Audience acceptance of adaptations can be finicky. Everything can be set up just so but if something is off, the audience is thrown. On the flip side of that, an adaptation can get a lot wrong, but if it gets certain details right, the audience will just go along for the ride. Casting plays a role in this. Adaptations that audiences weren’t sure about did well when certain actors were announced. Likewise, fans have become divided when their dream casting didn’t happen.
With books, the goal is to find actors who can pass for how the characters are described. The author may or may not have a specific actor in mind when creating a character. Fans may pick up on the description and figure out who the author was using as a reference. Other works, the author may not have anyone particular in mind. In this case, the casting director should be aware of the characters’ general appearance. Some works make the casting work harder, particularly those with a young cast that grows over the series of novels. Since the appearances are all in the description, it shouldn’t be difficult to get close. Mind, some cases are harder than others; Harry Dresden, being canonically six-foot-nine, has a limited pool of actors to work from. The adaptation went with six-foot-four Paul Blackthorne as Dresden, then used camera angles as needed to emphasize his height.
The Harry Potter books make for an interesting case with child actors. The initial casting of Harry, Hermione, and Ron worked; the young actors resembled their character’s description from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. However, each book ages the characters one year. It is hard to tell what a child actor will look like in a decade. With the Harry Potter movies, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint grew with the roles, but that isn’t a guarantee.
On the flip side, casting for the Fifty Shades of Grey adaptation caused a rift among fans. While the films went with Dakota Fanning and Jamie Dornan as the leads, fans wanted Alexis Bledel and Matt Bomer instead, going so far to start a petition to have the cast changed. The adaptation did well in theatres, though the backlash against the cast may have meant the film under performed.
More visual media provide a definite base to begin casting from. Not every role is locked into a specific look, just a general appearance. However, certain types of works become iconic. Animation is one of those. The art shows the character, from general appearance to mannerisms. Even comic books have distinctive characters, particularly the costumes. In these cases, ignoring the iconic looks may cause problems. Audiences, though, are aware of the restrictions and can adjust their perceptions while watching the adaptation. Some notable exception have come up, making for pleasant additions to their adaptations.
The 2002 Scooby-Doo movie did well at the box office, thanks to its star power. Matthew Lillard, though, deserves special mention. As Shaggy, Lillard managed to channel Casey Kasem’s portrayal, getting the voice right. Adding to his performance, he managed to get Shaggy’s unique walk. Of all the cast, Lillard was his role the most. In fact, Lillard has since taken over as the voice of Shaggy after Kasem passed away in 2014.
In a case of where getting the casting right would make or break a film, Karl Urban as Judge Dredd in the 2012 Dredd. Urban insisted that Dredd’s face would never be seen, correcting a major issue with the 1995 Judge Dredd with Sylvester Stallone. The one time Dredd is seen without his helmet, he’s in shadow, with no facial features showing. Urban became Dredd for the film, and while the film wasn’t as successful at the box office, it became an instant cult classic thanks to the portrayal.
Sometimes, the announcement of a casting choice can get an audience on board, even if there were reservations before. Michael Bay’s Transformers was seeing fan pushback on the idea of a live-action adaptation. Then the studio announced that the voice of Optimus Prime was cast – Peter Cullen would be reprising the role that was his when the cartoon first appeared in 1984. Fan reception changed, and the movie, while still having problems, succeeded well enough to have three sequels.
When it comes to adapting a live-action work, the limitations are obvious. Unless an actor has a child that looks much alike, and there are some who do, the adaptation will have to go with best fit. The appearance may not be important; instead, the portrayal is critical. The original actors will have set the characters; the new cast will have to adjust to expectations. Karl Urban once again shows how it’s done as Doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy in the 2009 Star Trek reboot. While Urban doen’t look like DeForest Kelly, he once again channeled the character. Urban’s co-star, Zachary Quinto, had an added difficulty. Unlike the rest of the cast, Quinto had one of the original cast of Star Trek, Leonard Nimoy, playing the older version of his character, Spock. Audiences could compare the two directly. Helping, though, was all the character development Spock had gone through in the movies. Quinto’s Spock was the younger version, Nimoy the mature. The result, though, was that Quinto held his own.
Casting is important. Getting the right actor for a role is key, for original works and adaptations. With adaptations, getting fans on board means getting someone who can be the character. When that happens, the adaptation grows beyond expectations.