Characters as Movie Stars

A few weeks ago the news broke that Tom Cruise had signed on to play Jack Reacher in the movie version of Lee Child’s 9th Reacher novel, One Shot. The furor that followed demonstrated just how wedded readers had become to their own image of Jack Reacher (and their belief that Tom Cruise, who is a ‘tad’ shorter that Jack Reacher, couldn’t possibly play the character they knew and loved so well). Not since Katherine Heigl was announced to play Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum has there been such reader angst over casting of a beloved mystery character.

The business of movie making requires ‘star power’ and I think it’s safe to say that Tom Cruise will certainly bring that to any Jack Reacher movie. Though we could all spend many an hour speculating and debating over casting of our favourite book, none of us can help but feel a sense of ownership over the particular image we have formed in our own heads (which may, or may not, bear any resemblance to the image inside the writer’s head when he/she created the character).

As writers I wonder how many of us have pinned up photographs of people who inspire or look like our characters? I know I have copies of historical photos that I used when creating Ursula Marlow (even though many readers, having seen the paperback cover, have asked me if I posed as the model for Ursula!). I also love nothing better than indulging in the fantasy of casting movies of my own books (note to Richard Armitage, you can play any one of my leading men!).

Still it is inevitable that when a book character is developed into a movie, fans are up in arms over the choice. So, here are my questions to you: Do you think the physical attributes are really that important when casting? Have you been disappointed with the casting choice of one of your favourite book characters? Have you ever found the movie (or TV) version to be much better, because the actors chosen to play the parts bring new meaning and depth to the written characters? And finally – are fans ever really satisfied with movie casting for their beloved books?

28 thoughts on “Characters as Movie Stars

  1. Hmm…either I’m not recalling an example or this hasn’t come up for me. The only example of book and movie I can think of is Star Trek, but in the first place, I don’t know if the Trek movies came first THEN the books, and even if the books came first, they used the same TV cast.

    I read Gone With the Wind, but have never watched the movie, because I didn’t want to be disappointed (though it seems most people have been quite impressed with the movie).

    But knowing me, I would be extremely persnickety about who they cast to play the role of a character from a favorite book, and knowing Hollywood, it’s highly likely they’d choose the wrong person.

    My favorite author is Zane Grey, and probably a 100 movies were made from his books–but I have intentionally not watched them–I would not want to be disillusioned.

    BK Jackson

  2. Interesting post. I think you’re right that no one can be fully satisfied with casting of a favorite book-to-movie. But I think its important to just remember that they are two different mediums. The movie is the project of someone new, and has the potential to be awesome, but the book is still the same book it was before.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  3. Oh, Claire, don’t get me started!

    It can work both ways, too. I saw “Appoloosa” before I read the book. Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen were so perfect as Everett and Hitch, that they were who I saw as I read the Robert Parker Series.

    Tom Selleck is perfect as Jesse Stone, but who on earth could play a new Spenser and Hawk?

    Wes Studi and Adam Beach were nothing like I had pictured Leaphorn and Chee, but they turned out to be great choices.

    I read all the Bourne books probably before Matt Damon was born – pardon the pun – and had an image of Jason Bourne as an older man, but Matt was wonderful.

    I’ve often been surprised by casting of favorite characters, but seldom very disappointed. And some actors do better with some characters than others.

    Kevin Costner was a better Wyatt Earp than Robin Hood, but Sean Connery and Russell Crowe were about equal in that role.

    Well, on second thought, Connery has no equal. (For a chuckle, check out one of his earliest roles in “The Longest Day.”

    I saw Silence of the Lambs before I read the book, so guess how I saw Clarice and Lecter.

    Tom Cruise as Reacher? Nah. Too short, too boyish looking, too cockey. But I don’t have a clue who could do Reacher justice. Maybe Daniel Craig?

    BTW, he was great in Coyboys and Aliens. Wonderful movie.

    But I think the worst casting choice I ever saw was Whoopie Goldberg as Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rodenbarr.

    Whoever decided that needs to be horsewhipped…

  4. It’s hard to be satisfied isn’t it but I do try to separate book from movie in my own mind so as not to get too upset! Some choice are, as you say, fabulous. I really liked Edward petheridge as Peter Wimsey in the tv series, but I couldn’t stand any of the Miss Marple choices. I agree that Tom Cruise seems a bit if a ‘stretch’ for Jack Reacher – maybe that’s what they’ll do to help him fit the part!

  5. Btw – Daniel Craig may have been an interesting choice for Jack Reacher. I like his Bond. Haven’t seen Cowboys&Aliens but it sounds fun.

  6. My goal with movies derived from books is to consider them separate. The book might have inspired the movie, but the movie is not the book. Each must be judged and accepted on its own merits. However, I do like having the movie match my image of the characters, places, and actions in the book.

    I have no idea who could portray in a movie my story’s Human protagonist, partly because the story is told in first person and the character never describes himself except for one scene when he sees his reflection in the eyes of an alien.

    As the alien looked at me, I noticed I could see myself reflected in her eyes. I could imagine how I must have appeared to her: sitting slumped behind bars was a scruffy and haggard Human with ragged, unkempt hair and beard. I looked pathetic. Loren Eiseley once said, “One does not meet one’s self until one catches the reflection from an eye other than Human.” I now saw the pitiful creature that was I. — The Dragon Universe: The Fellowship by Lester D. Crawford

    Each of my readers will have his or her own image of the protagonist. However, I do have one other character that is Human. She initially is the perfect woman of unfettered fantasy, but at the story’s darkest moment, she transforms from her guise of sweet innocence to her true self of pure evil bent on the annihilation of all Humans and several alien species. I described this character with a fair amount of detail, but she is a figment of my imagination and no person is really that perfect or, I hope, that evil. Who could possibly play the woman of my fantasies and still transform into the woman of my nightmares? (Insert joke here: Except my ex.)

    All other characters in my story are aliens that no human actor could portray. I believe CGI and performance capture, such as how James Cameron created Avatar (2009) will be necessary to bring these characters to life. Still, my readers will each have his or her image of how he or she thinks the aliens look, so some fans will be disappointed. There is not much I can do about that.

    I do believe it is important to satisfy the fan base as best as possible. This is even more important when using stereotypical characters. An example of what I consider a “fail” is the movie Eragon (2006). Not only did the filmmakers deviate from the book by over 50 plot points, the filmmakers did not want to have stereotypical characters, therefore they made the elves not look like elves, and the dwarves did not look like dwarves, and the dragon did not look like a dragon. This greatly disappointed a huge fantasy genre fan base. Giving fans what they expect is probably the better approach when using genre characters.

    (One more note: If James Cameron wants to keep his spot at the top of the list of highest grossing films, he will need to make my movie.)

  7. Claire, Cowboys & Aliens was incredible. Jon Favreau directing. Stephen Spielberg producing. Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig, Sam Rockwell, and Olivia Wylde acting. All great. I enjoyed the movie just as much as the graphic novel.

    I digress.

    I wasn’t super ecstatic that Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney got cast as Karen Sisco and Jack Foley in Out of Sight. But I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the movie.

    John Travolta’s Chili Palmer was fantastic in Get Shorty and Be Cool. Nearly exactly how I pictured him. So was Samuel L. Jackson’s Ordell Robbie in Jackie Brown.

    Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello did a great job with A History of Violence. The stairwell sex scene was just incredible.

    Noomi Rapace did an excellent job with Lisbeth Salander. Rooney Mara has some big shoes to fill.

    The entire cast of Towelhead made me reread Alicia Erian’s book they were so good. Definitely noticed some things I hadn’t the first time.

    And Danny Kay did such a bang up job as Walter Mitty that every time I read Thurber now, I hear his voice saying “ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa”.

    In fact, the only movie adaptation where I’ve been really unhappy with the casting was Memoirs of A Geisha. Choosing Chinese actresses to play the leads, at least in Asia, was kind of a big deal, especially considering the history of comfort women during WII and that the character for Geisha means “whore” in Chinese. Casting a Japanese actor as the male love interest did not help matters either.

    IMHO, there is no A-List star who fits Reacher’s description. The closest you could get is Alexander Skarsgard. And he’s not a big enough name yet for a good audience draw. He’s too young, too. And, he’s relatively untested in the kind of action sequences that would be required for One Shot.

    Daniel Craig is no better a choice than Cruise. They’re both short (Cruise 5’7″, Craig 5’10”). They both do their own stunts. Craig’s American accent is awful, but Reacher doesn’t talk much so that isn’t a dealbreaker. And they both can put butts in seats. So it really becomes a question of salary and availability. Craig is booked solid for the next two years shooting The Millenium Trilogy with David Fincher and another Bond movie. One Shot starts production this fall. So by default Cruise gets the job.

    Remember, everyone thought Heath Ledger as the Joker would be, well, a joke. But his performance in The Dark Knight won an Oscar.

    Physical attributes are just not a dealbreaker for me unless it’s something big like the character is a Nigerian tribeswoman and the actor cast in the role is a blue-eyed blonde from Sweden. And even that can be plausibly explained away sometimes.

    Fans are almost never satisfied with a studio’s choices. That’s just the nature of the beast. I very much doubt Paramount, David Ellison, Chris McQuarrie, or Lee Child are worried about the supposed outrage affecting the box office numbers when the time comes.

    At the end of the day, half the audience will go just because they’ve read and love Lee Childs’ books. The other half will have never read or heard of him, but will go just because they like watching Tom Cruise action movies. Win, win.

  8. I will occasionally shout ‘she’s not supposed to look like that’ at the screen but mostly I don’t mind. If an actor is good enough in the role, it makes me forget what they’re ‘supposed’ to look like.

  9. I’m not a Cruise fan. Daniel Craig doesn’t have the height but definitely the attitude. He would have been better IMO.

    A movie franchise I’ve been watching develop (casting complete) is THE HUNGER GAMES, series by young adult author Suzanne Collins. Entertainment Weekly has been featuring it. Big actor names with impressive young actors like the girl from critically acclaimed, Winter’s Bone, indy flick-Jennifer Lawrence. There’s meat to the bone with the already great plot from the books–a futuristic dystopian world where teens must fight to the death in a reality TV show, amidst a world only needing a catalyst to revolt.

  10. As much as I’d love to see Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole & Joe Pike characters on the big screen, I’m glad he’s refused turning his books over to Hollywood.

  11. Perfect pitch casting:

    Odd Casting choice:
    Denzel Washington as Lincoln Rhyme in BONE COLLECTOR. Queen Latifa swapped for a gay white male nurse.

    The list of both are endless. Hollywood is an endless series of combinations of money driven committees. Sometimes they get it right.

  12. Several decades ago, Mad Magazine (when it was still funny) did a two page feature on the evolution of a Hollywood movie, from concept to execution. It started with a basic pitch — a guy from the slums becomes a major league baseball all-star — and then panel by panel showed how the idea was changed, just slightly, as it passed from one studio bigwig to another, all of whom said, “This is great, let’s not change a thing, except for —” Within ten panels, the movie became a remake of Cinderella.

  13. BK, re: Star Trek, the books came first, then the movie(s). Actually, there was also a cartoon show before the movies, and there were books based on those as well.

  14. In a long-ago film history class, we were told Margaret Mitchell had photos of movie stars on her desk for all her characters. For Scarlett, she chose Lucille Ball (in her straight drama days as a blonde before dying her hair red and becoming a comedienne), and… ready?… Groucho Marx as Brett…

    The one writer Hollywood never casts right (imo) is Elmore Leonard. The only movie where the casting was spot-on (again, imo) was KILLSHOT.

  15. Worst movie casting of a novel character, IMO, of all time: Gary Cooper as Howard Roark in THE FOUNTAINHEAD. It showed how limited Cooper was as an actor, especially the key courtroom scene. He had to give a long, long speech (which Ayn Rand had insisted be included word for word from her novel) and it was painfully clear he had no idea what he was saying. He was just mouthing the lines.

  16. The movies or the casting in movies almost never lives up to the greatness of the book or of your own personal image of each character. I agree with some other commenters that it is best to just keep them separate. I never would have envisioned Matthew McConahay (wrong spelling) in A Time to Kill but he did a great job. I agree Denzel was a strange choice for Lincoln Rhyme but Denzel is also my favorite actor ever so I went with it. Also Morgan Freeman as Alex Cross seemed a really odd choice but Morgan Freeman is also a great actor. I just didn’t buy him as Alex Cross. I think you have to treat the movie as a completely separate thing from the book or else you’ll go crazy.

  17. The problem with Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher is not so much the hair color (not a defining feature of the character), or even his size (yes, his size is imposing in the books, but other actions can function as visually imposing in a movie), but his age. He’s 49. Reacher is in his mid thirties. It’s obvious. Age can’t be faked that much. If this isn’t a one shot deal, but a franchise, this really becomes problematic. Think five movies over ten years. Cruise will be 60. It won’t work. Flip this around. Can you imagine any studio casting a 49 year old woman to play a 35 year old? Probably more like a 25 year old, and they’d insist she’s 30, not 35. Consider also the problem that the Ethan/MI character is in a similar genre to Reacher and it can easily play as a retread. I may loves me some Daniel Craig but the problem is similar. Alexander Skarsgard might work, but not enough of star as has been pointed out. IMHO the perfect role for Skarsgard would be Harry Hole if the Nesbo books were to be adapted. I just finished The Redeemer and my mental Hole image and voice was Skarsgard.
    Actor’s physical appearances can be different from the book and work and still work. The Out of Sight examples above is perfect, and Daniel Craig looks different from the Larsson description, but I’m sure he’ll be just fine in the Millennium movies (although I don’t see how Rooney Mara can top Noomi Rapace, but successfully portraying a character that another actor has so memorably inhabited is a whole nother kettle of fish). But when the actor is decades apart it becomes hard to swallow. I have a real problem with True Grit – either adaptation – in that the Rooster Cogburn in the Charles Portis novel is decades younger than portrayed. Tom Cruise is a good looking 49 year old, and he’ll probably look good for his age at 60, but 35-40? I don’t buy it.
    I say in describing a character it’s best to be as bare bones about the physical description as possible. Let the reader – and the casting agent for the movie (keep dreaming) – color in the details.

  18. I am still reeling from Lucille Ball and Groucho Marx in Gone with the Wind! I am waiting with trepidation for the Hunger Games movie as I loved the books so much I fear they will be ruined – but so far the casting seems pretty spot on to me. It really is a crap shoot when it comes to Hollywood – in more ways than one!

  19. And now it’s time for “Basil’s Very Little Known ‘Facts’ “

    The Magnificent Seven: The script for the famous western was based on Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. In the initial readings the intention was not to make it a real “Western” per se, but more of a musical comedy along the lines of Oklahoma meets Abbot & Costello in the days of Blade Runner (yes, Blade Runner had not yet been written, but the ideas were there nonetheless). The original casting included Bud Abbot in the part of the samurai leader Shimada, Lou Costello as the young untested warrior Okamoto, Larry Fine as Katayama the skilled archer, Lee Marvin as the tough Kyzo, Curly Howard as Hayadashi the comedic warrior, Jonathan Winters as the lieutenant Shiroji, and Milton Berle as the counterfeit samurai with the heart of a warrior Kikuchiyo.

    It all fell apart early on when Abbot refused to get a samurai top knot haircut and kept insisting on putting his arms around the pretty girls. Costello got jealous and tried to prove his manhood by learning to use his katana sword for real. Several very expensive set pieces were destroyed before his midnight practice sessions were halted. Add to that Moe Howard’s frustration at not being offered a part with his former stooges (Larry had actually specially requested that Moe be left out to give his hair and nose a break from the regular season abuse, something which Moe did not learn until much later in life and to which he responded by saying, “Why I oughta…”). Curly actually felt very much at home in Samurai garb and started to philosophize to no end about how he had probably been one in a former life, and had ruled a vast portion of ancient Japan, and how the word ‘Nyuk’ can actually be found in historical texts of the Japanese language.

    Jonathan Winters at first started off playing his part very well. So well as a matter of fact that he was very nearly at the point of being typecast as the tough albeit slightly chubby hired gun in future westerns. Such aspirations were shot down though, literally when upon seeing an ethnically-Japanese crew member he thought he recognized from WW2 the former Marine had a violent flashback and nearly beheaded the man with a prop sword prompting a security guard to shoot him with a prop gun causing him to suddenly collapse into a sobbing heap then start emulating an alien invasion using only two chopsticks, a Japanese fan, and bowl of noodles. Between those antics and Milton Berle’s constant arrival on set dressed as a Geisha instead of a Samurai Lee Marvin (also a former Marine) finally just quit the whole show and stormed off muttering something about “I may have survived getting my ass shot off in Saipan, but there’s no way in hell I’ll survive these morons!”.

    So there you have it, what might have been had Hollywood had its way on casting that time.

  20. Seems to me, you just can’t get it right when casting for novels. Someone is always going to be torqued about something.

    Incidentally, in my stories the women are taller than the men, a reflection of a hollywood reality.

  21. I’m thinking they will need platform shoes for Tom (which could be quite fetching)…and one thing is for certain, the Rock should be banned from any movie! Basil, however, may have a career in casting…

  22. What great questions, Clare! I have to say, it took me a while to adjust to Tom Hanks in the Davinci Code, but he won me over. It’s late, so I can’t pull out too many more examples.

    I’ve had people ask me who I’d cast to play the parts of Sam, Rufus and Rosemary in Mythological Sam-The Call. It really got me thinking as to how readers really want to SEE the characters. Think about it. Casting actors to play your characters in a movie. WE ALL SHOULD HAVE THAT PROBLEM!

  23. Worst casting ever: Ben Affleck as Jack Ryan and Ben Affleck as Daredevil. Pretty much Ben Affleck in anything since Good Will Hunting.

    Tom Cruise has not done well in his last several movies and I’m not seeing him as Reacher. I like looking at him, but have found his acting painful in the last few years, ever since he lost his freaking mind . . .

  24. Since becoming a Lincoln Rhyme fan, I can’t help imagining any actor than Denzel Washington portray Lincoln. Lincoln is someone smart, eloquent, analytical, candid (very candid) and snappy; attributes of most characters Denzel has played on screen.

    Your observation is quite interesting Claire, that I see many people chiming in their two cents worth. I just hope that you have expounded it further and added examples.

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