As a kid, The Little Mermaid was not my jam. The movie came out when I was a bit older and I don’t think I’ve seen it more than once or twice since its Disney release. The most recent backlash regarding casting was impossible to avoid though, even without being a fan. I mean, Melissa McCarthy as Ursula? She’s not even purple and her hair is definitely the wrong color! How could they?!?
I know, I know. I’m making light, but in reality the idea that Ariel must look as drawn by a 90’s Disney artist forever going forward is silly. It’s as silly of an idea as all Tolkien elves needing to only ever be played on screen by white actors. Or Death, as created by Neil Gaiman, only being a fair-skinned woman for anything that appears on screen from The Sandman series. The last one was especially ridiculous for “fans” to throw fits about because Mr. Gaiman himself was involved in the casting of Death and Lucifer – another role people flipped their lids over.
It really is a rough spot to be in as a writer. I think most of us have those fantasies of our work going from page to screen, be it the small screen or the silver screen. I’ve made several casting lists of my own with current actors playing the characters I write. There is a particular actress I’m fond of that I use all the time in my head for my lead. She has the right look, the right mannerisms, the right skill set. I also know I would not be devastated if my dreams came true, my project was picked up and put on film, but she wasn’t cast in the role.
Why wouldn’t I be devastated? Because, as a writer, I would be too far over the moon just knowing someone was going to bring my character to life! This is a death trap for writers. The excitement of seeing something put into that live action medium can be quickly deflated by screaming fans upset that what appears didn’t match what was in their heads. Authors are forced to pick a side and defend a casting agent and film maker, or side with fans unable or unwilling to look beyond what they created. That boils down to tank your own film project or lose part of your fan base.
During a review of the first draft of my novel a friend noted that I didn’t put a lot of physical detail into the characters. I provided enough for them to create a person in their mind without explaining every wrinkle and nose shape, and each of them created someone slightly different. One reader even said the lead was a blonde even though she was described several times as a brunette! Some people approved of my method, some said they missed the details, but by the end of the conversation I’d made them at least consider my way could be right. I thought I was being clever but looking back on it, maybe I was being afraid.
Around the same time as my first draft read, Idris Elba – one of my favorite humans – set fans in a tizzy as Heimdall in Thor. Lucy Liu as Watson on the small screen had people screaming. Then casting for The Hunger Games was announced and a young, black actress named Amandla Stenberg was set to play the part of Rue. People lost their damn minds! I was sent into instant confusion because I was sure that the character had been described in the book as being a young, black girl. I had to go back to my copy and double check. I was right, and that’s when it became clear; no matter how you describe your characters, readers are going to see them how they want to see them, even changing ethnicities to match what they’re comfortable with. This is the writer’s conundrum.
We shouldn’t be afraid to create. The idea that you can’t take something out of a fantasy world, like Mermaids!, and interpret them in different colors, different ethnicities, or even different genders puts a box around creativity. The idea that I can’t write a character with one physical attribute and a casting agent can’t use who they think embodies that same character with different eyes or different skin, unless it’s white skin, limits creativity. It limits the spaces creativity can thrive. That there can’t be spaces in art and movies and literature for a variety of types of people limits us all.