10 December 2011

Square Pegs, Round Holes

Much has been said, in writers' magazines and at writers' blogs, about choosing names for fictional characters. But what about choosing actors for fictional characters?

Question: Have you ever gone to a movie that was adapted from a book or story you liked, and found that the hero/heroine didn't look or behave the way you had expected him or her to? Most of us have. I tend to be pretty lenient on that subject--give 'em a chance, right?--but now and then it just doesn't work. Miscasting does happen, and when it does I think the disappointment is even worse for those moviegoers who are also writers. My "belief" in the characters can make or break a piece of fiction for me, whether it's on the page or on the screen.

Worth a thousand words

I've heard that you should be careful watching music videos, for one simple reason: if it turns out you don't like the video, you'll never again enjoy the song quite as much, because the video will stay in your mind forever. The same thing can apply to books and movies. If you read the novel first, your imagination can roam free. If you see the film first, you're limited. Faces and settings have already been supplied, and by someone else. I remember having my own image of Vito Corleone in my mind when I read The Godfather; if I had seen the film first I would almost certainly have pictured Brando instead.

Bottom line is, I usually prefer to read the book before seeing the film version. But not always. I watched Lonesome Dove when it first aired on TV, and when I then decided to read the McMurtry novel, I enjoyed it just as much. But in this instance, the movie was so well done (and so true to the novel) I think it actually helped to later have the actors' faces (Duvall, Jones, Glover, etc.) in my head when I read the book.

Rockin' roles

I should mention that I think some actors were probably born to play certain characters, whether you happen to have read the book first or not. Examples: Gable and Leigh as Rhett and Scarlett, Peck as Atticus Finch, Sharif as Yuri Zhivago, Fonda as Tom Joad. It's hard to imagine anyone else in those parts.

Sometimes--not often--my thinking actually changes during the course of the movie. I had already read Robert Ludlum's three Bourne novels before I saw The Bourne Identity, and at first glance I just couldn't buy Matt Damon in the title role (he looked far too young, for one thing)--but he was so good at it, he won me over. The same thing goes for Alan Ladd, in Shane. Having read the novel in high school, I had a pretty clear picture in my mind of the way Shane would look: tall, slim, dark, sinister. I didn't see the movie until I was a freshman in college, and I remember sitting there in the theatre and thinking Whoa, this friendly little blond guy with the fringe outfit and fancy beltbuckle looked like some kind of sissy compared to the image I already had in my imagination. But the story and the acting were so good it made me a believer, and as a result I now think that Ladd (all five-foot-six of him) was the right choice. The same thing happened with Christopher Walken as Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone: I started out doubting him and ended up liking him.

Here, read these lines, and don't look at the camera . . .

Casting is an interesting topic in itself. It was a thrill for me, several years ago, to attend some of the auditions for the roles in a film adaptation of one of my short stories. (The movie never got made, but that's a column for another day.) One of the many things I learned was that it's far easier to try to cast someone "safe" in a certain part--a Sam Elliott in a western, let's say, or a Lee Marvin in a war movie--than to go against type and take a chance. But occasionally that risk can pay off. Who would've thought George Clooney would be convincing as a swordboat captain, or that Charlize Theron could be a Monster, or that Disney child star Kurt Russell could be believable as a scowling, eyepatched convict who rescues the President and escapes from a futuristic New York? Well, the filmmakers did, and I'm glad they did.

Sometimes, of course, that kind of close-your-eyes-and-leap innovation can backfire. It was hard for me to believe John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror, Charlton Heston as a Mexican detective in Touch of Evil, and Mickey Rooney as a Japanese landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

But I digress. If we focus only on characters in novels who later become characters in movies, there are a lot of examples of what I think were good/bad casting decisions. The good ones many of us might agree on: Connery as James Bond, Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, Scheider as police chief Martin Brody, and so on. But the not-so-good ones . . . ?

The bad and the ugly

Since this is an opinion column, here are some examples of what I thought were poor casting decisions:
  • Roger Moore as James Bond
  • Tom Hanks as Sherman McCoy (Bonfire of the Vanities)
  • Jamey Sheridan as Randall Flagg (The Stand)
  • Gregory Peck as Josef Mengele (The Boys From Brazil)
  • Eriq La Salle as Lucas Davenport (Mind Prey)
  • Dean Martin as Vernon Demerest (Airport)
  • Tony Randall as Hercule Poirot (The Alphabet Murders)
  • Joe Mantegna as Spenser (Small Vices)
  • Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker (Dracula)
  • Renee Zellwegger as Allison French (Appaloosa)
  • Orlando Bloom as Legolas (the Lord of the Rings trilogy)
  • Leo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes (The Aviator)
  • Glen Campbell as Le Boeuf (True Grit)
  • Marlon Brando as Sakini (The Teahouse of the August Moon)
  • Ben Affleck as Jack Ryan (The Sum of All Fears)
And I honestly haven't made up my mind on some: Downey and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson, for instance--or Travolta as Chili Palmer. They weren't bad choices, but I think they could've been better.

A shorter reach

I will confess that I have doubts about the decision to cast Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher in the upcoming movie version of Lee Child's One Shot. Since I've read almost all the Reacher novels, I know that good ole Jack is supposed to be six-five and two-fifty--and his size is actually a factor, in what he can do and not do in the books. Cruise can play a tough guy, no question about that, but for me he just doesn't fit the image. I think I'm going to find myself wondering how Jerry Maguire could possibly overcome all the incredible hulks that cross Jack Reacher's path.

I'm also not convinced that Katherine Heigl will be an effective Stephanie Plum in 2012's One for the Money--I had always pictured somebody more like Sandra Bullock. (And I've heard Debbie Reynolds will play Grandma Mazur, which I'm hoping was just an unfortunate dream I had after eating too many chili dogs.) On the other hand, the actors in the trailers I've seen for the upcoming version of Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games look terrific. I loved that novel, so I hope the producers/directors get it right.

More questions

For those of you who are writers, do you usually have an image of a real actor's face in your mind when you create a character? (I don't.) Do you picture an actor's face for a character when you read about him or her in someone else's novel or story? (I do.) Not that it matters a whit, but the person I usually see as Jack Reacher is Russell Crowe, and Miss Plum's boyfriend Joe Morelli has always been actor John Stamos. I have no idea why, but those are the faces that first popped into my brain when I encountered those characters.

What are your thoughts, on this earthshakingly-important subject? Are there any actor/role matchups that you think are motion-picture perfect? Are there any that you wish you'd never even heard about, much less seen with your own eyes? Are you beginning to wish you'd never seen this article?

At least it won't be made into a movie.


  1. When I read the Harry Potter books, I had Boris Karloff cast as three of the characters, including Dumbledore and Voldemort.

  2. I have strong negative feelings about Robert Downey Jr as Holmes, but I liked Jude Law as Watson. Although I took flack at Criminal Brief, I noticed that some movie reviewers agreed. Boston Globe film critic Mark Feeney even refers to a badly miscast movie as the "Robert Downey Jr. Meets Sherlock Holmes Effect" in his recent review of The Three Musketeers.

  3. Fun column, John.

    I remember when I first read The Shining thinking that Scatman Crothers had to play Halloran. Surprise! He did in the movie version (although Kubrick butchered the character in the screenplay).

    As to Downey, I go with my elder son's view -- they are good movies but they are not Sherlock Holmes movies.

    The worst example of bad casting I have seen (although thankfully it has yet to come to pass) is Disney's plan to star Jennifer Garner as Ms. Marple.

  4. Dale, I agree about Garner, and over at Criminal Element, every one is ranting about Angelina Jolie being cast as Kay Scarpetta.

  5. John, I loved your roster of infamous casting choices! Brando as Sakini was unbearable; out-doing evn Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker. When the casting goes that awry you can only scratch your head and wonder.

  6. With a little thought I could probably come up with more mis-castings in relatively famous movies I'm sure you've seen, John, but I'll reserve my comments to one movie that I thought was excellently cast--"Saving Private Ryan."

    Hanks was perfect as the schoolteacher forced into both the violence of war and the leadership of other men. The rest of the cast was well-matched to the roles as well with the best of the best being the roles played by Pepper, Ribisi, Sizemore and Davies. In this movie's case, casting a famous actor like Matt Damon was really unnecessary to the Ryan role although he did a reasonably good job with it (his youthful looks worked for that role). Oh, I mustn't forget Harrison Young as Ryan as an old man. He may have had the hardest portrayal and the strongest lines (for audience impact) of any actor in the movie: "Tell me I've led a good life." "Tell me I'm a good man." Those lines had such meaning that most of the audience at the showing I attended cried unabashedly.

    Good article John.

  7. Fun post, John. :) I agree with all your bad choices except Orlando Bloom as Legolas. I thought he was adorable. Hugo Weaving as Elrond, though.... Re risks that pay off, who thought Johnny Depp would make such a bizarre but delightful pirate? Re visuals spoiling the reader's vision of the characters, I just checked out Diana Gabaldon's graphic novel in the Outlander series, and I couldn't get my eyes off the page fast enough, before the graphics ruined my Jamie Fraser forever.

  8. Great post. I'm with you on Cruise being Reacher. I disliked Ed Harris playing Miles in Empire Falls. Good actor. but bad choice.

  9. Hey gang -- Thanks for all your observations--they were way better than mine. I even learned some things: Terrie, I had not yet heard about Garner as Marple and Jolie as Scarpetta (and I sort of wish I hadn't, NOW).

    Jeff, I still miss Richard Harris (one of my heroes) as Dumbledore.

    Wayne, I agree with you about Saving Private Ryan, except that I couldn't quite accept Ted Danson as Ryan's captain (was his name Hamill?). I kept seeing bartender Sam Malone, in my head.

    Liz, we'll have to agree to disagree about Legolas--but boy did I like that trilogy, overall. I was sad to see it end.

    Travis, I'm with you on Ed Harris, in that one role--and I'm still hoping they'll reconsider the Cruise casting.

    Dale, I once sat beside Scatman Crothers on a long flight, and I actually asked him about The Shining. He seemed to agree with you, on the quality of the script. But I think it's spooky that you pictured him in that role, beforehand.

    Leigh, if you start agreeing with film critics you might be in trouble!

    David, I probably could have been more accurate if I'd just said that Keanu Reeves has been miscast in everything except his role as excellent adventurer Ted Logan.


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