Movies About Rare Diseases and Disorders

Disease and illness are often the subject of sappy, poorly-produced, made-for-TV movies. That's not the case with these five feature films. Each of these films focuses on rare diseases and disorders that are integral to the film's plot; not just flimsy afterthoughts and plot devices.

A few of these films were very popular amongst moviegoers and are critically-acclaimed works, while others were generally overlooked by the public; mere blips on the radar. Still, each of these films is worth seeing. They are sure to change your perspective for the better in the way you view and discuss serious, yet little known, rare diseases and disorders.


The Elephant Man (1980)

Still from the Elephant Man movie
Silver Screen Collection/MoviePix/Getty Images

"The Elephant Man" is a 1980 film starring John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, and John Gielgud. Just about everyone who's seen this movie likes it, in which John Hurt portrays Joseph Merrick, nicknamed “the Elephant Man” due to the disfiguring effects of what was most likely Proteus syndrome. Merrick's deformities made him a human anomaly. Hurt shines as he portrays the intelligent, sensitive man behind the mask.

Originally, it was mistakenly thought that the elephant suffered from neurofibromatosis, a condition in which tumors grow on nerve tissue. The elephant man, in contrast, did not have the brown spots characteristic of neurofibromatosis, and instead, X-ray and CT studies of Merrick performed in 1996 revealed that his tumors grew from bone and skin tissue, the hallmark of Proteus syndrome.

Of note is that is that Merrick lived from 1862 to 1890, but Proteus disorder was not identified until 1979. It's likely that there are a number of rare disorders present today which will be identified and understood further in the future.


Lorenzo's Oil (1992)

The 1992 film "Lorenzo's Oil" stars Hollywood heavyweights, Susan Sarandon and Nick Nolte. "Lorenzo's Oil," tells the story of parents Augusto and Michaela Odone’s struggle to find treatment for their son Lorenzo's adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), a deadly genetic disease. The films offers a touching, emotional portrayal of this progressive neurological disorder, but there are some inaccuracies. Nevertheless, you'll cheer for the family's successes.

Adrenoleukodystrophy is a hereditary disorder, inherited in an autosomal recessive pattern linked to the X chromosome. As such, the disorder occurs only in boys. Learn more about patterns of inheritance in genetic disorders.

The disease is progressive, involving the degeneration of myelin, similar to some other diseases such as multiple sclerosis. Myelin acts like the coating over an electrical cord, and when this "coating" is destroyed, the spread of information across the nerve is slowed.


The Tic Code (1998)

"The Tic Code" stars Christopher Marquette, Gregory Hines, and Polly Draper. A 10-year-old boy (Marquette) and a saxophone player (Hines) meet and discover they both have Tourette syndrome. However, each deals with it in his own way. The boy has adjusted to his tics, but the older man tries to hide his and resents the boy’s accepting attitude.​

There are a number of ways in which these tics occur, but the way it is commonly portrayed in the media—with obscene words and gestures—is actually very uncommon.

Thankfully there are now a number of treatments available which can help these people—who often face Tourette's during the angst of adolescence to boot.


The Mighty (1998)

"The Mighty" is a fantastic film you've probably never even heard of, starring Sharon Stone, Gena Rowlands, and Harry Dean Stanton. Kevin is a bright 13-year-old with Morquio syndrome, a progressive disease, and Max, a slow-moving child with low intellect—he feels he looks "like Godzilla"—has dyslexia. The two form an unlikely friendship when Kevin becomes Max's reading tutor.

Morquio syndrome is inherited in an autosomal recessive fashion is considered one of the mucopolysaccharidoses (MPS), diseases caused by the absence of enzymes required in normal metabolism. Morquio syndrome is considered MPS IV, whereas Hurler syndrome with which people may be more familiar is considered MPS I or II. The disease has many features ranging from bone and joint abnormalities to heart defects to corneal clouding, and more.​


The Sixth Happiness (1997)

This 1997 film "The Sixth Happiness" starring Firdaus Kanga and Souad Faress was released in the United Kingdom. It's based on the autobiography of Kanga, titled "Trying to Grow." Kanga actually plays himself in this film. The film tells the story of a boy named Brit growing up in India. He has been born with a disease that makes his bones brittle and never grows taller than 4 feet. Brit is a charming, funny, and very realistic character who struggles with his sexuality and life’s problems in his own unique way, but his parents have very different attitudes towards his disability.

While this movie does not highlight a specific rare disease (although it fits with osteogenesis imperfecta in many ways) it can help raise awareness about several rare and uncommon diseases which involve brittle bones and dwarfism.

Osteogenesis imperfecta is the disease which has been coined "brittle bone disease." The disease results from a defect in a type of collagen found in bone, ligaments, and the eye, and often leads to multiple broken bones in addition to short stature. There are several different forms of the disease, with severity varying greatly even for those with the same form of the disease. Thankfully, recent advances in treatment, such as those for osteoporosis drugs, is helping to improve the lives of some of these people.

Short stature is referred to as dwarfism when adult height is 4 feet 10 inches or less and has many causes.

In addition to movies which raise awareness of rare diseases, people with some of these conditions have used their condition in a prominent way for the silver screen. An example is John Ryan Evans, an actor with achondroplasia, and his role in many productions including How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Angurana SK, Angurana RS, Panigrahi I, Marwaha RK. Proteus syndrome: Clinical profile of six patients and review of literatureIndian J Hum Genet. 2013;19(2):202–206. doi:10.4103/0971-6866.116117

  2. Wiesinger C, Eichler FS, Berger J. The genetic landscape of X-linked adrenoleukodystrophy: inheritance, mutations, modifier genes, and diagnosisAppl Clin Genet. 2015;8:109–121. doi:10.2147/TACG.S49590

  3. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Mucopolysaccharidoses Fact Sheet.

  4. U.S. National Library of Medicine Genetics Home Reference. Osteogenesis imperfecta.

By Mary Kugler, RN
Mary Kugler, RN, is a pediatric nurse whose specialty is caring for children with long-term or severe medical problems.