Director Alex Garland adapted his movie Annihilation from a book of the same name, by Jeff VanderMeer. Some changes have been made to the film’s protagonist in the jump from page to screen: she’s no longer Asian.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, this change has not gone unremarked. Natalie Portman plays the expedition leader who guides a group of women into a weird, haunted/alien invaded forest to look for answers as to why her hot husband is sick after returning from the same nightmare locale.
In the book, this character is described by VanderMeer in a single sentence in which she has “dark, thick eyebrows, a slight, slightly off-center nose (broken once, falling on rocks), and high cheekbones that spoke to the strong Asian heritage on one side of her family.”
Leaving aside the vague weirdness of this description of race, it does at least imply that this character is half-Asian. Where in Asia? We don’t know. But Portman is not that. Another character, the Psychologist, is described as being half-Indigenous and half-white in another novel in the series, Authority. This character is played by white actor Jennifer Jason Leigh in Annihilation, the film.
Two organizations, the Media Action Network for Asian Americans and American Indians in Film and Television, have come forward to criticize Garland’s casting choices:
Writer/director Alex Garland is not being true and honest to the characters in the book,” MANAA board member Alieesa Badreshia said in a statement. “He exploits the story but fails to take advantage of the true identities of each character. Hollywood rarely writes prominent parts for Asian American and American Indian characters, and those roles could’ve bolstered the careers of women from those communities.”
Sonny Skyhawk, founder of American Indians in Film and Television, agreed. “We are not surprised by the Whack-a-Mole diversity replacement that goes on; just when you finish objecting to one white-washed casting, another one pops up,” he said in a statement.
Asian characters are particularly susceptible to whitewashing in Hollywood, and you would think the recent coverage of these mistakes and the increasingly vocal backlash would tip directors off that this is no longer acceptable; yet, Garland only seemed to realize something was up in an interview with Nerdist in December, when he was asked directly about the brewing controversy. He asked the interviewer to explain it to him.
“I did not know that stuff,” he said before asking us to explain the gist of the issue. “It would not be in my nature to whitewash anything. That just wouldn’t be like me. I read a book and I adapted it because I thought the book was amazing. And I thought, ‘I’m not exactly sure how to adapt this, but I’ve got an idea.’ And I just went with it. So that was it.”
VanderMeer hasn’t commented publicly about the issues of race in the adaptation of his book. The movie might be facing issues anyway; fighting amongst producers has led Paramount to make a deal with Netflix, who will stream the film internationally 17 days after its domestic release. A true vote of confidence.