'Catching Fire' becomes 2nd 'Hunger Games' film with racial casting controversy

Nowadays, nothing quite brings out the most insufferable qualities in human nature like a fantasy movie with an ardent fan base.

In the latest installment of the theater of the absurd, a small but vocal (because aren’t they always?) minority of Hunger Games fans have bemoaned the choice of Jeffrey Wright as Beetee, a veteran of the deadly Darwinian competition that pits groups of adolescents against one another for sport.

In the dystopian world of Catching Fire, which opens today, Beeteee is a technical genius who aligns himself with the story’s heroine, Katniss Everdeen, another Hunger Games champion. Wright, whose resume includes an incredibly broad array of roles that include civil rights icons and Dominican drug lords, is black. Meanwhile, Beetee was written in the insanely popular book series as a white male.

Cue the righteous indignation. Internet trolls immediately took to blogs and social networks to vent about the politically correct casting decision, simultaneously stoking the embers of racial insensitivity. Recalling the isolated outcry that greeted Idris Elba when he was cast as a largely peripheral character in Thor, Wright has handled the controversy with characteristic professionalism and class.

Lest we all tie ourselves up in knots and manufactured outrage about the state of race relations, there are some broad takeaways to consider about Wright’s turn in Catching Fire:

Arguments against the racial inversion of characters are less racist than they are purist.

Devotees to novels and comic books are guilty of an extreme form of cathexis that renders them completely irrational when the movie adaptation rolls along. Maybe it’s the long march to turning a book into a move, or the feeling of helplessness that comes with not having a real say in how their favorite characters get brought to life. Whatever it is, they tend to be rabid enforcers of doctrinal purity who demand the movie resemble the source material in its most exact form.

Some might also recall that the original casting choice of Jennifer Lawrence was initially unpopular with Hunger Games faithful because she was considered—wait for it—too white. The book described Katniss as racially ambiguous with dark hair and olive skin: Ironically enough, fans thought the blond, alabaster skinned Lawrence was too white.

This means casting decisions become more controversial than they should be. When subtle details are altered, it becomes an outrage against humanity, and shakes them to their core.  The most devoted acolytes of a series tend to be the only ones who notice these things, or even care, while the uninitiated (people who have never read the book [like your writer] – wouldn’t know the difference one way or the other.

Tempests on a Twitter feed tend to fade pretty quickly, and have little practical import.

Back in 2011, Idris Elba was cast as Heimdall in Thor, sparking a bout of fan-based fury. Yet the controversy blew over as quickly as it began and by most indications, it may have even been box office catnip. Thor’s opening weekend topped $65 million, and eventually went on to earn nearly than $450 million worldwide. Elba’s reprisal of the same role in Thor’s sequel certainly hasn’t done anything to depress box office receipts to any appreciable degree: the second installment has reaped more than $152 million during the two weeks it’s been on the big screen.

Incidentally, the Norse god’s latest foray into Midgard featured a 2nd black cast member in the form of Adewale Akinnuoye Agbaje – last seen on the small screen on the Lost series – in a key role of an antagonist. Meanwhile, nary a peep has been heard from the so-called “racists” (purists?) who were so vociferous in the first installment.

Regardless of who plays a secondary character like Beetee, Catching Fire will likely outperform its predecessor at the box office.

Tweaks to character details rarely, if ever, involve main characters.

All of the heat and light in the The Hunger Games series involves Katniss, played by the winsome scene-stealer Jennifer Lawrence, and her love interest Peeta Mellark.

Not unlike Idris Elba’s turn in Thor, most of the other characters are peripheral at best, so minor changes like ethnicity won’t make a whit of difference to the plot’s overall direction – or the ability of audiences to identify with them.

Changing their ethnicity won’t make one whit of difference to the overall plot. The addition of Mr. Wright is hardly on par with the full-scale transmogrification of Marvel’s (originally white) Nick Fury into the decidedly black protagonist played by Samuel L. Jackson in The Avengers.

Finally, most of these changes smack of a pallid form of political correctness.

In a perhaps well-meaning effort to increase on-screen diversity, casting directors are really patronizing black actors and movie goers by trying to achieve racial balance on the fly. These seemingly innocuous changes needlessly stir up the hornet’s nest of long-time fans and devalue the source material.

Barring a wholesale reinterpretation of the original content, altering the racial balance does almost nothing to the movie. Most of the changes tend to be peripheral, thereby wasting the talents of excellent characters.

On rare occasions, racial re-balancing happens in reverse: the ill-fated 1996 TV movie based on Marvel’s popular Generation X (a junior varsity version of the iconic X-Men) saw Jubilee, an Chinese-American character, inexplicably recast (and miscast) as a Caucasian suburban teen.

In the final analysis, tinkering around the edges of beloved characters for movie adaptations reeks of pandering. Cheap attempts to achieve some amorphous concept of diversity do a disservice to the actors in question, and plant them squarely in the crosshairs of racial strife.

As the recent floating of Michael B. Jordan’s name as the new Human Torch vividly illustrated, such moves distract from the film itself. With the amazing phalanx of black superheroes already in the pipeline, maybe Hollywood won’t feel the need to wave a magic wand to achieve character diversity through symbolic casting decisions.