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The Problem With Hollywood Casting a Novel

If your brain is quick to cast your favorite actors when you read a book, you might want to think twice. 

The Problem With Hollywood Casting a Novel

What would you tell me if I asked you, “What does Katniss Everdeen look like?” Chances are, Jennifer Lawrence pops into your head. Maybe you haven’t yet read Girl on the Train yet, but the alcoholic Rachel morphed into Emily Blunt for you the moment that casting was announced.  These days film rights are being snatched up at the first sign of any novel’s success, and suddenly characters that sprang from the head of the author are Hollywood cast before we get the chance to consider what they look like ourselves. Should we rejoice, or hide behind our books?

Peter Mendelsund, author of What We See When We Read, warns that having book characters permanently cast in our mind is a hazardous act. He suggests that our perspectives as readers are infected when we flip through our minds like a copy of US Weekly until we find the perfect heroine. As a fangirl, I was immediately taken aback by this suggestion. What was so wrong with adding Meryl Streep to spice up a boring narrative or Viola Davis to survive a lit class?

The truth is that sometimes a novel becomes a lot more interesting when its events are happening to Benedict Cumberbatch. I’ve recommended many a book to a fangirl friend with the tease, “This is perfect casting for your OTP.” Suddenly, I’ve turned a novel into Alternate Universe fanfiction. But the truth is that reading is a profoundly different action than watching a film. And we are unconfined as readers in ways that we could only dream about as TV viewers or video game players.

We are reminded of this freedom when we hear news about casting for a role that makes us rage. Often it’s because Hollywood tends to skew towards making book characters younger, thinner, and whiter, but sometimes we’re upset because it robs us of the chance to sketch our own cast. According to Mendelsund, planting a screen shot of Keira Knightley on the cover of a copy of Pride and Prejudice or Anna Karenina, “is a form of robbery.” Okay, I’ll give him that one.

As readers, we start imagining from page one, even if we end up being wrong. We visualize characters in a process, and this process lets us make changes when fifty pages down the road our sketches are challenged. This process actually defines the goal of becoming a reader: in childhood we depended on picture books, and in adulthood we have fully developed imaginations that require no drawings. It’s arguable that your imagination is even better than it was when your imaginary friend twirled around the backyard with you.

A book is more of a performance than sitting on the couch watching Netflix, and as readers we are included in the playbill. “Reading is cast, set decorations, direction, makeup, blocking, and stage management,” writes Mendelsund. When we are quick to turn a book into a movie and add our favorite celebrities, we give away our agency in this process. It becomes easier trust the protagonist to lead us safely because she’s Julianne Moore, not because we’ve invited ourselves into the narrative, for better or worse. We demote ourselves back to spectators. 

Perhaps after seeing so many of our favorite novels captured on screen, you might feel frustrated as you start a new book with such a hazy image of a hero. How can you root for somehow who’s a little blurry?  Who doesn’t have perfect cheekbones? In the middle of our own stories, we want to retreat into someone else’s and find a face we can trust. But the reality is that the way we stumble through every day life is more similar to fiction than it is to a movie. Our interpretations of ourselves are constantly under renovation, and a sentence or a small action might challenge us to look a little more closely at the way we look at others.

But just for now, give your imagination a head start. Maybe try skipping over the beautiful folks in the FYA Casting Call section of a review every now and then. When you take a chance and see what characters your brain can conjure, you might be surprised.

Kathleen Smith's photo About the Author: Kathleen is a therapist living in DC. When she’s not crying about middle-aged women on television, she helps fangirls with their problems. Despite her passion for dystopian novels, she remains utterly unprepared for the apocalypse.