How Film Adaptations Water Down Diversity


Melissa on whitewashing, straightwashing and other ways films curb the richness of the books they're based on.

Film adaptations of books are often controversial because not all of them stick to the source material. Fans want the characters to be the same people they remember reading about, the plot to at least be similar – what is relatively new is the need for these characters to showcase diversity, in an industry where the watering down of diversity is still too common.

It’s done in many ways, including whitewashing, straightwashing, or omitting those characters completely. For those who don’t know, whitewashing consists in hiring a white actor to play a character who isn’t white. Think Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One – who is meant to be Tibetan – in the Doctor Strange adaptation of the Marvel comics, or Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell, which is the live action adaptation of a manga series of the same name. Straightwashing is similar but involves making an LGBTQ+ character heterosexual. 


Considering minorities are poorly represented to start with, it’s not difficult to understand why altering them in adaptations doesn’t sit well with many. In response to the backlash, Doctor Strange’s director Scott Derrickson argued that an Asian woman cast as the Ancient One would have “felt like a ‘Dragon Lady,’” which is an argument to be considered. But at the same time, screenwriter Robert Cargill admitted they did it so they wouldn’t alienate China and risk them not showing the movie, because having a Tibetan character would be acknowledging that Tibet existed. So as usual, it’s a matter of politics, and money.

In 2017, the announcement of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald caused controversy when fans found out Dumbledore’s sexuality wouldn’t be explored. Rowling had stated in the past that Dumbledore, originally from the Harry Potter book series, had some sort of romantic relationship with Grindelwald in his youth, which would have taken place during the same time period as the upcoming film. Director David Yates, when questioned about this, confirmed that nothing would be explicitly explored, with the justification that “all the fans are aware” of Dumbledore’s homosexuality. Now, sexuality is not something that needs to be explored in every film; but in instances like this, completely skipping over it means throwing away a valuable chance at representation.

We see this in series adaptations, too – Jughead, a male character in the popular teen series Riverdale, based on the Archie comics, is originally an asexual character, but in the show he is portrayed as sexual. For many, this is the worst thing they could have done to the character, because it means that his sexual identity wasn’t just omitted but changed altogether. Cole Sprouse, who plays Jughead, stated “I hope that huge corporations like the CW recognize that this kind of representation is rare and severely important to people who resonate with it,” which “demands representation”.


Actors certainly have a role to play in pushing complaints forward. Sure, they are unlikely to influence scripts, but they can at least help rally the public and hope that, if enough people come together, things will change. We’ve seen this with the ‘Me Too’ movement, and hopefully we’ll continue to see it in the future. Not all actors can afford to refuse roles or criticise the projects they are involved in, of course, but the bigger ones can. In 2017, Ed Skrein pulled out of the Hellboy reboot because he refused to be a white actor playing a character with Asian heritage. Had Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton and other actors with huge star power refused their roles on ethical grounds, they could have led by example.

When it comes down to it, for film and series adaptations, it’s about sticking to the source material. Homer’s Iliad is relatively ambiguous about the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles, who are portrayed as lovers in other works. Yet, in its film adaptation Troy, they are cousins, which is a way of avoiding a possible affair altogether. In the case of the Netflix adaptation of the manga Death Note, the producers cast a white actor to play Light Yagami, a Japanese character, saying they needed to cast “the right actor for the role”. Then does this mean that only white actors are competent? Both cases are two of the many examples of minorities being erased or cast aside in adaptations, and there are only so many times this can happen before people start questioning the true motivations behind these.

This isn’t blaming those who take part in the making of adaptations. It’s about asking them to question where their priorities lie and consider what values they want to promote. Yes, including minorities might mean that the adaptations might not be as profitable, and that some people might get offended. But to those in charge, I ask: who are you trying to please?

by Melissa Saryazdi