Actors, Roles; It’s a Wrap

Over the last nine posts I’ve been pondering the topic of Who Can Play Who when it comes to adaptations of existing works. To wrap things up, and because ten is a magic number to us humans, it seems reasonable to try to boil it all down to something coherent. If that’s even possible.

I find myself conflicted sometimes between what I’ll call a stage play sensibility that allows huge latitude in casting actors versus my sensibilities about live-action adaptations of well-established existing properties.

I think that changes the equation.

One key for me is the extent to which an adaptation links to its source. That link is often direct and explicit, such as with the recent Netflix adaptations of Cowboy Bebop and The Sandman. Even these differ slightly as adaptations. The latter follows the basic plot arc of the text, whereas the former is much looser in retelling original episodes. Yet both strive to be “faithful” to the text.

The link to the source isn’t as strong in the Amazon adaptation of Tolkien’s lesser-known work, Rings of Power. While it takes major liberties with key characters, the story is still explicitly set in Tolkien’s world and centers on those key characters from Lord of the Rings. Importantly, it is an original story, not a retelling.

In contrast, perhaps, consider how The Magnificent Seven (1960) is famously an adaptation of Seven Samauri (1954). It borrows the plot but completely changes the story’s world and stars gunfighters rather than Japanese Samauri. It’s still an explicit adaptation but one reframed and repeopled.

On the other hand, superhero movies often tell entirely original stories based on well-established characters from comics or animations. Here existing characters are adapted to new stories rather than an existing story adapted to new characters.

So, adaptations cover a lot of ground. It’s a topic I’ve been meaning to write about, but it’s so big it’s hard to know where to start. Or, for that matter, where to go with it. Writing about actor roles seems naturally to segue into this larger topic, though.

Here I just want to wrap up the discussion of actors playing roles.

§ §

Generally speaking, when it comes to fictional characters in live-action movies and TV shows, I don’t think race, and sometimes gender, restrict who can play who.

With original roles, I see no restriction at all. Such roles can be any race or gender the writer picks. And once written they can be changed before production begins. Some roles, minor ones usually, may not even specify race and gender. Various neighbor and friend roles are often wide open in this regard.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, though, historical roles require fidelity to the original. That seems obvious. JFK was a white guy (from Massachusetts); MLK Jr. was a Black guy (from Georgia). It would be revisionist to cast either role to a Chinese man. It would be revisionist in the extreme to cast it to a Chinese woman. Even casting JFK as a (white) Frenchman, or MLK Jr. as a (Black) Somalian, would be revisionist.

§

I think characters in adaptations have much in common with historical characters. Both involve individuals with well-established histories — individuals known, not just to millions of people, but to generations of people. One group may be fictional, but both have strong cultural identities. Superman and Mickey Mouse are two of the most globally recognized individuals ever.

The accuracy of the physical casting is one reason Christopher Reeve and Henry Cavill are both highly regarded as Superman. Fidelity matters. The animated Sonic the Hedgehog movie, during pre-release trailers earned strong criticism from fans about the appearance of the main character. They responded by updating the character, and the movie ended up a success.

Consider also the degree of fiction that enters the stories of historical people. The deeper they are in history, the more mythological their stories become. Abraham Lincoln and Sherlock Holmes (who are not that far apart in history) seem equally real. Or equally fictional. As a famous quote goes, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

An irony to me is that we’re talking about the identity of these individuals, yet it’s often those who most espouse “identity politics” who so willingly dishonor the identity of these fictional characters. And sometimes even of historical characters!

It’s inescapably revisionist, and I’m not a fan of revision. I don’t like adaptations that play fast and loose with character identities. Introduce new characters, but honor history and established identity. Why raise the “why do this?” questions involved in revising well-established and widely beloved characters? Who is the audience for that?

§

This is not to say creators who love the original source material but want to take it someplace new aren’t free to explore that. There are many paths available.

Firstly, I think a key ingredient to success is loving the original material. Disdaining and adapting it only to make money, or worse, to mock it, risks the outrage of fans. It’s hard to understand why anyone would adapt something they disliked. It seems an act of malice.

§

One alternate path involves thinly veiled homages (or parodies) of existing works. These are adaptations but may only imply their source. An all-time favorite of mine in this category (and in the general comics category) is The Authority, which began in 1999 (based on characters from Stormwatch, which goes back to 1993).

The Authority is a thinly veiled Justice League. It has, for instance, clear analogues for Superman (Apollo) and Batman (Midnighter) — except they’re a married couple. In general, the whole group acts like one might expect beings with phenomenal powers and human minds to act. They’re emotionally driven, drug-fueled, sex-crazed, and out of control. It’s seriously done, not comedic, but a great sendup of the superhero genre.

So, parodies, pastiches, satires, homages, inspired by, based on. All open territory. Even experimental, concept, or avant-garde productions, like “an all-Black Wizard of Oz” or “a gender-reversed Ghostbusters” are fair territory to me. In a sense, these aren’t revisionism the same way fair use isn’t copyright infringement. These reference and comment on a source material.

§

Alternate universe stories retain as much of the original as one wants. Quentin Tarantino has done this to good effect with historic events, first in Inglourious Basterds, and most recently in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

[Tarantino is a rare filmmaker who has never disappointed me. I love all his films but loved a bit less the ones since Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown (which I think are extraordinary — definitely Wow! rated in my book). Once Upon a Time… is an excellent ride and comes in close second to those two favorites. It’s at least on par with Reservoir Dogs.]

We’ve also seen alternate universe stories in two different Spider-Man films (Into the Spider-Verse and No Way Home), both of which won critical and popular acclaim. Audiences clearly accept alternate universe stories. And they provide a great opportunity for race and gender swapping (Spider-Verse even featured species swapping!)

§

Yet another option is adding new characters. The Star Trek original novels did this routinely — often an obvious self-insertion of the author into the story. (Some of those were so obviously someone’s long-time fantasy that reading them felt like an invasion of privacy. This being in the days before everyone started living their entire lives publicly online.)

Adding new characters lets a writer play in the original sandbox with the original characters. New characters can provide an opportunity for new interactions from the old characters — new friendships as well as new enmities.

Tom Stoppard used a variation of this in his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (first performed in 1996). The idea is to revisit a well-known story from the perspective of a minor character. The Stoppard play is Hamlet told from the perspective of his two (supposed) friends — who appear only briefly in the original play.

Fred Saberhagen did something similar, but with major characters. The Frankenstein Papers (1986) and The Dracula Tape (1980) each tell those well-known stories from the point of view of the “monsters” (who turn out to be innocent and massively misunderstood). Great books!

However, note that this verges into explicit adaptation territory. For character insertions to work, fidelity to the original characters is a consideration.

Another variation involves prequels that visit early, as yet unexplored, lives of established characters, or that predate known story arcs. Hulu’s Predator entry, Prey, is an example of the latter (although it’s a sequel rather than an adaptation).

§

Bottom line: I think the stronger the link to the original, the more fidelity matters. Context and character are malleable so long as writers honor the identity and spirit of the source. Anything else is dishonor or revisionism. I dislike both.

I think gender, race, nationality, height, weight, general size, even accent and more, do matter when implementing a well-established character. Their identity matters; it’s as simple as that. It’s best to respect that when adapting them.

Otherwise, why do an adaptation? Who is the audience for this revisionism? I suspect Hollywood is writing for itself. Modern movies pop out of the privileged artificial social bubble that is all most of them know.

I think the place for serious progress in representation is with original work rather than altering past work. Many examples exist. We should have more. Adaptations are risky business, anyway.

§ §

I think that’s it for now on actors and roles. I do have a lot more to say about adaptations and sequels, but that’ll be down the road. I want to move on to other topics for a while. Less kvetching, more math and quantum mechanics, that’s the ticket to the sanity train!

Stay original, 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

13 responses to “Actors, Roles; It’s a Wrap

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Another tip to writers: When it comes to SF and Fantasy, adapting existing text, as HBO’s House of Dragons does, may be a more successful strategy than attempting original stories told in existing worlds. At least when those existing world are not only long and well established, not only known and beloved by millions, but written by an outstanding, careful, intelligent, highly regarded author.

    Amazon needed to bring in the best writers and directors, but it seems they picked inexperienced nobodies. Probably because they could control them to ensure the product Amazon wanted.

    Which is kind of a Filmmaking 101 mistake.

  • Anonymole

    Henry Cavill as The Witcher cannot, in my opinion, be replaced by doe-eyed Liam Helmsworth.

    And the remake of Willie Wonka? Complete disaster. Johnny Depp can do one roll — drunk pirate — and that’s it.

    Hollywood is such a self-referential whore. An Ouroboros that eats itself and its young, equally.

    And yet, what alternatives do we have? I can’t make a movie. You can’t, I assume. So, we get what the masses consume, not really knowing their choices are what drive the mendacity.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, Depp lacks the charm Wonka needs to not seem like a complete monster.

      If I was younger and more ambitious, I’d invest in a nice camera and editing gear. Making decent films is within reach of enterprising small groups. The need for content, all those streaming services and TV channels, offers a lot of opportunity. It’s at least possible, which it never was before. (Likewise, music is increasingly in the hands of individuals rather the studios.) The problem, obviously, is getting noticed. The flip side is that, in such a populated world, even a small share of viewers constitutes reasonable success for an individual or small group. Not stardom, but a living.

      But I’m too old for that shit now! 🧓🏼

  • Mark Edward Jabbour

    Louis CK did it. I didn’t watch it because I wasn’t drawn to the story. (It’s an old one told many times.) But I hear it’s well done. It’s strictly character driven though, no special effects needed. He also did a TV series “Horace and Pete” which I did watch. Again, about people. I thought it was very good.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Speaking of CGI, these guys have a pretty cool channel:

  • Wyrd Smythe

    As an aside about Louis CK, he used to be very popular. Everyone I knew liked him, and I had constantly to explain he did nothing for me. Never found him funny. To a great extent, his humor is the humor of the ordinary (somewhat ala Seinfeld), which isn’t my cup of tea. His stuff just never landed with me. After his #MeToo moment, I no longer had to defend my lack of interest.

    The weird thing is that it’s another case where an instinctive dislike for someone much later turned out to have a good basis. It also makes for a good case of The Artist vs Their Work and how much we can, or should, separate them.

  • diotimasladder

    “An irony to me is that we’re talking about the identity of these individuals, yet it’s often those who most espouse “identity politics” who so willingly dishonor the identity of these fictional characters. And sometimes even of historical characters!”

    Well said.

    “I suspect Hollywood is writing for itself. Modern movies pop out of the privileged artificial social bubble that is all most of them know.”

    Well said again.

    I was about to hit on some of these points in my comment to your other post, but I ran out of steam. You took the words—or rather, better words—right out of my mouth.

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