Other than figuring out whether to get the right eye or hair color, getting actors to truly embody an existing fictional character is challenging and far too underestimated. Sure Zendaya could dye her hair red to appease the over-dramatic fandom but that doesn’t really make her Mary Jane nor does Daniel Radcliffe just having glasses makes him Harry Potter. In the point of view of a reader, I will be talking about three of many elements that aren’t taken into enough consideration when adapting stories.
A little story about my time doing film in university, we were having a meeting with our lecturer about how our student film was going. Everything was all good and fine except the teacher posed a question: is your entire cast white? Now keep in mind, this was a non-budget student film so we honestly just asked the friends that were available and unfortunately we didn’t have Samuel Jackson or Jackie Chan to save us from marketing diversity like the big time producers. It all ended up becoming a white, predominantly female cast. Truthfully, I believed that we should have simply bit the bullet and dealt with the consequences of not having racial diversity in mind. That was our fault and we should face it. Except the lecturer had a different idea. He turns to me, the cameraperson, and tells me I should be in the film.
This is what I call race ‘plopping’. Where the casting messed up the diversity and they try to find the closest possible POC to ‘plop’ into the story without any regards of how they might play the character or not considering that another POC might even play it better. This experience made me wonder if professional film companies think this way as well.
It should count as no surprise to anyone that film companies are not subtle when they try to ‘plop’ different races into adaptations. Some of them make little to no sense. Take the Last Airbender live-action for example.
While it’s a different world with no clear racial terminology, it is clear that all the Nations consists of different cultures and races or at least based off of them. The main speculations are that the Water Tribes are inspired by Inuit societies, Fire Nation resembles Imperial Japan, Air Nation is of Tibetan influence and then Earth Kingdom is Chinese. It took a few simple google searches to find this out. Now if you were release an adaptation to the global market, it’s understandable that the creators might want a variety of races except what we got was a predominantly white cast and an Indian Fire Nation. Racial plop and an adaptation flop.
Racial representation right now has been a big step up from the previous embarrassments of Hollywood. But it still needs work. It’s important not to look at a POC and see just a marketing strategy but a talented person who can play a potentially iconic character.
NOTABLE PHYSICAL FEATURES DON’T ALWAYS MATTER
Adaptations don’t always get the exact look right which is why live-action is such a risky business. Readers and viewers are expecting that ‘look’ in their characters and usually if so much as an eye colour is not right then there will have something to say. Which is why I think companies take adaptation far too lightly and see it as easy money when really it’s one of the most difficult things to do. Especially if you want the fandom to respect your work.
However you can usually tweak a few physical features if the actor knows how to embody a certain character.
For example, Emma Watson is Hermione Granger without anyone questioning it despite the fact she doesn’t quite look like the book Hermione. Harry Potter is supposed to have green eyes but Daniel Radcliffe embodied the character so well that it’s a minimal difference. Zendaya also captures a unique twist to Mary Jane that I honestly just always think of her when I think of the character despite her not looking like the original.
Above everything else though, the way an actor owns a character is extremely important in making an adaptation something memorable no matter what physical features they don’t possess.
WHY SO SERIOUS?
This is a big problem. Hollywood has an unhealthy fixation with making adaptations of things that originally had a variety of themes and turning them into a pure violent, sob fest. Going back to the Last Airbender, Aang and Sokka barely made jokes or even smiled through the movie and they’re supposed to be the comic relief. Nor was General Iroh the least bit charming. Basically this movie should not even be considered a live-action because it barely did anything to capture the essence and charm of the animated show. It just took the serious bits and put them in order at an attempt to make people take it seriously. So a bunch of element bending, crying and people dying.
The biggest damage to a franchise is to lose its edge from bad adaptations. Thankfully, the Last Airbender animation is far too iconic to be damaged by something that is quite easily forgotten. But it is still important to ensure that an adaptation is actually doing a work justice or making it more enjoyable rather than sitting there as a useless piece of merchandise. This means preserving the parts that make the work so loved.
This was a bit of a rant-like post but I feel like a lot of people understand the scare of adaptations on their favorite work. You never know what to expect and unfortunately, more often than not, it just never checks all the boxes. I hope you enjoyed reading and please stay safe, everyone.