Book Pretty vs. Hollywood Pretty: When Is An Actor Too Pretty To Play A Character?

by  | October 18

There are numerous hurdles when a book is made into a movie, but casting is at the top of that list. As readers, we assemble flawed characters in our minds which the beautifully populated world of cinema can’t always match. Good-looking people are the status quo for Hollywood movies, but is there ever a point when an actor is too pretty for his or her book counterpart?

(Related: Casting Couch: Which Actors Would You Cast In These Contemporary Novels?)

Enter Michael Fassbender and his defined jaw. He can currently be seen in the film adaptation of M. L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans as lighthouse keeper Tom Sherbourne. Although Stedman presents limited details about Sherbourne’s physical appearance, the Tom in my mind was grittier than the Fassbender version. Fortunately, he has many book-to-movie acting credits to compare and contrast.

All this data has led to a new scientific measurement for readers to discuss the prettiness of actors versus the book characters they portray: The Fassbender Scale. Read on, and you’ll understand why this measuring system will soon be as ubiquitous as Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

Level 5: Hollywood Pretty

Photo: Focus Features
Photo: Focus Features

Character: Edward Rochester in Jane Eyre, adapted from the novel by Charlotte Brontë

Book description: “I recognised his decisive nose, more remarkable for character than beauty; his full nostrils, denoting, I thought, choler; his grim mouth, chin, and jaw—yes, all three were very grim, and no mistake.”

Verdict: This is a hot man playing an ugly man, simple as that. Queens would abandon their thrones to hole up in a country estate with Fassbender’s Rochester.

Level 4: Unconvincingly Pretty

Photo: François Duhamel / Universal

Character: Steve Jobs in Steve Jobs, adapted from the biography by Walter Isaacson

Book description: “’When I look into most people’s eyes, I see a soul. When I look into your eyes, I see a bottomless pit, an empty hole, a dead zone.’”

Verdict: The filmmakers wanted to choose an actor who didn’t look like Jobs…and that’s what they got.

Level 3: Distractingly Pretty 

Photo: François Duhamel / Fox Searchlight

Character: Edwin Epps in 12 Years a Slave, adapted from the memoir by Solomon Northup

Book description: “Edwin Epps…is a large, portly, heavy-bodied man with light hair, high cheek bones, and a Roman nose of extraordinary dimensions. He has blue eyes, a fair complexion, and is, as I should say, full six feet high. He has the sharp, inquisitive expression of a jockey. His manners are repulsive and coarse, and his language gives speedy and unequivocal evidence that he has never enjoyed the advantages of an education.”

Verdict: It would have been easy for director Steve McQueen to manifest the evil of slaveowner Edwin Epps in his physical appearance, but instead he chose a beautiful man to play a devil. Sometimes Fassbender’s face puts us at ease, but at least his acting doesn’t let it last.

Level 2: Respectfully Pretty

Michael Fassbender is Tom Sherbourne and Jack Thompson is Ralph in the poignant THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS. ©Dreamworks. CR: Davi Russo.
Photo: Davi Russo / Dreamworks

Character: Tom Sherbourne in The Light Between Oceans, adapted from the novel by M. L. Stedman

Book description: “Tom isn’t one of the men whose legs trailed by a hank of sinews, or whose guts cascaded from their casing like slithering eels. Nor were his lungs turned to glue or his brains to stodge by the gas. But he’s scarred all the same, having to live in the same skin as the man who did the things that needed to be done back then. He carries that other shadow, which is cast inward.”

Verdict: There are no specific problems with the casting choice, but Anna Wintour had no problem fitting a full-page ad for the movie in the September issue of Vogue either.

Level 1: Book Pretty

Photo: HBO
Photo: HBO

Character: Burton “Pat” Christenson in Band of Brothers, adapted from the nonfiction book by Stephen E. Ambrose

Book description: “Christenson was ‘of medium height and athletic build, with curly golden hair, E Company’s only glamour boy.’”

Verdict: This is a match made in literary heaven. Reading the character description, you might think of Fassbender faster than the casting director did.


Hopefully Ivy League scientists will adopt this scale soon. Until then, feel free to use it for any film adaptation! Usage example: Alicia Vikander in The Light Between Oceans is a 2 on the Fassbender Scale.