'Annihilation' Criticized for "White-Washed Casting"

"Writer/director Alex Garland is not being true and honest to the characters in the book," says a board member of the advocacy group MANAA.

Alex Garland’s Annihilation is facing some criticism as it heads toward its Feb. 23 release. After dealing with warring producers and Paramount offloading international release of the movie to Netflix, the adaptation of the critically acclaimed sci-fi novel is under fire from two advocacy groups for whitewashing two of its core characters.

The movie stars Natalie Portman as a biologist and leader of an expedition into a mysterious area where the laws of physics don’t seem to apply. In Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel Authority — a direct sequel to the original Annihilation novel — the character is described as being of Asian descent, with the author describing her as having “dark, thick eyebrows, a slight, slightly off-center nose (broken once, falling on rocks), and high cheekbones that spoke to the strong Asian heritage on one side of her family.”

Similarly, the character of the Psychologist is described in Authority as being half-American Indian/half-Caucasian, but is played by Jennifer Jason Leigh in the movie version of Annihilation. (In VanderMeer’s books, the characters go unnamed; they’re identified by occupation and role only.) The movie’s central cast isn’t entirely white, however; Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac and Benedict Wong all have roles.

The casting choices have led to the movie being criticized by the organizations Media Action Network for Asian Americans and American Indians in Film and Television.

“Writer/director Alex Garland is not being true and honest to the characters in the book,” MANAA board member Alieesa Badreshia said in a statement. “He exploits the story but fails to take advantage of the true identities of each character. Hollywood rarely writes prominent parts for Asian American and American Indian characters, and those roles could’ve bolstered the careers of women from those communities.”

Sonny Skyhawk, founder of American Indians in Film and Television, agreed. “We are not surprised by the Whack-a-Mole diversity replacement that goes on; just when you finish objecting to one white-washed casting, another one pops up,” he said in a statement.

Garland has already defended himself from accusations of whitewashing the book, noting that the descriptions appeared in the second book in the series and telling Nerdist in December, “It would not be in my nature to whitewash anything. That just wouldn’t be like me. I read a book and I adapted it because I thought the book was amazing. And I thought, ‘I’m not exactly sure how to adapt this, but I’ve got an idea.’ And I just went with it. So that was it.”

Garland said in that same interview that he hadn’t even read the second and third books in VanderMeer’s series. VanderMeer has yet to comment publicly about the issue, although he has — in reference to other parts of the translation between media for Annihilationnoted that he “never expected or wanted a faithful adaptation from Garland — just a good one.”