Do people pay attention to books anymore, or do they wait for the Hollywood adaptation to care? Do they understand the power of allegory, or are they content to go looking for something on the surface that might offend, and then use that something the basis for dismissing a story entirely?
Three years ago, Ransom Riggs released a fabulous book called “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.” This story held particular fascination for me, not only because it was deftly told, but because it was based on old photos the author had collected at flea markets, swap meets, antique shops, etc.
I’ve never met Riggs, but I like to think of him something of a kindred spirit. The old photos he collected inspired his fiction in much the same way that my own historical research provided the inspiration for my novel “Memortality.”
But despite the book’s quality and popularity, the story didn’t make its way into the nation’s collective consciousness until it was adapted into a Tim Burton movie. And now, much of the attention is focused not on the story, but on a controversy over whether the film’s cast was diverse enough.
I think that’s a shame – not because diversity isn’t worthy of attention (I wrote a book about it titled “Undefeated”) – but because the furor seems to be overshadowing a fantastic story.
Before I go any further, a few personal thoughts: In addition to being a fan of Riggs’ book, I found the movie enjoyable. I wouldn’t call myself a fan of Burton’s, but I’m not a detractor, either. I’ve enjoyed some of his movies over the years, while others I found to be so heavy on style that they overwhelmed the substance.
I’m also well aware that Hollywood has far too often ignored clear opportunities for diverse casting, particularly (Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington and Edward James Olmos have been rare exceptions) in lead roles.
But here are two questions worth asking:
- Do moviemakers have a responsibility to “diversify” a film based on a book that apparently lacked that diversity to begin with? And
- Are authors responsible to champion diversity in their stories and, if so, how?
The first question leads to the second because, as far as I could tell, the characters in Riggs’ book weren’t particularly diverse … in the conventional sense. I don’t recall reading explicit references to characters who were identified as racial minorities, and the vintage photos the author included in the book depicted, by and large, white children.
CRITICS MISS THE POINT
So Burton’s casting was based largely on Riggs’ writing, which, in turn, was based largely on those photos he found at flea markets and swap meets. Does that make Riggs somehow tone-deaf to the issue of diversity?
No, it doesn’t. For one thing, the story includes strong female characters, such as Miss Peregrine and Emma, who appear to be more formidable than any of the male characters. For another, some of the characters are Jewish, and the story takes place in the midst of World War II, when people of Jewish ancestry were the most persecuted individuals on the planet. The explicit comparison the author makes between the Nazis (human monsters) and the hollowghasts (paranormal monsters) couldn’t be clearer.
Even more to the point, the “peculiar” children are depicted as having to hide in a time loop to escape the cruelty of those who would persecute them for being different. And on top of that, each child is different in his or her own unique way: One floats unless she’s held down by heavy shoes; another spits out bees; another transplants hearts into robotic models.
The cast of characters is, in fact, nothing if not diverse. It’s not about skin color or ethnic background; the point is made allegorically, and very effectively.
I applaud J.K. Rowling for suggesting that Dumbledore was gay and saying that “white skin was never specified” when she created the character of Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter books. But the story doesn’t live or die by the sexual orientation of its characters or their skin color. It stands on its own. So does Riggs’.
And that’s the point here. Would there have been a salad bowl of Asian, black, Native American and people of other ethnic backgrounds in 1942 on a remote island off the coast of Wales, where much of the book is set? My hunch is there wouldn’t have been.
In fact, it's more than just a hunch: According to one estimate, there were around 7,000 blacks in the United Kingdom as of 1940, out of a total population of 48 million. That pencils out to 1.4 one-hundredth of one percent.
So most likely, the town depicted in Riggs' book have been populated almost entirely - if not exclusively - by people with pale skin and Welsh ancestry. Ethnic minorities within this group would have been (following Riggs’ World War II allegory) children at the home with Jewish names such as Jacob Portman – whose grandfather, in a biblical parallel, is named Abraham – and Emma Bloom.
The first responsibility of any author or filmmaker is to remain true to the world you’ve created, not the world your audience is living in. If you create a less-believable story to placate potential critics, you’re doing a disservice to the rest of your audience.
Riggs recognized this, and he understood the power of allegory to make an important point about diversity and human nature. Both of these things helped make “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” the success it has become. And I, for one, wouldn't change a thing.
Note: Creative freedom is no less important than and, indeed, is a vital element of free expression. It cannot and should not be compromised to those who would burn books on either the altar of bigotry or its equally tainted counterpart, the shrine of political correctness. For more on this subject, see my blog titled "Micromanaging creativity in the name of diversity undermines them both."