Body fascism and the adaptation: why Hollywood will never give us an ugly lead

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They may be ugly on the inside, but it seems we’ll never get a lead who is ugly on the outside too.

“Bruce, you’re an ugly and silly old man. You’re very possibly an alcoholic and God knows what else. You’re the type of sad case who preys on vulnerable, weak and stupid women in order to boost his own shattered ego. You’re a mess. You’ve gone wrong somewhere pal.” That’s easily the most kind description given to Bruce Robertson in Irvine Welsh’s seminal depravity-fest Filth. Bruce Robertson is not just an ugly, silly old man; he’s a depraved, overweight, coked-up, middle-aged psychopath with a crippling alcohol dependency. He’s a monster and he’s also the protagonist.

So awful and disgusting is he that my monocle popped out of my eye-socket when I heard that in the 2013, Jon S. Baird-helmed film, he was to be played by doe-eyed James McAvoy and not, say, Brendan Gleeson or the man with the two teardrop tattoos who walks aggressively up and down my road with a plastic bag full of dog toys every day.

In the last decade or so, mainstream cinema has gotten better about telling stories with characters who are morally or emotionally unappealing; Inglourious Basterds saw us rooting for a gaggle of froth-mouthed crazies in uniform, who were going on a blood-binge through WWII Germany, Diablo Cody’s Young Adult sees Charlize Theron adopt the role of ‘World’s Worst Human’ and no one in any of the Judd Apatow films are nice or selfless or competent in any way. No, we’re pretty comfortable with a degree of moral repugnancy in our protagonists, provided they’re really good looking.


Now, I know, I know, the decisions made by the reptilian suit-men of the film industry are informed by focus-tested cretins and a desire for revenue so white-hot it could inspire a hundred sonnets, and that WE aren’t to blame. But the fact is there’s just no way anything above a certain financial level is going to get rubber-stamped without a fit guy or girl for the audience to physically aspire to, even if that person is a violent alcoholic or a serial adulterer.

Novels are great, they give us the freedom to inhabit the inner worlds of a much more emotionally and physically diverse cast of people and Bruce Robertson is so fantastically representative of this freedom, being both physically and psychologically unappealing. And don’t get me wrong, James Mcavoy is a good actor, sometimes he’s a great actor, but he’s also a handsome young man and, even with the make-up and the beard, utterly wrong for the character of a middle-aged, unfit, bi-polar sociopath. Mainstream cinema still can’t get past the bone-headed misconception that it takes a physical admiration or kinship to sympathise with, or at least emotionally follow a character, thus, Bruce Robertson becomes James Mcavoy.

We are permitted to see the sort of human executives feel will be ‘uncontroversial’: good looking, young, white, straight, able-bodied

Body fascism has always existed in film, but seeing the way an existing fictional character in a more permissive medium is warped and gentrified by the jaunt from page to screen, really hammers home just how institutionalised this fascism is. We are permitted to see the sort of human executives feel will be ‘uncontroversial’: good looking, young, white, straight, able-bodied. Yes, this body fascism extends to some much more iffy subjects like race, sexuality and disability. The Twilight adaptations cast a white actor as a prominent Native American character, M. Night Shyamalan’s adaptation of popular Nickelodeon cartoon The Last Airbender saw all the Inuit and South-East Asian protagonists re-imagined as white kids. Johnny Depp played Tonto. There’s clearly some really ill-conceived notions about the kind of bodies we’re allowed to see on film.

When this fascism gets foisted upon the already plural and diverse bodies of pre-existing fictional characters, we get to see the institutionalised darkness of the visual media at work; not only are they trampling on the vision of the original artists, they’re twisting that art into something boring, safe and, in many cases, offensive. And this is a shame, adapting books is a quick and easy way to force mainstream cinema to be a bit daring. Sure they made Bruce Robertson handsome, but he’s still a different breed of protagonist to your Harry Potters and your John Mclanes but until the mass media can get over this misjudged assumption that we’re frightened by the human body, novel adaptations are doomed to the same strand of unimaginative, vanilla casting that has plagued Hollywood and mainstream cinema since its inception.


Image: Lionsgate

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