Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia

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Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia
Backwards The Riddle of Dyslexia.jpg
Genre Adventure
Written by Arthur Heinemann
Franklin Thompson
Guy Fraumeni
Directed by Alexander Grasshoff
Starring River Phoenix
Leaf Phoenix
Madge Sinclair
Judy Farrell
Bo Kaprall
Stephanie Evans
Music by Tony Berg
Country of origin United States
Original language(s) English
Executive producer(s) John D. Backe
Philip D. Fehrle
Producer(s) Shirley J. Eaton
Cinematography Gregory M. Cummins
Editor(s) Michael J. Lynch
Running time 60 minutes
Distributor ABC
Original network ABC
Original release
  • March 7, 1984 (1984-03-07)

Backwards: The Riddle Of Dyslexia is a 1984 ABC Afterschool Special about dyslexia. It shows how dyslexia is detected and treated.[1] The film stars 13-year-old River Phoenix in "one of his first major roles"[2] as Brian Ellsworth. Joaquin Phoenix (credited as Leaf Phoenix) also stars as his younger brother Robby. According to allmovie, Brian Ellsworth is a junior high student "who has a habit of writing his words – and the letters – backwards. Brian's friends think he's kidding, his teachers think he's lazy, and his parents think he's slow. In truth, Brian suffers from dyslexia."[2]


Brian Ellsworth is a good student, however he cannot read properly. When he is at school he tries to avoid reading and writing, and Whenever the teacher tells him to write he disturbs the lesson. Most of the teachers believe that Brian is lazy. Brian's classmates think that Brian enjoys to annoy the teachers. Only one of his teachers wants to help Brian. She tries to find out the reasons behind his behavior. Brian's classmate, Kim, also tries to help Brian. She gives him private lessons. When it's discovered that Brian sufferers from dyslexia, he finally gets the help he needs. He slowly learns to write and read.


Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia is a televevision family drama directed by Alexander Grasshoff.[3] It aired as an ABC Afterschool Special on March 7, 1984.[4] In 1989 Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia was released on VHS in the United States.[5] It was also shown at schools as an educational programme about dyslexia. It was meant for students from grade four to six.[6][7]

It was one of the first major roles for the real-life brothers River Phoenix and Joaquin Phoenix.[8][9] Joaquin Phoenix got his first award nomination for the film.[10] For River Phoenix it was his third award nomination, after two nominations for his portrayal of Guthrie McFadden in the television series Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.[11]

River Phoenix also suffered from dyslexia.[12][13][14] However it wasn't known while River Phoenix was filming Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia. In 1986, two years after the film was broadcast, River Phoenix was diagnosed as dyslexic.[15]

In the film many famous dyslexic persons were named, like Albert Einstein, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and athlete Bruce Jenner.[16]


Critical reception[edit]

Several psychologists critzise that the film supports the outdated common believe that reversing letters in words is the central feature of dyslexia. Good is that the film shows that dyslexia isn't an indicator of low mental ability and that many highly intelligent people have dyslexia too.[19][20]

The US Magazine described the drama as slight but River Phoenix's portrayal as subtle and uncompromisingly real.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Vincent Terrace (2011): Television Specials: 5,336 Entertainment Programs, 1936-2012, 2d ed.. Jefferson: Shutterstock. P.3
  2. ^ a b "Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia". Retrieved 23 July 2008. 
  3. ^ "Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia (1984)". Retrieved 11 July 2014. 
  4. ^ "Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia". Retrieved 11 July 2014. 
  5. ^ "Backwards : the riddle of dyslexia". Retrieved 11 July 2014. 
  6. ^ Susan T. Dennison (2011): Twelve Counseling Programs for Children at Risk. Springfield: Thomas Books. P.3
  7. ^ Martin Howden (2011): He's Still Here: The Biography of Joaquin Phoenix. Croydon: John Blake Publishing Ltd.
  8. ^ Rovi. "Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia (1984)". Retrieved 11 July 2014. 
  9. ^ Kim Linekin (3 December 2009). "He ain't heavy, he's my co-star: Brothers on film. River and Joaquin Phoenix – "ABC Afterschool Specials – Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia" (1984)". Retrieved 11 July 2014. 
  10. ^ "Joaquin Phoenix. Awards". Retrieved 11 July 2014. 
  11. ^ "River Phoenix. Awards". Retrieved 11 July 2014. 
  12. ^ "Famous Dyslexics". The British Dyslexia Association. Archived from the original on July 14, 2014. Retrieved 2 August 2014. 
  13. ^ Geoffrey Macnab (27 September 2012). "River Phoenix: the last film". Retrieved 2 August 2014. 
  14. ^ Kelli Kennedy (March 8, 2013). "River Phoenix's last film premieres in Miami". Archived from the original on March 11, 2013. Retrieved 2 August 2014. 
  15. ^ John L. Baker (1998): Running on Empty. The Life and Career of River Phoenix. Fulton: Phoenix Literary Productions. P.55-56
  16. ^ "Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia". Retrieved 11 July 2014. 
  17. ^ a b "6th Youth In Film Awards". Retrieved 31 March 2011. 
  18. ^ a b c "ABC Afterschool Specials (1972–1997). Awards". Retrieved 11 July 2014. 
  19. ^ Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks. Myth 18: The defining feature of dislexia is reversing letters. In: Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, Barry L. Beyerstein (2009): 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.
  20. ^ Blake (2013): Children with Disabilities - Dispelling Myths About Dyslexia. In: Lexington Family, August 2013, S. 33.
  21. ^ Roberta and David Ritz (1995): Strange Days. In: US Magazine, October 1995.

External links[edit]