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Characterizing Diversity: Netflix and the Colorblind Adaptation

How should we go about casting diverse adaptations of canonized texts?


You just can't make me believe slavery played no part in this wealth.

The writer E.M. Forster once memorably declared that there are two types of characters in a novel: flat and round.


Forster’s idea was that, in literature, there are types and there are people. Flat characters often inject humor into a story; “in their purest form, they are constructed around a single idea or quality” (67). In contrast, round characters are multi-dimensional, carefully organized. They are adaptable; they feel real. Forster’s prime example of round characters comes from Austen. “All the Jane Austen characters are ready for an extended life,” he wrote, “for a life which the scheme of her books seldom requires them to lead, and that is why they lead their actual lives so satisfactorily” (75-76).

So it is with great disappointment that I report that Netflix’s Dakota Johnson-centered adaptation of Persuasion not only fails to aptly give us the round Anne Elliot we deserve, but ultimately flattens the character completely. No longer is Anne the reserved, stalwart heroine of Austen’s lore, a woman quietly suffering from great regret. She has here been flattened to the extreme — pancaked by a drunk dump truck driver, to borrow from another Netflix property.


In the new adaptation, director Carrie Cracknell makes the curious and, I think, unwise choice to Fleabag-ify Anne with smirking, fourth-wall breaking asides. This quirk ultimately recasts the canonically earnest character as snarky, and the script’s strangely meme-laden language and the incorporation of winking contemporary jokes color Anne's loneliness and regret with a mocking irony. Of course, Austen’s novels contain a certain snark; it is from here that her most cutting commentary on class and social niceties originates. Yet it is our unnamed omniscient narrator who is the source of this across the novels. Protagonists like Anne herself are flawed, certainly, but not mocked, and Anne in particular is not that type of person, unlike, say, an Emma Woodhouse or an Elizabeth Bennett, who might enjoy a bit of gossip or mockery. She is perhaps Austen’s most stolid heroine (though Fanny Brice may give her a run for her money), melancholic and responsible, whose journey is not toward self-discovery so much as self-confidence.


Add to the film’s misfires its particular use of "colorblind" casting. Make no mistake: I am not against the practice. I am not the kind of person who angrily cyberbullies people of color who get cast in Star Wars films, or who subscribes to Bari Weiss’s Substack. Initially I had been thrilled at Henry Golding’s casting in particular, though at the time I had thought he would be cast as Wentworth rather than the cousin. It’s not that Persuasion shouldn’t have a diverse cast — instead, it is that, as with the rest of the novel, Cracknell approaches diversity with a clumsiness that fails the source material. The use of actors of color doesn’t add to the meaning of the story; instead, it rather feels like an additional misunderstanding of the source text.


Diverse casting can often complicate storylines, even create compelling critiques; much of Austen’s world is defined by the peculiarities of that class’s social politics, and Austen’s characters are often the beneficiaries of England’s imperial history. The titular estate in Austen’s Mansfield Park, it is implied, is built on the proceeds of Sir Thomas Bertram’s plantation in Antigua. The love story at the center of Persuasion, meanwhile, is largely possible because of newfound class mobility, because of masculine virtue achieved by way of valiant military service. What’s more, Wentworth’s valor is further established by his aid in helping Mrs. Smith regain ownership of her own plantation. As Erin Goss has written, Persuasion is better understood with the “recognition of the violence of the world that makes possible the depiction of the virtue” celebrated in the novel. By this she means both the war that lurks on the outskirts of the novel and the plantation profits that inform its social hierarchy.


Depending on how it is done, casting an actor of color can either add a layer of nuance to the story or fully confuse these existing politics. There are some forms of so-called colorblind casting that diverge from this pattern. 1997’s Cinderella does this well. Brandy is our heroine; Whitney Huston, her fairy godmother. The relationships between characters don’t follow any sort of racial logic — how did Whoopi Goldberg and Victor Garber produce a Filipino prince? I don’t know, and I don’t care! — and actually, the film is all the better for that incoherence. It’s much easier to read casting here as a matter of talent and prestige rather than adherence to some sort of period- and location-specific expectation, and it adds to the sense of the story as a fantasy.


In contrast, Persuasion features a cast in which a mixed couple produces mixed children, leading to more questions about the reality of the situation. In this, Persuasion is not unlike Bridgerton, another Netflix joint that flaunts its diversity without really reckoning with what it means to locate it within an imperial power — even as characters drip in jewels and silks undoubtedly from some faraway locale. The sun never sets on the Bridgerton Cinematic Universe.


In many ways, I don’t have a serious problem with Bridgerton, which, with its Vitamin String Quartet-style Ariana covers and its cotton-candy set dressing, is already so far from reality that clamoring for an all-white cast for the sake of some sort of “historical accuracy” is almost laughable.


And yet the show’s diversity is uncanny; by this I mean that the politics of class and gender are still so present as to render its racial ignorance discomfiting. The show’s matches often revolve around questions of wealth, inheritance, and title. Think, for instance, of the Featherington family’s storyline — the anxiety of a wealth that is only guileful guilding. Think of the Duke and his paternalistic relationship with his people. With all its upper-crust court politics, Bridgerton begs the question of the origins of these families’ wealth. The second season revolves entirely around two Indian sisters who have traveled to England for the debutante season. Yet the notion of colonialism and empire are all but completely absent, and all the more noticeable for being so.

 

One example of a film that does this kind of casting marvelously, in my opinion, is Armando Iannucci’s 2019 adaptation of David Copperfield, starring Dev Patel as the eponymous hero. As Anthony Lane pointed out in his review of the film for the New Yorker, color-blind casting is a practice that’s long been in use on the stage. It’s a fitting choice, then, for Iannucci’s Copperfield, which begins with Patel delivering the novel’s opening to a theatrical audience, a motif that reappears throughout the film as David Copperfield quite literally walks us through his life, with Patel physically moving through scenes and providing limited narration, often even as his younger self remains in the frame.


This approach to casting is also, I would argue, a fitting choice for Dickens productions more generally. Iannucci’s film manages to capture the author’s humor and strangeness in a way that many Dickens adaptations do not, with the majority tending toward morbid self-seriousness. Characters in Dickens are distinct in the extreme, often to the extent of caricature. Again, this connects back to theater. Raymond Williams writes that theater, and melodrama in particular, are the origin of Dickens’ approach to characterization, arguing that these are “the dramatic figures of an age in which individuality and growth are paradoxical” (54-55).


Both Williams and Terry Eagleton frame this as a reflection of nineteenth century society, where the sheer speed and bulge of city life forced people to make more fleeting perceptions of those around them. Whereas small town life (often Austen’s setting of choice) makes for intimate familiarity with those around you, the modern city “quickens our senses but also thins them out, so that the world seems at once vivid and two-dimensional, immediate yet unreal” (Eagleton 144). Eagleton continues: “In these circumstances, we each grow a new ‘mass’ identity, a face for the crowd, which ironically serves to intensify our sense of solitary uniqueness.”


An actual photo of me running up to you on the street to ask if you've seen the Dev Patel "David Copperfield" yet.

This tendency toward caricature is, I think, what makes Dickens ripe for the kind of colorblind casting that comes across as strange in Bridgerton or Persuasion. Despite the realism of the suffering described in his novels, there is in Dickens the sense of removal from reality, signified not only by vivid physical description but also by name: Uriah Heep, Bob Cratchit, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dora Spenlow. Eagleton calls this a “fetishism of appearances” writing that “characters come to be defined by their noses, waistcoats, boots, knees, fob-watches, tricks of speech or peculiar gait” (146). This tendency toward jocularity, “an arch geniality of tone, even in the portrayal of social horrors” (Eagleton 155) is key to Dickens’ stylistic signature, and indeed part of what keeps us coming back across the years and decades.


Iannucci’s filmic adaptation is invested in conveying Dickens’ descriptive strangeness. The Personal History of David Copperfield is lush with color, filled with clashing patterns and extraordinary sets. Add to this its casting: character actors of various races, body types, and vocal distinctiveness. Actors here are cast for their interesting looks rather than some misplaced devotion to realism. There is Benedict Wong, whose thick speech and round features enhance the bumbling and drunken (yet ultimately well-meaning) Mr. Wickfield. There is Tilda Swinton, whose severe angles and paleness make for a great Betsey Trotwood, and Hugh Laurie, sporting a fuzzy cloud of graying hair and a brocade dressing gown as the disheveled-yet- brilliant Mr. Dick. Perhaps least successful for me is the use of Peter Capaldi, whose magnificent physicality and slenderness construct a memorable Mr. Micawber, but who plays the character as a kind of leeching chump rather than the novel’s secondary villain.


Jip disapproves of you cyberbullying Kelly Marie Tran.

Among the few sane characters is Rosalind Eleazar’s Agnes, the daughter of Mr. Wickfield and Copperfield’s ultimate paramour. Eleazar is biracial, and her place as one of the more straight-laced characters helps the film steer away from another tendency in “colorblind” casting, wherein actors of color are given quirky bit parts, essentially relegating them to a token role as a kind of jester or sage (think of the propensity of Black women therapists on television as a more recent example).


And Dev Patel as David Copperfield is itself an intriguing choice. I, for one, will watch Patel in anything, and have done since his Skins days. The man is six lanky feet of charm and charisma and perfect hair, so his casting is fitting for Iannucci’s choice to make Copperfield both an everyman and an entertainer. Patel’s casting also adds a layer of commentary to Dickens’ critique of nineteenth century England — David Copperfield is taken for granted, treated as a pet, named and renamed and renamed again. For much of his life, he accepts the identities his companions project onto him, and is used for their purposes, be they good or evil. One might read this as a kind of commentary on the exploitation beyond the boundaries of the novel, the imperialism that funded much of the development depicted in Dickensian fiction.


Society if Dev Patel was a rom-com leading man.

Of course, my critiques of Persuasion’s casting may apply here too. Lane’s review touches on the double bind: “Would an Indian David Copperfield, by this argument, have stood a chance of worldly success? Regardless of our own attitudes, by what right do we export them to an earlier and less tolerant age, in which Mrs. Steerforth’s color would not have gone unremarked?”

 

None of this is to say that all period films should follow the colorblind blueprint; they shouldn’t. There are hosts of untold stories about fascinating, real people of color that haven’t yet made it to screen (2013’s Belle is one example of a story that did make it to screen, though I admit I’ve been waiting ages for a film about George Bridgetower). There are also extraordinary contemporary texts set in the past with juicy, complex roles for actors of color (Robert Jones Jr.’s The Prophets and C. Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold), and yet more opportunities for original screenplays (The Harder They Fall proves that Netflix is capable of interesting historical fiction with a diverse cast).


Opinions run the gamut on the issue of diverse casting, and rightly so — certainly I do not think my opinion is more valid or important than that of a Black girl who may be seeing herself reflected for the first time in a period piece that isn’t casting Black women as enslaved people. Let Black women wear corsets if they want to! Ideally, adaptations of classics should simply cast the best actor, not the palest. And at times, I think, historical accuracy be damned — for, truly, who is to say an actor of color should be shut out of a role as iconic as Jo March or David Copperfield? That’s one approach to the issue.


Another is the adaptation of Austen’s Sanditon or even Harlots, which features a mixed marriage that is warm and intimate, if often complicated by differences of race. The Great features a diverse cast of actors, including Sacha Dhawan in a central role as Orlo. The Great brings to mind another figure long overdue for a film about his life, Abram Gannibal, who was abducted from East Africa as a child and rose to general-in-chief under Peter the Great, ultimately retiring during Catherine’s tenure (he was also, notably, the grandfather of Pushkin). Whatever the ultimate product is, it’s clear there is still an acute need for better characterization of people of color in film and television — for rounder characterization, as Forster might put it.


Maybe the question comes down to efficacy. What, after all, is the purpose of adaptation in the first place? Beyond making money? To some extent, I think the job of an adaptation is to make the source text legible, approachable; this was certainly the effect Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice had on me. The unstated thesis of diverse casting is that the problem with any given source text is a lack of diversity, but in the case of Bridgerton and Persuasion, the problem is really history — a history of empire, of plunder, of enslavement. Diverse casting should add something to the story rather than removing or air-brushing history's ugliest truths. Diversity for diversity's sake, or, as I believe in my more jaded moments, to adhere to trendiness, presumes that diverse casting will fix the source text's shortcomings. But to what extent is this possible, and to what extent does this casting instead create a sense of dissonance within the viewing audience?


In contrast to Austen, Forster read Dickens’ characters as flat, a collection of signs and symbols. Yet he also believed in their paradoxical depth. “Nearly every one [of Dickens’ characters] can be summed up in a sentence,” he wrote, “And yet there is this wonderful feeling of human depth” (71). Forster saw this as a reflection of reality: “In daily life we never understand each other, neither complete clairvoyance nor complete confessional exists. We know each other approximately, by external signs, and these serve well enough as a basis for society and even intimacy” (47).


Perhaps that was well enough for Forster, writing in the 1920s, amidst the success of his novel “A Passage to India.” But perhaps it shouldn’t be enough for us, nearly a hundred years later. Fiction’s very gift is the ability to step into the shoes of another, to experience someone else’s interiority. Whether we’re casting a diverse adaptation of Bronte or Whitehead, the success of that casting lies largely in characterization and context.


And for Christ’s (and Austen’s) sake: Just don’t adapt Anne Elliot into a meme.


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