Love, Simon, the film adaptation of Becky Albertalli’s Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda was something new, but it also proved that unconscious bias can lurk in the most progressive of places.
Every book to movie adaptation makes changes. Movies just don’t have time for all that exposition. It’s why the book is better 99.99% of the time. Movies add and eliminate characters, cut back on secondary plots, reorder the sequence of events, and even alter a character’s backstory. It’s that last one that troubled me on a rewatch of Love, Simon. The film switched Leah and Abby’s backstory. Who cares you say? Here’s why you should care, I say.
In the novel, Abby is Simon’s newest friend. A recent transplant from D.C. to Georgia who comes to town and captures everyone’s heart with her bubbly demeanor and Instagram ready sense of style. She has a mother, a father still in DC because he’s looking for a job in Atlanta, and a brother at Georgetown. Leah, one of Simon’s oldest friends, keeps the world at arms length with a sour attitude born of low self-esteem. Leah is an only child who lives with her single mother because her father left them for another woman. Her family also struggles financially. Abby is black. Leah is white.
In the film adaptation, Abby is still the bubbly recent transplant, but gone is the father looking for work, and there is no mention of the brother at Georgetown. Her father isn’t just missing, the audience is told that he’s a cheater and possible alcoholic. Leah is still self-conscious, but her character has lost the razor sharp edges that kept readers at a distance. Suddenly, she’s sweet as can be and sporting delicate scarves as headbands. It must be losing those edges that allowed her to gain a father, a brother, a dog, and a home in the wealthy Atlanta suburb where her best friends, Simon and Nick, live. Abby is still black. Leah is still white.
The changes were so small it would be easy enough to overlook or let them pass you by without question or concern. And the first two times I watched the movie, I did, but now, I can’t unsee it. Why was Leah given parts of Abby’s life? Why did the white character get the picture perfect family? Why did the black character get the broken home? I can only speculate on why the white character’s backstory was altered to give her an easier life while the black character inherited the struggle. That’s not true, I could do more than speculate. I could draw conclusions. I actually have drawn conclusions.
Conclusion #1: Despite the proven financial power held by people of color the film industry still prefers to cater to white audiences. An audience unfamiliar with the text would never question the black character with the single parent because it’s what they so often read, see, and hear. Not to mention, they can feel sympathetic and woke while eating their popcorn—“Awwww, poor Abby, that sucks.”
Conclusion #2: The ubiquitous love of the struggle story. Books and movies love to burden non-white characters with struggle. It seems to be how the world views or prefers to view the lives of black and brown characters. It’s why we still need diverse texts. It’s why we still need to dismantle the Western canon and rethink curriculums. Black and brown people can be named Molly and Jake, eat kale chips, travel, go to raves, grow up with two parents, and have the biggest struggle of their life be that people are shocked that they have and do those things because they are black and brown.
Conclusion #3: Unconscious bias. Everyone, everyone has biases. We need to own that. Then we need to fix that. You can’t fix something that you won’t admit is broken.
Love, Simon deserves all of the attention and accolades it received, but it wasn’t perfectly progressive. Despite its worth, it fumbled at every stage of the adaptation process. From the person who gave Leah Abby’s life to everyone along the way that missed the message the small change sent, and to every audience member who read the book then saw the movie and let the change go unnoticed because we’ve been conditioned to see what the world has taught us to accept and expect.
We’re still evolving. I get that, but change doesn’t have to happen slowly. Seriously, the time is now. It’s been too long coming.