I’m not sure if it’s because of the years
wasted spent on consuming a myriad of TV shows and movies or if it’s some futile attempt to put my useless useful-for-culture-blog-contributions Film Studies degree into practice. When I read a fiction novel, more enough than not, I find myself envisioning what the story would look like as a visual adaptation with live-action actors or animated cartoon characters. This isn’t a rare phenomena. Voracious cultural consumers and casual fans alike dream cast favorite heroes and villains for upcoming (and imagined) TV and film versions of strictly text-based works all the time. This fun, time-wasting practice also serves as a sort of shorthand for the imagination while in the midst of the reading experience.
It is this shorthand that I struggle with most often. I find myself actively fighting with the deeply ingrained cultural norms conjured by my own imagination. Not all characters are white, I remind myself. Not all protagonists are male. Not all characters are classically beautiful unless otherwise stated. The silences inform us readers just as much as the words on the page.
Take, for instance, my most recent reading experience: in an effort to expand my knowledge of the sci-fi canon outside of Star Wars prequel novelizations and endless Dune sequels, I joined a local sci-fi/fantasy book club. This month, we read weird fiction novel Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. A relatively short book at 200 pages, the journal-style tale centers on a group of four scientists exploring the mysterious Area X. The scientists, all women, are delineated only by their titles, the psychologist, the surveyor, the anthropologist, and the biologist (the protagonist and narrator). With no other descriptions given for the character, I determined to cast the roles given the source material and, strangely, the actors’ abilities. Octavia Spencer became the psychologist and leader, who may be hiding secrets. The excitable anthropologist was played by Allison Brie. Michelle Rodriguez took the role of the ex-military surveyor.
The character I had most trouble imagining was the protagonist, the biologist. By default, she looked like Generic White Woman, which bothered me. Why should Generic White Women be the default for a nondescript female character? She could look like anyone, ANYONE who identified themselves as a woman. After a concerted effort, the biologist morphed into an even more ambiguous figure, a hazy outline with which I, and anyone for that matter, could identify. This then resulted in heightening my reading experience as the suspense and horror elements made me more fearful, as if it really was me enduring this bizarre adventure.
While dream casting can reinforce stereotypes and cultural assumptions that mainstream TV and movies often depict, it can also be empowering in providing a visual basis for so-called non-conventional interpretations. From fan art depicting a canonically valid multiracial Hermione Granger to crystal clear visions of certain actors playing certain roles (in my mind, young Richard Brooks IS Dune‘s Duncan Idaho), readers add their individual knowledge, experiences, and imaginations to breathe life to the text.
That’s not to say that all aberrant readings make sense. It wasn’t until I saw Mary GrandPre’s Prisoner of Azkaban Snape illustration that I no longer needed to remind myself Snape was a man, not a woman.
The mind is a powerful tool. Using it to craft our own interpretations, sometimes aided by Hollywood but not dominated by it, we can enliven the cultural world starting within our individual ability to imagine and create. If we can envision a diverse world in our minds, then there’s nothing stopping us from seeing one on screen.