Spelling Bee Thursday: The Spelling Bee in Popular Culture

We are in the fifth week of our Spelling Bee Thursday blog series highlighting all-things The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

To get you in the spelling spirit, this week, we are taking a look at spelling bees in popular culture with a little help from our Dramaturg Robert Neblett.

Spelling bees have become one of the most recognizable symbols of American education and have infiltrated many aspects of popular culture throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. The bee represents hard work, ingenuity and even the democratic impulse of the American Dream. In addition to The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, many books, plays, TV programs and films have explored the quirky, cutthroat world of this academic competition.

CB Spelling Bee 2 Cropped In 1969, the Peanuts characters made their animated feature film debut in “A Boy Named Charlie Brown,” which followed everyone’s favorite blockhead as he becomes an unexpected local celebrity by qualifying for the National Spelling Bee. One of the most iconic aspects of this movie’s portrayal of the bee participants is the way the spellers’ heads “pop” and disappear when they are eliminated, expressing the deflation and disappointment that accompanies losing the contest. Another classic sequence features Charlie Brown, Linus and Snoopy learning basic spelling rules through the mnemonic song “I Before E Except After C,” accompanied by the country’s favorite beagle on a twangy jaw-harp.

spellbound-contestant-1

The documentary “Spellbound.”

Season 3 of “South Park” parodied the Peanuts in the episode “Hooked on Monkey Fonics,” in which Cartman loses the bee to a pair of home-schooled siblings. The female sibling, Rebecca, is based upon the winner of the 1997 National Spelling Bee, whose idiosyncrasies included shouting out each letter of her assigned words and whispering into her hands before answering.

In 2006, the film “Akeelah and the Bee” featured Keke Palmer as the title character, who competes in the National Spelling Bee. The film also stars Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett. The film has been embraced by the Scripps National Spelling Bee and is recommended in a number of spelling-related activities on the organization’s websites as a way of raising awareness of the love of spelling.

In 2002, writer and director Jeffrey Bilitz released an Academy Award-nominated documentary called “Spellbound” that viewed the 1999 National Spelling Bee through the eyes of eight of its young competitors. The film exposes many of the quirky techniques employed by young spellers, some of which were adapted by characters in the Spelling Bee musical.

jason-bateman-bad-words

Jason Bateman in “Bad Words.”

In 2013, the dark comedy “Bad Words,” starring Jason Bateman, features an adult character who enters a fictionalized version of the Scripps National Spelling Bee due to a loophole in the rules which makes him able to compete because he dropped out of middle school and, therefore, never completed the eighth grade. During the course of the film, Bateman’s character befriends a young Indian-American competitor.

The 1992 play Eleemosynary by Lee Blessing features a character who was a spelling bee champion and struggles to aid her eidetic mother in caring for her grandmother, who has recently suffered a stroke.

In 1986, the ABC family movie “The Girl Who Spelled Freedom” tells the story of a young refugee from Cambodia who confronts the difficulties and prejudices of her new American home by competing in a local spelling bee.Simpsons Spelling Bee

Other television programs, such as “The Simpsons,” “My Name is Earl,” “The Proud Family,” “Family Guy” and “Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide have featured prominent characters and plotlines revolving around spelling bees as well.

Have you seen any of these movies or shows?

Don’t miss the highly acclaimed musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee when it takes center stage Oct. 16-Nov. 8– book your tickets by calling the Box Office at (501) 378-0405 or visit TheRep.org.