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Words On Film: The World of Adaptation

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What does the process of adapting a book into a film truly entail? How does representation come into play when adapting racially unmarked characters? What even gets adapted? These are just some of the questions that moderator and UCI Chancellor’s Professor of English and Informatics Jonathan Alexander, along with a panel tried to answer on Feb. 26. The panel consisted of UCI Professor Emeritus of Physics and award-winning science fiction writer Gregory Benford, UCI Assistant Professor of English and Asian American Studies Christopher Fan and editor at NBC News and UCI alumna of literary journalism (Class of 2011) Traci Lee.

  An event touted as “Words on Film” managed to garner the attention of an audience ranging from curious students to knowledgeable professors in Humanities Gateway 1030. Professor Alexander led the conversation on adaptations using Disney’s upcoming venture, “A Wrinkle In Time” as a reference point. He talked about the intriguing perspectives of outsiders tell in the story, like the character of Meg on the planet of conformity known as Camazotz, (he also acknowledged the planet’s phonetic similarity to our mascot’s war cry of “zot”). The conversation soon transitioned to the topic of representation in big production films like Disney’s “A Wrinkle in Time” and the dilemma of casting racially unmarked characters. Disney received particular appreciation for their attempts to hire a very racially diverse cast, like Oprah, Mindy Kaling, Storm Reid and several others.  Delving further into the conversation, Professor Alexander brought up recent victories for diverse narratives in the critically and commercially appreciated films, “Black Panther” and “Call Me By Your Name.” He reminded the audience about the significance of the creators behind these narratives and characters. “Black Panther” creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are “two nerdy white guys” and Andre Aciman, the straight male author of the original novel “Call Me By Your Name.” However, he urged everyone to see the utopian ideal in different people coming from different racial backgrounds and varying sexual orientations and collaborating together to creatively tell different stories.

 After this brief provocation of thought, the floor opened up to the rest of the panelists, starting with Prof. Christopher Fan who pointed to the recently released film “Annihilation.” “Annihilation” was adapted from the novel by Jeff Vandermeer with the same title. However, unlike “A Wrinkle In Time,” it failed to deliver the same level of diversity. It casted a predominantly white cast in place of the otherwise racially different characters mentioned in the books. Fan additionally brought up the questions of “what is an adaptation?” and “what do filmmakers think they’re doing when they’re adapting a text?” Additionally, “how the audiences around the world react to it?” with fans demanding a certain level of loyalty to the source material. This tied together with the racial slip in “Annihilation” not just being an isolated incident, but a worldwide phenomenon in all disciplines. Fans also acknowledged how “Hollywood focalizes this problem” of racial slips when it comes to representation and casting. He then brought up the Cold War allegory found in the conformity of the planet Camazotz that was edited into “A Wrinkle In Time” after its initial manuscripts included a more totalitarian antagonist.

 Traci Lee took over where Fan left off, presenting the question “What makes ‘A Wrinkle In Time’ so adaptable in 2018?” She said that diverse representation isn’t just about the “quota system” that simply sprinkles in actors from different racial and cultural backgrounds, but it’s about their ability to be fully recognized characters. Indie films like “Better Luck Tomorrow” challenge the popularly held notion that a movie requires “star power” for them to be considered successful, and historically “movie stars” have predominantly been white actors or actresses. In fact, “Better Luck Tomorrow” served as a vehicle in launching stars like director Justin Lin or John Cho, who weren’t considered to be “movie stars” back when the film was released. Whereas, a movie like “The Great Wall”, that had the “star power” of Matt Damon still ended up not perming well at the box office. Lee also mentioned that that TV, however, has been faster with this move when compared to film, as clearly seen with Disney Channel’s “Andi Mack.”

 Professor Gregory Benford, a writer himself, recalled meeting Madeleine L’Engle (the author of “A Wrinkle In Time”) at a sci-fi convention in 1967. Benford being a physician analyzed her use of the “Tesseract” as a plot element to explore and interact with different worlds while also moving away from the legalities and restrictions of physics in her narrative. Benford also shared his opinion that humans don’t talk about culture as much as they should. He posed the idea that at the core of human experience, is the pure idea of tribalism that makes people defensive of their own cultures and resistant to others. Benford promoted the conversation and analysis of different cultures and people embracing all of them without fear

 After the panelists’ presentations, moderator Professor Alexander coordinated a quick Q & A with the audience, and ended the event by looking to the state of California, lauding it for its ability to not only accept a myriad of cultures but also striving somehow to make them all work together in tandem.