Friday, April 20, 2012

When it comes to Fantasy, Movies and TV loses to Books

'Trevor Blake: Television' photo (c) 2010, Trevor Blake - license:

When reading across the genre we have, obviously, come across many tropes and stereotypes that have raised their ugly heads in books over and over again. We’ve seen a lot of marginalised people reduced to tokens, a lot of offensive portrayals and, above all, a lot of erasure where marginalised people do not appear at all. We’ve also read a lot of books that have failed to address the issues they raised in any real depth - when dealing with marginalisation we’re more likely to see appropriation of real oppressed groups than portrayals of oppression, we’re more likely to see things brushed over than examined.

But while we’ve found this in books, they still stand head and shoulders about the Urban Fantasy series and films we have seen. The books certainly have a better record than anything we have watched - which is very telling, especially when we consider the wider audience that is reached through television.

First and foremost this is shown simply in the series that are chosen to be turned into films and series are ones that do not address issues. And there are Urban Fantasy novels out there that do this marvellously - the Kara Gillian and White Trash Zombie series by Diana Rowland contain awesome analysis on class. The Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne has a black Jesus.  The Spiritwalker Trilogy has excellent considerations of sexism and class. Nicole Peeler’s Jane True series is a champion for female agency.

We have others that, while not necessarily covering issues in the book, do at least heavily contain marginalised characters and marginalised protagonists: Patricia Brigg’s Mercy Thomas Series, LA Banks’s Vampire Huntress Series, Seressia Glass’s Shadow Chaser series, Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock series and Adrian Phoenix’s Hoodoo Series. These series are out there but they are not the ones being transformed for the TV.

Then we look at what did make the cut to television and film.

In many cases this means the more vapid and erased stories are translated into film for e.g. Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, and Secret Circle to name a few. None of these shows offer any depth or analysis or thought to the mythos let alone serve to portray a positive social justice message through real inclusion. Even the Dresden Files - now I love these series both books and TV, but at the same time it’s neither challenging nor inclusive.

The Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris became True Blood. There can be no doubt that there have been occasions of challenging content on True Blood and characters which were either short lived in the series or non existent were added in an attempt to complicate the plot however the addition of these characters has not been altogether positive.  The character of Lafayette was simply a gay cook who died after attending a sex party.  This clearly read as a punishment for daring to be gay.  In True Blood the character has been expanded upon and become a fan favourite however Lafayette is still a gay, drug dealing, prostitute. His very existence is one huge trope.  His lover Jesus was added in season three, only to die violently in season four, after an extremely lackluster romance when compared to that of the heterosexual couples on the show..

Secret Circle and Vampire Diaries actually had to drop in token black characters because their books were so erased. It didn’t really add anything to the television shows since the tokenism (and the poor treatment of those characters) was so obvious but in doing so it really emphasised how erased the books were in the first place.

Even simple matters of inclusion can be fraught - Blood Ties adapted Tanya Huff’s novels to TV but in doing so bisexual Henry appears to have become straight and gay man Tony has disappeared and been replaced by a straight woman. I wasn’t happy with the portrayals in the books - but it’s glaring that they had to be entirely erased to make the leap into television.

One of the more successful adaptations is The Game of Thrones.  To its credit there are a plethora of female characters who pass the Bechdel test, one of the leading characters  Tyrion Lannister is a man of short stature.  In George R.R. Martin’s version the Dorthraki while still considered savage in comparison to the residents of the free cities and the seven kingdoms, the descriptions of things like their food are not nearly as disturbing as the images used in the show.  Martin avoids for instance saying that the food is covered with flies, but he does make a point of continually reminding the reader that the Dorthraki consume horse meat, which is considered disgusting by the White characters in the story.

There is also the issue of the weekly trip to the brothel.  We are part way through the second season and I cannot remember an episode which does not include a scene occurring in a brothel with naked or half naked women, while the men aka pimps and johns remain largely closed. This has clearly been added for the purposes of sexual titillation and the process all of the women acting in these scenes are heavily objectified. In the book, Martin does not shy away from prostitution however, he does not give the impression that the male characters are either frequenting brothels or going off to war.  

The Hunger Games has received a huge amount of box office success.  Prior to the opening there was a large amount of anticipation to see this great series turned into a movie largely based on the incredible themes that Collins wove into her story.  It was always going to be a difficult task to translate into the film because much of the story is told from the perspective of Katniss and we learn what she is thinking through internal monologue.  That being said, the filmmakers didn’t even try and instead many of the challenging issues raised in The Hunger Games regarding poverty, disability and political oppression were either vaguely mentioned or ignored altogether in favor of rushing into the arena to make an action film.  

We’ve said before that the publishing world has gatekeepers; but that’s nothing compared to how firm the guards are when it comes to television - and certainly the silver screen. Both in the books that are chosen and in how those books are adapted from a social justice perspective there is has certainly been a decline in inclusion and progressive themes.In truth, series that are designed for TV from the very beginning (such as Once Upon a Time) seem to do a far better job than book adaptations - which are plagued with timid selections and erased, sanitised edits. Perhaps it is done in an urge to appeal to larger audiences - but ultimately that means pandering to privileged audiences - and avoiding any opportunity to try and challenge the viewer.  Speculative fiction grants the writer the ability to create brave new worlds and by rehashing tired tropes and throwing in a fang here and a zombie there, these productions miss the entire potential of fantasy.