On Race And Book-To-Screen Adaptations

There are so many YA books right now with TV/movie deals that I can’t get the phrase “adaptations are in the air” out of my head. It’s pretty exciting! Except if you’re a fan of any of the books to be adapted, it’s basically like being an angry dragon curved possessively around a pile of books that some well-money, not-so-nice-intentioned producer is trying to obtain.

Not that I don’t want to see my faves on the screen, big or small. I do. It’s just that the excitement is often mixed with nerves. I do, however, value and look forward to the following:

  • Surprises: Yes, I know. Surprises can be the worst. BUT if the show/movie is going to be a word-for-word retelling of the books, I think I’d rather just listen to the audiobook. The casting and the effects are bound to be better in my head anyway. So, yes, a few changes to the plot, a few side-adventures, a few extra kissy moments for that couple that get fewer kissy moments in the books– all good, gimme gimme.
  • Casting: Is. Such. A. Big. Deal. The majority of my post deals with casting, just scroll down. I look forward to it. It also makes me hate everything sometimes.
  • Characters: There are certain things that make characters who they are, certain fashion-choices, certain dialogues, certain hobbies. Being able to tell the difference between the Heart of a character and the Clothing that goes on them is no easy task. I do love when movies manage to get that right. And hey, when there are characters of colour in the books and they are realistically portrayed, don’t mess with them. *rolls up newspaper* Leave it. *smacks meddling hand* I said, leave it!!
  • Extras: I suppose this comes under “Surprises”. I don’t mind filler-plots (just more time spent with characters I adore) and I don’t mind extra characters (especially if it’s a TV show), but if you want to write a character in for the simple reason of complicating the relationship between X and Y, then make sure that extra character’s defining trait isn’t “Please Hate Me, I Am An Unnecessary Complication”. All characters, whether they are minor or extra or major and canon, must be complexly written.
  • Effects: You don’t have to go overboard, especially when makeup can do the job. You can use your money wisely and still make a good movie.

The thing I least look forward to is the casting. It’s especially bad when they are getting ready to cast characters of colour. Whitewashing has a long history in Hollywood …

… and it’s still pretty rampant in the industry. People will argue that the it simply makes more monetary sense to “appeal” to the “majority”, but the fact remains that Pacific Rim with it’s incredibly diverse cast made serious bank, both in North America and internationally. Why? Because, surprise! Movie goers are diverse too! In the end, what matters is that the story works, the actors are good, and that the characters of colour are played by actors of colour.

It would be remiss of me if I went this entire posts without referring to Ally Carter’s brilliantly laid out explanation of the kinds of changes adaptations undergo:

  • Baking Soda Changes refer to the kinds of decisions that mess with the chemistry of the adapted text. Like using baking soda, instead of baking powder.
  • Walnut Changes refer to the kinds of decisions that are (relatively) small and would not change the essence of whatever is being adapted. Cookies are still cookies whether they have chocolate chips or M&Ms.

Examples would depend on a case-by-case basis. For instance, the act of changing the race of a character. Generally, I am excited to see Hollywood get race right. (A rare occurrence, I assure you.) Over the years, lots of roles that could be played by characters of colour have been given to white actors, with people claiming that the white actors were simply “the best” choices.

Well, as it turns out, the same rule could be used to defend casting choices where actors of colour play characters that are/or perceived as white, especially if whiteness is not the character’s defining quality. (On the other hand, when POCs are represented by white people on the other hand, a part of their identity/background/story is erased. It is a subtle kind of racism.) So, Isaiah Mustafa being cast as Luke Garroway in the upcoming Shadowhunters TV show, to me (and, I’ll wager, Cassandra Clare), this is a walnut change. Luke’s defining qualities are his conscience and his fatherly role in Clary’s life. Not his pale, pale skin.

There are race changes that can be harmful, though. There are several hundred things wrong with The Last Airbender movie, but the changes made to the races in the story is what moved it from being a mediocre movie to being an unforgivably bad one. One of my favourite things about ATLA is that all its characters are POCs– it is the one American show to do this– but not only did the movie cast white actors to play the Gaang, it also made a classic Hollywood move by casting actors of colour to play the villains.

It is largely accepted that the Fire Nation is based off of Japan and China, given their colonial histories. When helping Sokka blend into the Fire Nation, a born and bred Fire Nation man literally says the words, “You might want to think of a better Fire Nation cover name. Try ‘Lee.’ There’s a million ‘Lees’.” Of course, in the movie, the bad guys are played by a bunch of desi looking guys, which is just?? I mean?? WHAT??? This kind of change, even though it is in essence a similar move to the Luke/Isaiah casting, is a Baking Soda Change. You wanted a cake, but you ended up with something that looks like poop, smells like death, and you’ve flipped off your guests.

So, yeah, while I am always excited to see books being adapted, I am also filled with nerves. I try to keep them in check, try not to be alarmist because a) the authors deserve that and b) really, you can’t say much until you’ve seen it, but things like another all-white Potter film says enough to me.

11 responses to “On Race And Book-To-Screen Adaptations

  1. This article reminds me of another a saw a few days ago, about Artemis Fowl getting a movie.

    What are the chances that they’ll cast Holly, who was explicitly described as brown skinned, with a white, blond actress?

    • Yes! I am so excited about Arty finally getting his moment BUT COMPLETELY DREADING THE CASTING! Not only for Holly, but also the Butlers. (I always read them as mixed race). Plus, I am really hoping that not all the above ground people are white and all the fey folk are POCs. *sigh*

  2. Fantastic article! I LOVE book to film adaptations but I hardly ever like the movie more. Often for many of the reasons you’ve listed! I remember there was a lot of hype around the casting of Rue in the Hunger Games because people thought she was meant to be white! Sometimes the issues are with the audience too.

    • Oh, absolutely! And yet, somehow, I never cease to be surprised when someone from a fandom I’m involved with runs their mouth and shows how racist they are. It’s certainly more disappointing than when the content itself is bad. I take comfort in knowing they’re in the minority and that they’re just loud.

  3. Pingback: On Race And Book-To-Screen Adaptations | booksaregifts·

  4. I absolutely agree. I’m always finding myself disappointed with casting choices. Another good example is Scarlett Johannson playing the Major in the upcoming Ghost in the Shell live action adaptation, when the Major is absolutely Japanese, and I feel like Hollywood misses a huge opportunity to show true diversity (also, why is she cast for what feels like ¾ of the roles in superhero/SFF franchises?)

    • Yeah. The problem exists on so many levels. It would really help if actors themselves– especially ones who hold a certain amount of power in Hollywood– stood up against whitewashing. It just … never seems to happen.

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