Screengrab of the trailer for Netflix's "Altered Carbon"

Netflix Releases the Altered Carbon Trailer, and I’m Still Not Sure How They’ll Handle The Asian-Mind-In-A-White-Body Plot

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Netflix announced the premiere date for Altered Carbon, its 10-episode adaptation of Richard K. Morgan’s cyberpunk novel, with a brand-new trailer. “Centuries ago,” the trailer begins, as part of an advertisement for the futuristic company PsychaSec, “mankind discovered a way to transfer consciousness into a new body, making death a mere inconvenience. Since then, we’ve been providing an unparalleled pedigree of human sleeves to only the most discerning clientele.”

I really liked Altered Carbon when I read it (the sequels less so), but it does present some challenges for adaptation – specifically, challenges of identity and representation. In the book, the protagonist is Takeshi Kovacs, an at-least-biracially-Japanese man who used to work for the elite Envoy military unit; after being killed, he finds himself “sleeved” in the body of Caucasian policeman Elias Ryker and tasked with solving the murder of a wealthy man named Laurens Bancroft.

Now, in good news, Netflix has cast two actors to portray Kovacs: both The Wolverine‘s Will Yun Lee and Suicide Squad‘s Joel Kinnaman. But guess which one of them gets the most time in the trailer?

(Spoiler alert: The white one.)

As Clara Mae at The Nerds of Color so aptly summarizes, “The experience of reading Altered Carbon is like playing a first person shooter. You rarely ‘see’ Ryker, other than when the physical body is injured, or when Takeshi walks past a reflective surface. But you’re with, and hear, Takeshi at all times … Takeshi had sleeves before Ryker, and in the other two books in the series, he certainly has sleeves after Ryker. By prioritizing Ryker over Takeshi, and by announcing a big(ish) name white actor first, they’ve already gone about it backwards.”

The question of representation is fundamentally different in film than in books. When we’re reading a prose book, there’s no visual element. We can live inside Takeshi’s head, while he walks around in a white body, and contextualize that body as a mere “sleeve.” But when we’re watching the TV show, we’re watching a bodied actor, and our sympathies lie with the face that’s embodying the role. Based solely on the trailer, it looks like that will mostly be Joel Kinnaman.

I hope I’m going to be proven wrong, and Netflix just didn’t want to deal with over-explaining the concept in their first trailer. Marketing is one thing, and the actual show is another. Lord knows I’ve seen enough misleadingly awesome trailers for garbage movies, so the trailer doesn’t tell the entire tale. But this is going to be a tricky one for them to pull off thoughtfully, and I’m definitely curious to see how they do it. Especially after the nonsense of Ghost in the Shell, one hopes that the studios have learned something.

One hopes.

Altered Carbon arrives on Netflix on February 2, 2018.

(Via io9; featured image via screengrab)

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