James Dean’s casting is an unsettling step into the future of digitalisation

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This month, it was announced that a new film adaptation of Finding Jack, the psychological adventure novel by Gareth Crocker, will be appearing in cinemas in the near future.

This story alone is not breaking news, except for a certain casting decision – the lead role will be played by James Dean, the Hollywood icon who died over sixty years ago, using a combination of CGI, footage from his films like Rebel Without a Cause, and the voice of another actor.

Using the image of a young man whose life was tragically cut short feels morbid

Reactions to this revelation came thick and fast; actor Chris Evans called it ‘awful’, with Elijah Wood expressing similar opposition. The press has, at the very least, been wary about it, though Dean’s family have given their consent. Director Anton Ernst, who is responsible for the decision, cannot understand their qualms, insisting ‘we aren’t doing anything to hurt James Dean’s image.’

It’s not the first time this has happened. Famous actors have been ‘resurrected’ for posthumous film appearances, notably Laurence Olivier in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) and Marlon Brando in Superman Returns (2006).

And yet something about it just doesn’t sit right with me. On one level, it feels disrespectful, perhaps because of the nature of Dean’s death; aged just twenty-four, with only three film credits to his name at the start of what would have been a glittering career, Dean was driving to Salinas, California, when he was unable to slow for a vehicle that passed in front of him, throwing his car onto the side of the highway and killing him instantly.

The decision reflects a film industry where the cult of celebrity and publicity is more important than talent

To that end, using the image of a young man whose life was tragically cut short feels morbid – as opposed to deceased legends like Brando or Olivier, who both died in their eighties. At any rate, their roles were closer to cameos, both face-only appearances as holograms in sci-fi films which felt like paying respect to a late great actor – by contrast, casting Dean in the lead role (which will require much more computer editing) has an air of publicity-seeking about it.

Ernst put the decision down to not being able to find ‘the right [actor]’ for the job until they landed on Dean – but he also admitted to hoping to cast Elvis Presley originally, though he was unable to get the rights to use his likeness. Frankly, it seems ridiculous that no living actor, either from the realms of Hollywood stardom or the open casting-call they easily could have held, was more suitable for the job than one who died in 1955.

As well as raising questions about its motivation (beyond attracting attention, a box which has definitely been ticked), the decision reflects a film industry where the cult of celebrity and publicity is more important than talent – after all, it can’t be easier to digitally generate James Dean into a whole new role than to film an actual actor.

It also suggests a worrying precedent for the future, breaking a taboo around how we treat the dead, on such a public stage. At the very least, this is a disturbing and unsettling direction for cinema, possibly a worrying one.

Image by Rogelio A. Galaviz C. via Flickr

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