Alexander Hellene

Casting Call

By Alexander Hellene

In a 1968 interview with Rolling Stone, Frank Zappa was asked the following question about his group’s image:

The image was related to the music?

Zappa’s answer combines his typical prescience and business savvy:

Sure, and of course it still is. The appearance of a group is linked to the music the same way an album cover is linked to the record. It gives a clue to what’s inside. And the better the packaging the more the person who picked up that package will enjoy it.

The same thing that goes for music goes for books. Cover art, formatting, and other artistic touches give an indication to the reader that this might just be for them. Aesthetics matter.

There is an agreement, maybe even a contract, between artist and audience. This involves the audience placing a lot of trust in the audience to deliver and make it worthwhile for them to fork over their hard-earned dough for a various cultural object. If that trust is rewarded, you have a fan. If that trust is broken, they’ll rarely ever pick up your cultural objects again. The outer trappings of a thing provide context and expectations for what you’re going to get from it.

You most certainly can, and should, judge a book by its cover.

Obviously, books aren’t the only artform that this applies to. There’s music, obviously. We also see this when it comes to television shows and movies as well in the form of casting when creating an adaptation of a work of art from another medium, usually something like novels or comic books. Casting decisions provide clues as to what the overall package will be like. If the people making a bit of audio-visual entertainment, what our great-great-great-grandparents might have called “the talkies,” can’t even get this basic aspect right, it’s an indicator that there are other parts of the adapted work that will be similarly treated with a similar lack of respect.

Comic book fans of a certain age will remember the excitement and hype surrounding the first X-Men movie that came out in 2000. I remember reading Wizard magazine’s big feature revealing the casting and the costumes, and man did that inspire confidence that the movie would be good. Patrick Stewart as Professor X . . . Famke Jannsen as Jean Grey . . . Halle Berry as Storm . . . Ian McKellen as Magneto . . . and of course Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. It was perfect. The costumes were not quite as faithful to the comic books as one might have hoped, but the rationale—that the black leather looked better on film than multi-colored spandex would have—made perfect sense.

And the movie was really good.

The casting decisions Peter Jackson made in his The Lord of the Rings trilogy inspired a similar level of confidence that the end product was more likely than not to be good. And by “good,” I mean both in the senses of “Is it an objectively good, well-made, well-acted movie?” and “Is it a faithful adaptation of the source material?”

I’m a gigantic Wheel of Time fan, and have been since around 1992 or so. When the casting of the new TV series was announced back in 2018 or whenever it was, I was filled with a sense that it was not going to be a faithful adaptation. Reading about what the show is like—changing plot points, adding “adult” content to make it more like A Game of Thrones, and so on—it turns out I was right. I am waiting for all of those people that called me a “wayyyyyycissss!” to apologize.

Reacting to race- and gender-swapped casting has nothing to do with antipathy for one particular group of people or another. It’s a question of trust: “Do I trust these people to make a faithful adaptation if they can’t even get these basic, fundamental decisions correct?” The answer is usually “No.”

Sometimes it works. To return to the realm of geeks and nerds, the first Avengers movie, and the Marvel movies in general, featured a black Nick Fury. However, the character stayed the same, and its portrayal by Samuel L. Jackson was excellent. Further, the rest of the movie, including Nick’s character, was faithful to the source material. It helped that in the alternate “Ultimate” Marvel universe that was created years before the movies, Nick Fury was turned into a black man that resembled Samuel L. Jackson.

As with everything, it’s a question of audience expectations. Maybe at first blush race-swapping characters even when it makes no sense makes fans uneasy, but the end product turns out to be fantastic. You never know. The point is this bond between those who will be plunking down cash to see something and those making it.

Sometimes subverting expectations can be fun and effective in a playful way. If I’m a sunny pop-punk band playing happy music, and I make my album packaging look like it belongs in the death metal section, a death metal fan taking a chance will feel betrayed. However, if I’m in a death metal band opening a show for a bigger group and my band walks out on stage dressed in dinner jackets or whatever, we’ll provoke a lot of puzzled stares from the audience. However, if we start playing face-melting metal, our sartorial choices will be both memorable and a part of the overall package.

That sort of stuff is fun.

There are also failed experiments. Sometimes an author or musician or filmmaker takes a chance on something and that chance doesn’t work out. Audiences can forgive the artist because the artist was experimenting with the audience’s overall enjoyment in mind. Lots of times you’ll see the artist apologize to the audience, or express remorse, that the experiment did not turn out as planned.

That’s okay. And it’s a far cry from deliberately urinating all over your audience, and then getting mad at them for not liking and appreciating the insults.

Questions of artistic choices aside, we have to understand this deeper layer: the changing of the source material these days is often done as a big “Eff you” to audiences. Perhaps it’s a dislike for the fanbase. Perhaps it a dislike for the culture the audience is a member of. Perhaps it’s a dislike for the creator—J.R.R. Tolkien, for all of his enduring popularity and influence, has a legion of detractors.

Lots of creators have massive socio-political axes to grind, and they will use preexisting properties and fanbases to convey these socio-political messages. In cases like this the desecration is the point. Never ascribe stupidity when malevolence is the only logical rationale.  

Mr. Tolkien described this phenomenon in far better words than I could ever hope to:

The Shadow . . . can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own.

And lest you tell me it’s all about “finding the best actor, no matter what,” I’ll believe that when I see an Englishman play T’Challa in a new Black Panther reboot.

– Alexander

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