So I kept mulling over this article about the… displeasure some viewers had with the casting of The Hunger Games, and I decided to write some of my own thoughts about how readers imagine book characters - how they “cast” them in their minds.
As the original article’s author elaborated upon, the physical attributes of Katniss and the other Hunger Games characters are left, for the most part, quite vague. Katniss has dark hair, Peeta has blond hair, Rue is brown-skinned. With those barest of guidelines, the reader has the freedom to imagine how these characters look, drawing from people they know in real life, or from pop culture at large. That’s how people’s minds work. Their imagined worlds reflect what they love, what they remember, but more importantly, what they know.
I will go out on a limb and say the people who were distressed that Rue was black in the Hunger Games film know very few black people. A black person is not someone they identify with, sympathize with, or relate to. And sometimes that just happens. Sometimes you’re a suburban kid in Peoria and you don’t come across black people in your everyday life. That is not a condition on which you are judged.
You are judged on the occasions when you interact with a black person. In a film. In a news story. In real life. You are judged by how you react to an unfamiliar situation, and allow that experience to change you.
I haven’t had the chance to read The Hunger Games, but let me tell you about the book I’m reading right now. It’s Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. In this book, a man is sent on behalf of a group of planets to invite a newly discovered planet to join their alliance. The planet’s residents are human, except they have no established gender - other than during sex, they are completely androgynous. A quarter of the way through the book, the protagonist is meeting with a sovereign to explain his mission and the civilization he represents. At one point, the sovereign bluntly asks, “Are they all as black as you?”
This was the first sign that the protagonist was anything other than the generic white dude I had cast in my mind’s eye. I had to immediately change the imaginary actor I had “playing” him, but other than him now being Idris Elba, my perception of the character’s identity - his personality, his aspirations - remained unchanged.
That was the easy bit. The biggest challenge in reading The Left Hand of Darkness is consistently imagining an entire society of perfect androgynes, which is hard. And that is for the reason I pointed out above. The fact is, very few of us have a frame of reference for that kind of androgyny. We may be familiar with androgynous celebrities like David Bowie or Tilda Swinton or Jenny Shimizu, and some of us may be fortunate enough to know a genderqueer person, but most people don’t know how to conceive of such an identity. For most people, the closest they can get to imagining an androgynous person is a bishounen anime character. Or Pat.
The reason I love The Left Hand of Darkness is that it challenges your perceptions of what a person is. It challenges your idea of who you think you can identify with. There are still many people in our world who are shoved into the box of the other - denigrated as strangers or foreigners or worse: freaks or monsters. It can be scary to accept that those people are on the same level as you - worthy of love and sympathy. When you accept that challenge, you become a better member of the human race.
Art can help you do that, if you’re brave enough to step up to the plate.
Anyway, here are some characters from The Left Hand of Darkness.