Roswell" all seem strongly reminsicent of Henderson's stories. It is impossible to say whether the influence was direct.

Henderson's stories were so widely published and read among science fiction fans, it is likely that they generated a widely-used archetype which many writers have drawn from, just as Henderson herself tapped into pre-existing science fiction conventions regarding psychic powers and aliens. As the titles of her stories reveal, Henderson drew considerable inspiration for her stories from one of the oldest books of all: the Bible. The alien "People" are a science fiction version of the wandering Israelites, making a new home for themselves in the wilderness, not in Palestine but in the American Southwest.

A number of science fiction writers -- including Orson Scott Card, Kathy Tyers and Lois McMaster Bujold -- have specifically mentioned Zenna Henderson's "People" stories as a major influence, although they have not written stories or books which seem based on these stories.

Regardless of the degree to which Alexander Key was inspired by Zenna Henderson's stories, his book has merit on its own, and is unique from Henderson's stories in that it is a children's book, complete with illustrations. Also, the Disney movie adapted from Key's book is a wonderful movie in its own right, one of the best science fiction movies ever to feature child protagonists in a film completely appropriate for children (yet enjoyable for adults as well).

"The People," the made-for-TV adaptation of Zenna Henderson's stories, is largely disliked and forgotten. Henderson's stories are so well-written, so widely loved, and remain so unique (despite their many imitators), that it seems inevitable that they will someday be the basis for a well-made feature film. But unless one counts "Escape to Witch Mountain," that has not happened yet.

Johnny Whitaker was NOT in "Escape to Witch Mountain"
While watching "Escape to Witch Mountain," some people have thought they saw Latter-day Saint child star Johnny Whitaker, who starred in the TV series "Family Affair" from 1966-1971, and also appeared in a number of movies in the 1970s. Johnny Whitaker is famous for his curly red hair, and he was close the same age as the red-headed bully character in the opening scenes of "Escape to Witch Mountain." I have even seen some popular and normally authoritative movie websites (such as MovieTome.com) list Johnny Whitaker as an actor in the "Escape to Witch Mountain" movie, credited as "bully."

But the red-haired bully in the movie does have a name, although it is easy to miss while watching the film. The character's name is "Truck," and the opening credits clearly show that the character was played not by Johnny Whitaker, but by child actor Dermott Downs.

Downs was born in 1962, just three years after Johnny Whitaker was born. They two actors are easy to mistake for each other. Because he is so close in age, Whitaker could have probably played the part himself, and he did indeed star in a number of family films and Disney films that were released at the same time.

But there is no question about it: Johnny Whitaker was NOT an actor in "Escape to Witch Mountain."

Interestingly enough, Dermott Downs was not nearly as well-known as a child actor. But as an adult he eventually had some major behind-the-scenes credits on some well-known TV series. He was a cinematographer for some episodes of "CSI: Miami" and then the chief cinematographer for "CSI: New York." Downs has also been the cinematographer for many music videos and commercials.

Webpage created 22 January 2005. Last modified 16 August 2005.