Tag Archives: characters with disabilities
This post contains spoilers for the book and the film.
The other day I went to see the film version of my favourite book, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. I was expecting a more gooey version of the book, and was a little apprehensive about the treatment of disability, but I wasn’t expecting what I got.
The time traveller of the title, Henry, travels due to a genetic condition called Chrono-Impairment. He experiences this as inconvenient and unpleasant: he is pulled out of his daily life and often to quite painful times in his past.
In the book, part of the way Henry convinces geneticist Dr Kendrick that his time travelling is real by giving the latter information about his son, who is soon to be born. One of these details is that the son, Colin, has Down Syndrome. And just about everything said about him is along the lines of what Henry says just after the birth: ‘I’m sorry about Colin. But you know, he’s really a wonderful boy.’ Dr Kendrick’s reaction to his son’s ‘abnormality’ is less pleasant.
But Colin doesn’t appear in the film. There’s a part of my mind that was glad we missed what would surely be a nasty mix of okay and fail. But with his exclusion, we also missed the presence of half the disabled characters in the novel. And I know you have to make changes for film adaptations, and that’s fine. Though it’s curious how all the queer characters and most of the non-white characters were taken out for the film version, too… (Which is, again, good on the one hand because you miss all the painful stereotypes, but bad on the other as, you know, there are few non-white or queer people.)
But I said half the disabled characters, so let’s address the other one: Henry.
In the book, Henry gets hypothermia when he ends up time travelling to a park in winter. He loses his feet and spends the rest of the novel in bed, then in a wheelchair. In the film, only one of Henry’s legs is affected, and he keeps it. Both Henry and Dr Kendrick emphasise that he’s not going to be in the wheelchair for long, If it had just been Henry saying that, I would have thought, okay, that’s a reference to his knowledge about his premature death. But as Dr Kendrick says the same, and as Henry never stops using the wheelchair until his death, there’s no point in saying it at all. Except to reassure the viewers that Henry is not one of “those people” and this is just a temporarily blip, that is. It’s okay, everyone, don’t panic; Henry isn’t disabled.
Henry learns about his upcoming death (oh, time travel) not long before getting hypothermia. I am not a fan of the emotional line formed here; to me the emotional message, if not the letter of the thing, is that disability is a stage in dying, that disability is a kind of pre-death. Which, come on. Henry isn’t dying up until he is killed. In the book at least the particular importance of Henry’s needing to be able to run is explained (it has often been a matter of survival when he is thrust about in time) (though it actually isn’t in any of his travels following the loss of his feet). In the film, we just have abled to disabled to dead. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
But what I found most strange in the discrepancy between the book and the film was Henry’s attitude. In the book, Henry is largely miserable once he loses his legs. In the film, Henry is a Good Cripple. It’s a pretty big contrast, and again the film takes out emotional complexity and loses the opportunity to highlight the marginal.
But now we come back to Henry’s time travel, and here we hit some more complexities. Can we call our chrono-impaired hero disabled? Within the world of the text(s), Henry doesn’t appear to treat it as such, as best I can recall from both texts. But irrespective of whether Henry or those around him understand him as disabled, as viewers and readers we can draw out a fair few messages about disability. There are all sorts of nebulous ideas in my head on time travel as impairment, and Henry’s search for a cure, and the issues with Clare and Henry having a baby. To be honest, I haven’t settled my feelings on this. But here are some ideas in Time Traveler’s that slot into popular ideas about disability…
- Let’s make it a super power!
- Long suffering partner
- Should we have a kid with this condition? Or would that be unfair?
… and some of the difficulties Henry faces…
- His impairment isn’t known about or dealt with in everyday society and he has to keep it a secret. In fact, he is scared for his job. Scary invisible disability?
- He is repeatedly arrested because of a lack of understanding of his condition.
- He struggles to find appropriate medical care.
What else can you think of?
So the novel and the film versions of The Time Traveler’s Wife have problems in different respects. But I’m finding the differences between the novel and the film the most interesting of all.
Crossposted at this ain’t livin’.
I would like you to imagine that you are a film producer, or perhaps a television producer. You are making something, and you have decided that since an estimated 20% of the population consists of people with disabilities, that maybe there should be some people with disabilities in your finished piece. So, you decide to include them. And you do your due diligence; you consult disability activists, you educate yourself about how they should be portrayed, you make sure that their characters are fully integrated into the story, that they aren’t tokens.
This already makes you a standout in the world of film and television production, because, as a general rule, the portrayal of people with disabilities in film and television is atrocious. Some independent films might be better, but mainstream media, for the most part, tokenizes people with disabilities when it deigns to include them, and often manages to be extremely offensive about it.
Now, I would like you to imagine that you are a casting director preparing casting calls for this wonderful new work in which people with disabilities will be portrayed. You’re doing writeups of the characters for release to send out to agencies, or maybe you’re even preparing an open casting call.
Are you going to actively request that actors with disabilities try out for the roles? Or is that not important to you?
Judging from the current portrayal of disability on television, I’m going to bet that our fictional casting director is not going to actively pursue actors with disabilities to play disabled characters. Instead, they’re going to go for the crip face. I was going to draw an analogy here, and ask: If you were a casting director casting a Black character, would you solicit Black actors? Or would that not be important to you? Except that I see blackface continues to be alive and well, so, apparently, the answer again is no, it’s not important that Asian actors play Asian characters, that Black actors play Black characters, that male actors play male characters, that disabled actors play characters with disabilities.
This is annoying.
It’s annoying, for one thing, because I would like to see more people with disabilities on my screen, and because I would like to see them specifically played by actors with disabilities. But no, it’s too hard to find disabled actors. Or, they’re too hard to work with. When an actual actor with a disability is allowed onto a television set playing a disabled character, it’s played like someone’s being done a huge favour, and aren’t we inclusive and progressive, casting a disabled actor to play this part!
I can think of only a handful of disabled characters I like. One is Bonnie on Jericho, played by Shoshannah Stern. Bonnie is Deaf, as is Shoshannah. One of the things that’s interesting about her character is that when Shoshannah tried out for the role, Bonnie was not written as Deaf. Apparently her reading was liked so much that they changed the character. And they did a pretty good job; Bonnie is a fully realized character, her Deafness is not a token, and in fact it proves to be an asset at times.
Bonnie shows how it’s possible to integrate a disabled character into a piece without making a big production out of it, without making it feel forced and fake, without being disrespectful. Her Deafness isn’t framed as a terrible tragedy or a magical special gift from God, it’s just a fact. It’s great to see other characters signing with her, instead of forcing her to read lips all the time, although it’s kind of unfortunate that the DP apparently thought it would be a good idea to not show the hands half the time during signing scenes. It’s great to see Bonnie saying “I’m Deaf, not stupid,” reminding people that she can read lips and that, therefore, it’s not a good idea to talk trash about her because you think she can’t understand you. (Aside from the fact in general that you shouldn’t be talking trash about people even when you know they aren’t around to understand.)
Deafness is part of what makes Bonnie Bonnie, and considering that the character wasn’t supposed to be Deaf at the start, I think that’s a pretty great accomplishment.
But…one disabled character does not a revolution make. Why is it so difficult to add characters with disabilities into the world of film and television, and once they’re there, why is it still acceptable to use temporarily able bodied actors in crip face to play them, rather than, you know, seeking out disabled actors?
There are a lot of superbly talented actors with disabilities out there who do great work when they are allowed to do it. Some of them actually work more in roles for able-bodied characters, because that’s all that’s out there. Some of them might actually enjoy being able to portray disabled characters, were they given a chance.
I want to see people like me when I look at the television. It’s why I watch, to escape into a magical world that I think I might be able to inhabit. And it’s easier for me, as a viewer, to place myself in that world when I see people like me. I think a lot of people feel like this. There’s a distance involved when you can’t connect with any of the characters, experientally.
And when the only people who are like me are introduced as tokens, figures for mockery or abuse, it makes me feel uncomfortable. It makes me not want to watch, because if I want to be tokenized, all I have to do is walk out the door.