Would a rose by any other colour smell as sweet? I am aware that there are roses of various (etymologically defiant) colours, as I’m sure Shakespeare was aware that there are other names for roses. I don’t actually know if the pigments affect the smell but it’s probably too pedantic of me to analyse my own metaphor like that so I’m going to move on to the real subject of this post once this paragraph ends.
While trawling through the murky waters of the internet, you may have dredged up some of what I intend to talk about. If you haven’t, then brace yourself for some of what I’m going to fish from the abysmal depths of cyberspace and dissect in the cold light of day. Also, I’m probably going to freeze the extended submarine metaphor now because it may become distracting deeper in the blog-post.
Anyway, Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man 2 is set to swing onto screens somewhat soonishly (2014, according to the interwebs) and the sequel to that is apparently going to weave Mary Jane Watson into the story (she was originally set to be in 2 but is now being saved for 3, seemingly). MJ is to be played by Shailene Woodley, a casting decision which has drawn various creepy crawlies out of whatever dark places they inhabit to spew out the kind of venom for which the internet is infamous.
Principally, the primitive rhetoric is proposing that the actress chosen is not sufficiently attractive to play Peter Parker’s most iconic love-interest. Also, the language employed is not nearly as diplomatically worded as I’ve put it there. Rather than retyping any of the nonsense here or even linking directly to it, I’ll point you to an article in the New Statesman “Comics fans react with disgust at photos of a woman on her way to work” (available online) and to the satirical “Making Shailene Woodley Hot Enough To Play MJ In TASM 2” on comicbookmovie.com.
Now, the lack of accounting for taste in physical features aside, the argument could be made that Mary Jane Watson is usually written as a supermodel/actress/entrepreneur, the first of which is (or will be, probably, if the films go in that direction) her primary career and practically requires that she fall into the category of conventionally attractive. It’s not a very strong argument and is more or less completely scuppered if she turns out not to be portrayed as a model in the film. However, the real reason this argument doesn’t have a leg to stand on (never mind the requisite eight legs) is that focusing on Mary Jane’s physical appearance or her professional career is wrong in the first instance, because neither of those things are substantial to her character.
MJ hasn’t managed to stick around for so long (she made her first full appearance in 1966) because she’s an attractive redhead, after all Marvel Comics is hardly short of attractive redheads. She has enjoyed and continues to enjoy her extraordinary popularity because of her personality, her actions, the content of her character, and the strength of her relationship to Peter Parker/Spider-Man.
Way back before Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man film came out (it was released in 2002), I remember reading an interview with Kirsten Dunst where she claimed that she’d be wearing a red wig in order to avoid upsetting fans. This struck me as slightly odd more than a decade ago (I didn’t think that Tobey Maguire looked much like Peter so I didn’t get why MJ’s hair colour was a big deal) but really annoys me now, in retrospect.
On watching Raimi’s film, I found that despite the wig, Mary Jane Watson was barely recognisable (and becomes less so as the trilogy went on). Kirsten Dunst played a soft-spoken and demure damsel-in-distress who bore little or no resemblance to any version of MJ I’d seen elsewhere.
Would it be preferable to have a film where the characters bore more of a resemblance to the characters as drawn? I suppose so, but I’d rather have a blonde character who does act like MJ than a red-head who does not.
Another case of infidelity in hair colour adaptation is Selina Kyle (Catwoman) in Batman: The Animated Series. Catwoman in the source material has black hair while the Animated Series portrays her as blonde instead of black-haired. It didn’t matter though because she was still a costumed, cat-themed thief, skilled in martial arts and nursing a crush on Batman. She was substantially the same, despite a cosmetic difference.
Yet another example is the live-action film The Dark Knight directed by Christopher Nolan. Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight was not white of skin and green of hair as was the character in the source material. The interpretation of the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s adaptation was a monster in make-up, explicitly unlike the chemical-bleached Clown Prince of Crime from the comics. But Heath Ledger’s Joker was lauded, considered a brilliant portrayal of Batman’s archenemy, only a step below Mark Hamill’s as the greatest adaptation of the Joker off the printed page.
Why? Because Heath Ledger played the Joker as exactly the kind of demonic absurdist that the Joker is; a liar, a tempter, a corrupter, a murderer and a challenge to all established order, whether moral, legal, epistemological or aesthetic. Next to this, the decision to feature dye and make-up, not permanent colour was but a footnote, a blip, a notion worthy of a large neon sign saying “NOBODY CARES”.
To tie all these disparate strands together: My point is that the vulgar, hateful, sexist, misogynistic discussion on whether someone is too ‘ugly’ to play a part is not just ethically wrong but it is also artistically wrong. Graphic novels are visual and static; all you get are motionless pictures and written words.
Cinema (while arguably a form of sequential art itself) is different; the magic is in the motion of the picture and in the juxtaposed sounds; the characters get to move and speak. Different Medium= Different Emphases. Even if that were not so, to focus on a character’s physical features rather than what they do is bad characterization and bad story-telling.
Nowadays we have the power to comment on whatsoever we like, whether upcoming film or up-and-coming actress and we can do so anonymously. However, we all know what comes with “great power”, right?
Post Script: This is only the second post but so far 100% of posts on this blog (all two of them) have been about cinematic adaptations of characters from ‘graphic novels’ (‘sequential art’ is a good technical term for the medium but it’s not in general use, while the more common ‘comics’ seems inappropriate for stories which are not meant to be comical). The next post will break this budding pattern (do patterns bud? Sure, why not?), I promise.