Live-Action Adaptations

I seem to have a penchant for trilogy posts. It wasn’t intentional this time, but I ended up writing a trilogy of posts [1, 2, 3] about the Netflix adaptation of The Sandman (1989-1996), the much-loved graphic novel authored by Neil Gaiman (and drawn by various artists).

The Netflix adaptation offers some good examples of actor swapping, which has been my theme lately. Ultimately, I think the real problem is realistic live-action adaptations of singularly and visually well-defined drawn or animated characters. For instance: Superman, Homer Simpson, and Mickey Mouse.

When real people portray them, race and gender come into play.

I’m talking here about live-action adaptations of characters from print or animation. Cartoon and comic characters. The medium itself is fantastic, so fantastic characters inhabit it organically. Realizing such characters in the real world requires visual sleight of hand that necessarily comes off as fake. Just think of every real-world version you’ve ever seen of Superman, Homer Simpson, or Mickey Mouse. They can exist naturally only as graphic images.

The fantasy nature of the medium has always given graphic artists a broad character spectrum. One that ranges from as human as possible to anthropomorphized animals and objects. From Hank Hill to Garfield to talking teacups.

There’s a considerable sub-spectrum in just the depiction of humans. It ranges from as normal as can be drawn in a given medium to strange features and body shapes. From Alex Ross to Gahan Wilson. From what I can tell, most cartoon artists do use the latitude of the medium to alter humans in some way. Few strive for realism.

Superhero comics, though, are notable in depicting generally realistic (if sometimes highly exaggerated) humans. That might be part of the draw for live-action adaptations. Superheroes are presented in life-like modes, as being in our reality, so it’s natural to want to make a realistic live-action adaptation.

The problem is that it’s a trap. In multiple ways.


Firstly, being portrayed by an actor collapses the role to a single visual. Frodo is forever Elijah Wood. The fuzzy image from our imagination is permanently collapsed to a single representation. However, a role can be made fuzzy again if enough actors portray it. A good example is Sherlock Holmes. The role has been portrayed by so many actors that visualization is vague.

(Close your eyes and visualize Sherlock Holmes. Now visualize Iron Man. See what I mean? For Holmes your mind might have reached all the way back to early illustrations rather than to any specific actor. Mine did. It gave up trying to blend Jonny Lee Miller, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Basil Rathbone.)

Secondly, in binding a role to an actor, there is an expiration date on the role — and presumably, therefore, the character. Iron Man and Thor are recent examples. Even natural aging of an actor can be at odds with the arc of their character over multiple movies. Superman doesn’t age! As implemented in comics, many characters are effectively immortal; their stories have continued for decades. We would be smart to allow multiple actors to play the same role over time. That’s already happened with Superman and Batman (but not so much in Marvel movies).

Thirdly, it raises questions about who can play who. What restrictions, if any, exist when casting fictional, but well visualized, roles with human beings? On top of that, in today’s social climate, race and gender swaps raise questions of intention and virtue-signaling. It can become a distraction from the story. A recent example is casting Halle Bailey as Arial in Disney’s live-action remake of The Little Mermaid (1989). So much attention and focus wasted on debating, protesting, or defending, the casting.

§ §

In general, we judge adaptations on changes, additions, and deletions. They lay claim to a certain story by name, so we must judge them against that source. And there is always the question of why an adaptation was made. What does it add to the original?

The same questions apply to the characters. They are the prominent aspect of a story. We tend to remember characters more than we do plot. Unless we are connoisseurs of the medium, we don’t pay as much attention to the writing and directing. (Or in graphic arts, the writing and drawing.) What most take away from a story is the characters.

Fans naturally cling to the actors as the most visible aspect of a property they love. This leads to a natural linkage: actor → role → character → person. Fans spend many hours with these “persons” and think about them a great deal. They feel a sense of ownership. As a personal example, William Shatner was (and is) Captain James Kirk, and that duality loomed large in my young life.


Live-action adaptations could be less bound to actors. As with Superman and Batman. We would need to see live-action performances more as we see stage performances by different actors or comic characters drawn by different artists. It requires we focus on the character, not the actor. Characters live on; actors don’t.

In long-running comics, especially over a span of decades, characters are drawn differently by different artists. In some cases, the differences are quite prominent — a matter of a certain artist’s style. Generally, though, there is a canonical model, a base reference, for drawn or animated characters. They have to look enough like themselves for the reader or viewer to immediately identify them, but there can be considerable variation within those bounds.

(Computer animations are more consistent because the character is rendered from its model. Any variation has to be deliberately programmed in.)

Stage plays involve even more variation. They’re recognized as sketches of a reality. The same role is played by many actors over the years. The same locations are realized in vastly different ways. Stage plays become fuzzy superpositions of all their visualizations. The sheer number of instances dilutes the power of specific instances, no matter how accurate or experimental.

In books and comics, characters just are what they’re written to be. There’s no performer behind them. Animations generally have very little connection to the voice actor behind the visual. Stage roles have a slightly stronger link to their actor but remain more about the character than the actor.

It’s the live-action roles that get to be about specific actors. Captain Kirk (Shatner), Mr. Spock (Nimoy), Luke Skywalker (Hamill), Han Solo (Ford), Iron Man (Downey, Jr.), Thor (Hemsworth), Wonder Woman (Gadot), Frodo (Wood). These roles have become iconified in the cultural mind. The only natural flexibility comes from prequels or origin stories where younger actors can play younger versions. For instance, Captain Kirk (Pine), Mr. Spock (Quinto), and Han Solo (Ehrenreich).

The built-in mechanism Doctor Who has for periodically changing the lead actor is brilliant. It was born of a necessity but allows the show to continue indefinitely. Absent such mechanisms, or a cultural shift to rotating actors in roles, we seem stuck with the character-actor link. The realism of live-action adaptations forces us to take that link seriously.

Which means race and gender questions have to be in play. Fictional characters generally have a race and gender, and so do the actors who play them. Characters often have other prominent identifying traits, such as hair color, height, or build.

§ §

Realism implies accuracy. The verisimilitude of film and TV bring storytelling into our reality. Stories are faithful to reality as we know it (except for the superheroes, monsters, or aliens). Animations and comics are simplified, stylized, and generally fantastical, so live-action adaptations are a large mode change.

[Such a large mode change that I’ve come to think most live-action adaptations are a mistake. The live-action Cowboy Bebop adaptation is a perfect example. It should never have been allowed.]

As an adaptation of an existing property, changes naturally raise questions of motivation. Changes can be flourishes of style, plot hole fixes, technology updates, or budgetary, without causing much uproar. In some cases, they can be seen as improvements (I liked the ending of Watchmen (2009) better than the original.)

Or changes can be seen as socially motivated, and this — rightfully, I think — does cause comment. From both sides of the issue.

A great example: The Faye Valentine costume in the Netflix Cowboy Bebop adaptation. The show strove to be as faithful to look of the source as possible, so the changes to Faye’s costume stood out and got noticed. (It didn’t help that the actress got snarky about it on the internet and was later shown to have worn an even skimpier costume in another production.)

Socially motivated changes communicate intent. They convey a message. Lately, some have taken to calling it THE MESSAGE. Which is essentially that women and POC are out-of-the-box awesome, but white men are: assholes, incompetent, villains, or some combination thereof. The pendulum has certainly swung to the other side.

Back when I was learning stage lighting, a key ethic instilled by a mentor was that “Every lighting plot has a message.” Even just throwing a lot of light on stage with no rhyme or reason, still says something. Possibly that you don’t know what you’re doing. Or maybe just that the lights are on, and we can see stuff. It’s still a message. The question is whether the message is in service of the story or a reflection of a socio-political agenda.


It’s a tough call, and I’m conflicted, but I come down on the side of respecting adaptations. In particular of not using them to express political messages; that’s just bad storytelling. If you’re going to remake something, respect its origin and context. Respect the fans who love it. Don’t revise history to make it look better through whatever lens happens to be in vogue now.

The obvious solution to leveling the playing field isn’t to force fit existing roles but to create new platforms and roles. Rather than playing musical chairs, add more chairs. Don’t treat it as zero-sum. With so many content platforms these days, we need the content.

The world is filled with myth and legends from other cultures. Disney has had success with original animations lately. Good storytelling is alive in Asia and India. Africa is literally an entire continent filled with largely untapped stories. Why aren’t there adaptations of stories by Octavia Butler or Paul Beatty? (Or many, many others.) Say what you will about Black Panther, it was a very successful movie.

But Hollywood has become craven and moribund. There’s too much money involved, and studios are reduced to creating McHappy meals for underdeveloped appetites. Children who will only eat fast food.

§ §

Fiction is a reflection of us. It often provides Insight & Revelation. Stories reflect their teller; adaptations reflect the adapter. What does wokeness say about the storyteller? About the priorities of the story? Is it a distraction, or is it a welcome updating?

Stay in character, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

5 responses to “Live-Action Adaptations

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Other trilogies: Pancomputation [I, II, III], Digital Dualism [1, 2, 3], Robert J. Sawyer [this, this, and this], and others.

    Good things come in threes?

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Just to be clear, I think the problem is our love of live-action adaptations of fantastical properties. Stick with original properties where none of the adaptation issues arise.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Gender swaps always stand out, and I’ll get more into that in the next post(s). It’s worth noting, though, that some characters are innately racially fluid. In the Netflix The Sandman adaptation, making Rose Walker and her family Black works just fine. It doesn’t really stand out because nothing connects with Rose’s race. But making Dream’s older sister Black does stand out when the other family members are notably pale. And when the character is so central to the original story and fan memories of it.

  • Mark Edward Jabbour

    “THE MESSAGE. Which is essentially that women and POC are out-of-the-box awesome,” this I can comment on, not so much the detail of the genre as I’ve only sampled it. (i.e. Not a fan.)

    I noticed the shift when I went back to college in the mid-90’s. I did research on current popular TV and found all male “stars” were bumbling fools – eg. The Cosby Show. (How ironic.)

    In some of my Anthropology classes EVERYTHING was said to be a “social construction”. And it was time for a change!

    I HAD to take at least one “multicultural” course in order to graduate. [I did, and did (with honors).]

    Following, in Graduate School (Social Work) … oh boy. 😦

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I think part of what happened is that, over time, white men became the last group that could be villains or clowns without an identity group complaining. And if white men did complain, they were obviously being racist or sexist or some other -ist.

      Which is not to say we don’t need change. It’s just funny how we never seem to get the pendulum to the middle. Always one extreme or another. Everyone wants the playing field tilted in their favor.

      Anthropologists, and more often sociologists, are prone to relativism. I’m prone to disagreeing. 😆

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