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From Page to Screen: Exploring Book to Movie Adaptations

By Michelle Ye, Jia Wen Ho and Leanne Francis

From the pages of a novel to our flickering screens, there are so many movies that originate from books. Looking into different movie adaptations, we explore how minority ethnic groups have been represented in these films. It can feel like a hit or miss; sometimes a success inspires more accurate representations but other times, intentional or not, minority groups can be misrepresented.

Peter Pan

J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan has been a popular children’s story since its initial release in 1904. However, the indigenous characters have been consistently misrepresented. Peter Pans widespread popularity led to a plethora of film adaptations, the majority of which include discriminatory portrayals of indigenous characters. The first film adaptation was released in 1924: a silent film in which the indigenous characters’ speech, written out on title cards, bears a marked difference from the other characters. For example, “Peter Pan is the sun. He is the moon. He is the stars. Us [the indigenous characters] no let pirates hurt li’l boys.” In these few short sentences, the film adopts the stereotype that indigenous people are stoic and speak in a simple manner, and also deifies Peter, creating a clear hierarchy elevating him above the indigenous characters.

Among the adaptations succeeding the 1924 film, many have also miscast and whitewashed indigenous characters, such as Tiger Lily (with the exception of the 2003 adaptation that cast Haida actress Carsen Gray). The 1924 film cast Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong as Tiger Lily, followed by an uncredited voice actress in Disney’s 1953 animated film and most recently the casting of Rooney Mara in Pan (2015). These casting decisions, coupled with stereotyped performances, have perpetuated racist attitudes from a century ago into modern day. As Disney is set to release a new live action adaptation, Peter Pan and Wendy, the casting of Cree actress Alyssa Wapanatâhk hopefully heralds the end of indigenous misrepresentation in this classic story.

Crazy Rich Asians

One of the first all-Asian casts in Hollywood, this movie is adapted from the eponymous book by Kevin Kwan. It was the first time I have seen so many actors of Malaysian heritage in a blockbuster movie. There are three in total: Malaysia's beloved Michelle Yeoh, comedian Ronny Chieng and Henry Golding. The movie is set in Singapore and it was the most of Southeast Asia one could see on the big screen. Much of Singapore’s culture was represented on screen: there was the making of kuih, a beloved dessert, the bustle of the food courts and also a gathering of aunties speaking in Singlish, a Singaporean English slang.

Furthermore, the movie showed an interesting contrast between Singaporean-Chinese and Chinese-Americans. Many Singaporeans have a perception that Chinese-Americans have traded their “Chinese culture” for a more individualistic American one. However, this perception is not without basis: unlike their American counterparts, many ethnic Chinese in Singapore do retain their culture, whether it be the language or religion, as they are the most populous on the island city. It is a disappointment that neither the book nor the movie acknowledge the vibrant cultural diversity in Singapore. In this regard, neither ethnic groups such as the Malays and Indians are mentioned. We have previously talked here about such issues in the book. Overall, however, it is an enjoyable movie that brings Singaporean culture into an international limelight.

The Help

Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel, The Help, found its way to the screen in 2011. Met with a mostly positive reception, the movie adaptation of The Help was awarded four Oscars after receiving a whopping $169 million at the box office. The story takes place during the Civil Rights Movement in 1963, following the relationship between a white woman and two Black maids, referred to as 'the help,' about whom she writes a book. The Help features a fantastic ensemble cast, including actors such as Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis, Emma Stone and Jessica Chastain, amongst others. Despite the all-star casting and 'feel-good' comedic scenes, The Help has rightfully faced a lot of criticism over the years, even by some of the actors, for being a 'white saviour' movie.

Writer Cydney Henderson describes the 'white saviour' trope in movies as a narrative “where white characters come to the rescue of minorities in a feel-good tale that dilutes people of colour in their own stories.” The movie has regained popularity in recent years after the tragic death of George Floyd, being shared around as a 'helpful' resource to educate people on the issue of racism. Not only does The Help perpetuate harmful stereotypes about Black women, but it primarily centres – and favours – the stories of white women and ironically fails to give a voice to Black women during the Civil Rights Movement, though that is the very premise of the novel and movie. With a new wave of Black stories by Black voices hitting our screens and shelves this year, there is hope that the narrative and types of stories we share will finally shift.


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