I read All the Bright Places almost two years ago, and fell head over heels for it. For many reasons. But mainly, I connected with the characters, and my heart broke for them. The Netflix adaptation came out recently and I was, of course, excited. It wasn’t as good as the book, unsurprisingly, but, even with pacing issues, and some odd directorial decisions, as a movie, it worked, and I enjoyed it, and it made me cry. But my thoughts are circling around one thing: the reaction of people when it was announced who would be playing Theodore Finch. The role went to Justice Smith, an African-American, and people were upset because Finch, in the book, is a white guy. I never had a problem with it, and when I watched the film, whatever other problems it had, the casting wasn’t one of them. Justice Smith portrayed Finch perfectly, to me.
And it made me wonder if race-bending is something a majority of people find issue with, or if it’s just a loud minority. I understand if the story is about a specific race or culture – like with The Hate U Give and books similar. Changing the ethnicities of the main characters in those kinds of books completely changes the story. But with stories where it’s just about people, and the struggles of being human, it doesn’t matter to me at all what their race is, because to struggle is human. And I realised, while thinking this over, that I don’t really paint a picture of a character in my head when I’m reading. I connect with them, I relate to them, I sometimes fall in love with them. But I feel all those things while only seeing them as a person. It doesn’t matter to me what colour their skin is because I know their souls. A character in a book is ink and paper, and the story is imbued with their personality. Readers know them intimately because we’re inside their heads the whole time. So, as long as the actor chosen portrays them with the same soul as in the book, then it doesn’t really matter what they look like.
That being said, I understand that it is a bit of a complex issue. Like if Finch was African-American in the book but was played by a Caucasian guy in the adaptation, even though his race isn’t relevant to the story, it would be considered whitewashing, which I think everyone can agree is never a good thing. Because that brings with it a whole history of systemic racism and minorities being overlooked. Like with the Avatar: The Last Airbender movie, one of the worst cases of whitewashing, and strangest, because the animation had such a huge following already. I suppose, for the longest time, ‘white’ has been portrayed as the ‘norm’ or the ‘default’, and if there’s a slight deviation, people in media start to believe nobody can relate to the story any more. Which is ridiculous, because a minority may be a minority compared to the majority, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t a big enough group to show up and enjoy media that represents them. You know?
And also, I read a review of ATBP that stated how it was important that Finch was played by an African-American because the story deals with mental illness, and that is a topic not often discussed in African-American communities, and that this could be a jumping off point to start those kinds of discussions.
Went off on a bit of a tangent, but I’d like to know what other people think. Does it matter to you if a character is race-bent? Do you see characters clearly in your head? And, if a movie doesn’t get them exactly right, does it bother you? Or are you happy as long as their essence translates? Also, do you have any examples of good/bad race-bending in adaptations? Let me know.