Sunday, September 12, 2010

Real People vs. Reel People

As an avid library/reading-at-Barnes-and-Noble-without-buying-anything fan, I sadly do not own a copy of many of my favorite books. So when I saw a copy of Bryan Burrough's excellent history book, Public Enemies, on clearance for a couple of bucks, I naturally snatched it up. Upon re-reading the book and enjoying it just as much as I had the first two times, I can say the purchase was definitely worth it. However, there's one thing about the copy I bought that bugs me:

Johnny Depp is on the cover.

Now, I have nothing against Johnny Depp. What I find odd about his presence on the cover is that Public Enemies is a thoroughly-researched non-fiction book about real criminals and lawmen during the early 30's, including John Dillinger (whom Depp played in the movie). If this was a novel adapted into a film, this wouldn't bother me. However, since the book is a factual account of real people who, like Dillinger, were amply photographed, wouldn't it be more appropriate to feature the real John Dillinger on the cover?

Only one of these men robbed banks for a living.

[And as long as being I'm nitpicky, I'll also point out that Dillinger (or anyone else recognizable) wasn't on the original cover since the book is about the 1933-34 crime wave in general, weaving together the stories not just of Dillinger and his gang but of Pretty Boy Floyd, The Barker-Karpis Gang, Machine Gun Kelly, Bonnie and Clyde, Babyface Nelson, J. Edgar Hoover, Melvin Purvis and dozens of others.]

Now of course, the Dillinger strand of Mr. Burrough's book was adapted into a film directed by Michael Mann and starring Depp in 2009 (in my opinion, an incredibly disappointing film, but that's for another post), which is why the book has the cover it does. Of course, movie studios need to promote their products. I get that. They could use the font and imagery (a 1930's car, a close-up on a tommy gun, e.g.) associated with the film, and slap a large "Soon to be a Major Motion Picture Starring Johnny Depp!" label on it, but do we need to see Depp's face?

Maybe a Lego guy instead?
This wouldn't bother me if it weren't such a common practice. Take, for example this book about the life of brilliant economist/schizophrenic John Nash:

That's not John Nash. That's Russell Crowe. This is John Nash.

Similarly, some high school student will someday do a paper on John Adams, check out a library copy of David McCullough's Pullitzer Prize-winning biography, and wonder what the hell Paul Giamatti is doing on the cover:

When it comes to this sort of thing, Johnny Depp is a repeat offender. He has appeared on non-fiction books not only as Dillinger but as drug lord George Jung and as Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

It gets even weirder when we move from non-fiction to autobiography. Temple Grandin doesn't get to appear on the cover of the book she wrote about her own life; she's replaced by Claire Daines:

When they make a film based on the bestselling memoir I will someday write, I hope they get somebody totally badass to play me:

It could happen.
All kidding aside, I guess what I find bothersome about this practice is that it ultimately seems disrespectful to the real person. Am I supposed to admire John Nash's ability to cope with mental illness, or Russell Crowe's brilliant performance? If Temple Grandin's life story is worth reading, do I need to see Claire Daines staring out at me whenever I reach for the book? Was John Adams a significant figure in American history and a complicated human being, or the protagonist of an HBO miniseries?

In addition to the desire to cross-market books and movies to reach a broader audience, I believe this practice stems from a (not unreasonable) fear that Americans are terrified of reading in general, and specifically afraid of reading anything that is not entertaining. We love movies, and so the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a book is a film adaptation (hence the ubiquitous "Soon to be a Major Motion Picture!"). We also love fiction, and so many book-reviewers save "reads like a novel" as their highest compliment for works of non-fiction. And marketing folks assume that the highest honor that can be bestowed upon an individual is to be portrayed by a (usually) better-looking celebrity.

This phenomenon relates to the fact that, when marketing movies, star power is everything. Independent films can hardly scrape together financing without a star of some kind, and getting distribution and even admittance to most festivals depends on having at least a B-lister attached to your project. And when it comes to Hollywood marketing, the preference is to create movie posters which consist of a bunch of floating celebrity heads. You may not get a sense of what the movie is about, but if Brad Pitt is in it, people will see it.

I imagine the same marketing logic dictates that more people will be interested in learning about John Dillinger if they see Johnny Depp on the cover. I really hope this isn't the case. It certainly doesn't have to be, even for movies. After all, countries like Poland have often successfully sold movies with no celebrities in the marketing at all.

The rather death metal-ish Polish poster for "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Not pictured: Harrison Ford.
In my work as a guide at two different historic sites, I often tell myself, "If people can give a crap about what Brad Pitt said that angered Angelina Jolie last night, I can get them excited about history. We're all wired to care about human stories, and that's what history is full of." People read both Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies and grocery aisle tabloids because we have a fundamental craving for stories about other people. We are a social animal. But I seriously hope that we don't ever reach the point where people care about historical figures only because they had a TV miniseries based on them, or read about the lives of brilliant but troubled mathematicians only because we're fans of Russell Crowe. Let's give real people the respect they deserve and let them appear on the covers of their own books, and not actors.

Its the sort of basic respect for human dignity that Founding Fathers such as Paul Giamatti fought to preserve.

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