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Palatable Queerdom: 'Red, White & Royal Blue'

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On the 15th of August, 2021, I wrote a review of the novel Red, White, and Royal Blue. Here's what I wrote, right under a 5-star rating: 

“This book made me laugh. This book made me cry. Mostly, it was a form of (admittedly indulgent) escapism to a parallel universe a little better than ours—it offered me hope in a very depressing time. Yes, the circumstances are a bit ridiculous, it ain't the most realistic book in the world, but I don't think that's the point of it. I felt so many things reading this and that's enough in and of itself.” 

 

On the 11th of August, almost two years later, in regards to Amazon Prime’s adaptation of the novel, I would have to amend: 

The circumstances are a bit ridiculous. I was meant to feel things watching this, but the consciousness of emotional cues is not enough in and of itself. 

 

Casey McQuiston’s novel Red, White, and Royal Blue (2019) is a masterclass in utilising intersectional representation to further the plot, add depth to character, and have a joyful queer experience in a heteronormative world, even when the two converge and have to be negotiated. The heart of the book was the romance, the deep conversations, but it was surrounded by miles of strategically ‘shallow’ interactions that meant something. These moments distinguished it from fetishisation and refused two-dimensional stereotypes.

I desperately wanted director Matthew Lopez to engage with this on screen. Unfortunately, half of the story is discarded for the purpose of time and something is lost. 

Alex (Taylor Zakhar Perez) and Henry (Nicholas Galitzine) quickly fall in love, slip into awkward banter (really, really awkward banter), and begin to speak deeply, emotionally, romantically, all the time. It is during these moments that you begin to think, ‘people don’t talk like this’. But this is easily avoided by interspersing genuine connection with reactionary banter. For context, author Alice Oseman (Heartstopper, 2022) is a master of this:

“Nick: I wish I’d met you, when I was younger. 

Charlie: Yeah?

Nick: I wish I’d… known then, what I know now. 

Charlie: No being sad on my birthday. 

Nick: (laughing) So, are you going to open my present then?” 

 

In just five lines, we know that Nick is coming to some sort of realisation. We know Charlie wants to help him on his journey, even though this conflicts with his desire for everything to be perfect; in short, they both want each other to be happy. It’s an endearingly human interaction. 

This scene is comparable to one of my favourite in McQuiston’s book, where Nora and Alex discuss the New Years’ kiss with Henry, and Nora hits Alex with some much-needed realisations: 

“‘Let me lay out some observations for you,’ she says. ‘You extrapolate. First, you’ve been like, Draco Malfoy-level obsessed with Henry for years—do not interrupt me … You spent the entire New Year’s party straight-up ignoring the who’s who of hot people to literally watch Henry stand next to the croquembouche. And he kissed you—with tongue!—and you liked it. So, objectively. What do you think that means?’” 

 

 

The Amazon Prime version of Nora’s (Rachel Hilson) speech goes like this: 

“Nora: Allow me to lay out some observations for you. Extrapolate as you wish. First, you’ve been like, completely obsessed with Henry for years … You spent the entire New Years party straight up ignoring the who’s who of hot young women to talk to Henry. And, uh… he kissed you. And you liked it. So, objectively, what do you think that means?” 

 

Despite their similarities, there are omissions of detail in the dialogue. A reference to Harry Potter and slight syntactic variation doesn’t make or break a film, but the details are what made readers fall in love with the book. The very human instinct to cover the uncomfortable with the comfortable has been sacrificed in order to save screen time.

This brings us to the point of side characters. 

Enemies to lovers, fake dating, all the tropes in which McQuiston indulges are underscored by complex familial relationships and—importantly—women. Women in gay love stories have been historically separated from any personality, but the women in Red, White, and Royal Blue have their own quirks, lives, and responsibilities outside of Alex and Henry’s romance.

In the film adaptation, June doesn’t exist. Nora’s bisexuality, Bea’s sobriety and Amy’s transition are never discussed. Ellen’s marriage remains intact. This story of nuanced characters has been so straight-coded that it feels like a movie from ten years ago. In a world playing catch-up with media representation, this is not a compliment.  The hero forces everyone else to remain static.

Alex is not a hero. That’s not why we love him. He’s just an idealistic kid, slowly falling in love.

In a similar way, a well-intentioned mentor is traded for an antagonist-ex-lover-journalist representation of the press. Every aspect is confined and stifled, yet aspires to do the task of half a dozen archetypes. 

The vibrant dynamic between the two main characters is this film’s saving grace. Galitzine reacts to his co-star in some phenomenal acting. And despite being given the lines of someone ten years his junior, Perez manages to embody some of the short-king energy of the original Alexander Claremont-Diaz. Some of the directing choices, however, push these two to their limit. The intimate scenes feature gentle strings, intense eye-contact and little else.

The audience is left with no breath, not because of the erotic tension, but from the lack of reprieve from awkward dialogue. There is barely any trace of the laughter or charming giddiness that audiences were promised in the trailer. 

This is not to say that comedy cannot have tragedy or depth. Indeed, as I admitted in 2021, the book made me cry as much as it made me laugh. Tears, of either variety, are a reaction to those reflective moments where humour and drama intermingle. But depth that is not surrounded by wit cannot stand on its own. Certainly not for two hours of screen time. 

Red, White and Royal Blue set out to be palatable. Unfortunately for lovers of McQuinston’s novel, it accomplishes this to a fault. 

 

 
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