Last week I, I brought up the happy news that Wheel of Time is getting its own TV show. However, with conflict already brewing over questions of character race and what that should mean for their actors and actresses, I thought it would be prudent to dedicate an entire blog post about it.
Book-to-screen adaptions are always full of audience indignation. Movies and television shows do not simply bring the pages to life, however much we might wish it. I admit I don’t know much about how TV shows are made; if I did, this would probably be some type of screenwriter’s blog rather than a novelist’s. Some things are pretty obvious, however. When it comes to actors and actresses, two things play a role in who gets the job. Do they look like the character’s they are supposed to be playing? And can they act? The latter would have to take precedence over the former, or else the show is just going to flop.
Of course, for Wheel of Time, it’s more than a matter of “character has red hair and actor has black” (easily fixed) nor even a matter of “character is short and actor is tall” (a little less easily fixed). The main characters all come from one small village in the middle of nowhere, a place called Emond’s Field. I come from a small town, and trust me, even in this day and age, with our ability to move from point A to point B with relative ease, new people didn’t settle there very often. It was a very homogeneous setting. I wouldn’t go so far as to say everyone had brown hair or a broad nose or anything, but it was definitely predominantly white.
Robert Jordan had an amazingly diverse cast within his book series. It was a very large world he worked within, with so many different cultures that he clearly wanted to be able to explore. More so, it’s clear that different countries, depending on their location, have different skin tones, but Robert Jordan never outright defines character appearances when it comes to such things. It’s improbable, however, that Emond’s Fielders have darker skin when they’re part of Andor and Andorans are light-skinned. (I could not quote anything off the top of my head to back that up, except perhaps in Eye of the World when Rand meets Elayne.)
The most cited issue is that the cast of main characters do not look like they could be from the same small village. But let’s be real, here. Even if the cast was homogeneously dark-skinned, people would still be in an uproar, because it doesn’t matter if Robert Jordan didn’t leave much in the way of their physical descriptions, and it doesn’t matter that, on a small scale, at least, an all-darker-skinned cast would make just as much sense as an all-lighter-skinned cast. It’s not even really about Emond’s Field having a mix of appearances. Rather, it’s about the fact that people envisioned all the main characters as white, and cannot stand the idea of having someone not-white portray them.
I’m a big logic person when I’m developing my world. Everything from character appearance to character development: if I can’t make a thing make sense, no matter how much I like the idea, it gets pitched. As I’m writing, if I’m going to have a small, isolated town, I’m going to write them as looking generally the same. But for the people who say they refuse to watch it just because the characters don’t look the same as they’d done in their heads, who even want the show to crash simply because of actor choice, even I think that frame of mind is completely and utterly shameful. Without any major visual cues from the author, who are we to say that the actors and actresses look nothing like their characters?
It’s a matter of assumption. Because of where we’re at as a society, without any description to tell us otherwise, we assume that a character is light-skinned. In fact, even with some description to suggest otherwise, we as readers might miss those cues and still assume the same. Kristin Cashore writes character appearances much the same as Robert Jordan does: few concrete descriptions, preferring instead more generalized tidbits. In Fire, Brigan’s pretty much summarized at “he was not handsome.” Fire, as a monster, is repeatedly described as mesmerizingly beautiful, and her only concrete description is the trademark of monsters, her abnormally vivid red hair. I remember when reading Fire for the first time, perhaps even the first several, I thought the character was light-skinned. It wasn’t until someone pointed out that the neighboring country was described as lighter-skinned that I eventually came to fall in love with the idea of Fire being a darker-skinned character.
My point is that we as a society are still incredibly fixated on skin tone, and that someone might get offended over it, enough so that they might wish ill of a TV show before it can even get its feet off the ground, is disgusting. Personally, with the series being as long as it is, I think that turning Wheel of Time into a more accessible media will allow more people to experience the grandeur of Robert Jordan’s world. To me, that’s more important than white-washing a series just for the sake of supposed book-accuracy. I’d say I’m the bigger concern is plot accuracy. As long as the showrunners can manage that (looking at you, Game of Thrones), then I cannot wait to see how these actors bring Jordan’s characters to life.