Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Racism, Fandom, and 'The Hunger Games'

The website Jezebel features two pieces about race and the new film The Hunger Games. The first covers Twitter reactions from some fans of the book who are disappointed to find that some of their favorite characters were played by actors of color. The second piece goes into the descriptions of the characters in Suzanne Collins' books, pointing out that the author had in fact described a number of characters as being non-white. The writers at Jezebel take time to ridicule the overt racism of these Twitter posts (as they should) but that is easy to rebuke. What are more interesting and important to learn from the posts are what these viewers expected to see and what their reactions tell us.

First, pay attention to the phrasing of a comment like “why does rue have to be black not gonna lie kinda ruined the movie” [sic] and the use of hash tags like “sticktothebookDUDE.” It’s clear from the reporting in the second Jezebel piece that Rue is dark skinned in the book, so the tweets are wrong about that. But let’s assume for a moment that the character was white or that Collins had not specified her skin tone or ethnicity. Should casting a performer of color matter? The Marvel comic book character Nick Fury was portrayed as white in the comics but he is played by African American actor Samuel L. Jackson in recent Marvel pictures including 2012’s The Avengers. Based on Jackson’s performance and the way these films have dealt with the character, the ethnicity of the actor playing Fury seems irrelevant to the character’s story. And the same is true of Rue; there is nothing about her ethnicity that makes it a defining element of her character, at least as she is portrayed in the film.

That shouldn’t be taken to mean race does not matter in the movies. Clearly race (and social context) matters for the plot and characters of a film like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? or the 2005 remake Guess Who? And race plainly mattered to the Twitter users who were bothered that certain characters of The Hunger Games were portrayed by minority actors. But there is a distinction to be made between race mattering to the story and race mattering to the audience. The fact that some of The Hunger Games readers were surprised and upset to see an African American actress in the role exposes some underlying attitudes.

As Frederick Gooding discussed in my recent interview with him, audiences, and especially white viewers, have been conditioned to assume that characters are white as a default. This is especially true of characters in heroic roles. That assumption was upset by the presence of African American actress Amandla Stenberg as Rue. The image on the screen departed from the mental image these viewers had upon reading the book and race was clearly such an issue for them that, to paraphrase a few tweets, it ruined the picture for them or kept the viewer from feeling empathy for the character. The fierce reaction to the presence of an African American actress betrays the extent to which this conditioning has taken hold.

What the Twitter reaction also reveals is a fundamental difference between reading a book and watching a film. What we have here are readers who were clearly invested in the book and yet either did not pick up on the descriptions in Collins’ book or ignored them. Literature allows for that in a way that cinema does not; readers are able to imagine characters and locations and modify a book’s descriptions to fulfill the fantasy in our mind’s eye. This is why books are almost always described as better than a movie adaptation. In this case, readers were able to ignore uncomfortable or challenging racial depictions in a book by filtering them out, so much so that their memory of the book does not resemble what the author actually wrote.

I want to move this on to a point about fandom. The racial component of the Twitter posts tends of obfuscate other issues but there is another aspect to this and that is the outrage at changes initiated by screenwriters in adapting The Hunger Games from the page to the screen. I think this presents considerable problems for filmmakers and directly impacts the films we get in the local theater.
We are living in a time in which studios are under pressure to make big blockbuster films from established franchises as opposed to creative risks on smaller, original pictures. These blockbuster films are often adapted from properties that have a considerable fan base; that fan base guarantees a built-in audience, which is the reason the projects are green-lit in the first place. At the same time, fans have considerable influence on the products being made and studios and filmmakers actively court the fans in their marketing strategies.

This leads to a situation in which filmmakers are creatively restrained. Adaptations of books, comics, and toy lines are expected to follow the established texts or mythology to the letter and any deviation is hyperbolically compared to a sexual assault on the fan’s childhood. But many great films adapted from novels took tremendous liberties from their source material. Psycho, The Godfather, The Shining, and Jaws were adapted from bestselling novels but omitted or changed critical elements of the books in order for the filmmakers to produce their own vision. If these films were made today, Alfred Hitchcock, Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, and Steven Spielberg would be inundated with hate mail accusing them of ruining the book and studios would likely step in and stop them from making those changes in the first place.

There is a connection between fan-boy outrage and the racial comments on Twitter. Many authors do not specify the race of the characters in their books and screenplays unless it matters to the story. And because audiences are conditioned to think of characters as white unless otherwise specified, Hollywood is disposed to cast white actors to keep adaptations as close as possible to the fan’s conception of the characters and stories. This perpetuates, as Gooding puts it, a cycle of blamelessness in which Hollywood studios continue to provide default-white characters, which audiences consume and have their assumptions reinforced, and thereby incentive studios to continue providing the same ethnically homogenous casts.

But this cycle does not just apply to racial representation. It applies to the kinds of stories that are told and the way films are made. That’s why the marquee at the local theater is filled with prequels, sequels, remakes, and reboots and the rare “original” feature is indistinguishable from every other Hollywood tent pole release. A case in point would be the recent release of John Carter, a film in which every character and set piece vaguely recalls other pictures. But Hollywood is just giving us what they think we want and filmmakers are kept from exercising their creativity by studio executives who fear the wrath of fans.

The real shame isn’t just that large segments of the population aren’t represented in motion pictures; it’s that filmmakers are prevented from thinking about old or established narratives in new terms or providing the audience with challenging or creative pictures. It’s texts that shake us up—and to an extent The Hunger Games does—that have a chance at really breaking through the cycle of malaise.

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