It’s no secret that Darren Shan is my most favorite author, and The Saga of Darren Shan, a.k.a The Cirque du Freak series is my favorite of his works. What may not be well known however, is a character that I came to love dearly upon reading the saga. Debbie Hemlock is a character that makes her appearance in the third installment of the saga, and while she isn’t a central character, she is very important to the story, as well as to the saga’s protagonist Darren, as she was his love interest throughout most of the story. As the title suggests, this one is for her. I should note, this will contain very minor spoilers about her relationship with Darren, but nothing major to the story.
Debbie is described as being a pretty, kind-hearted, joyful girl with dark hair and skin in the novel. In other words, she is clearly considered to be black or at the least a person of color. As a twelve year old black girl myself when I first became introduced to her as I read Tunnels of Blood, I resonated with her. She became a fast favorite, and it made me absolutely elated when I realized that Darren was crushing on her and when they eventually fell in love. Darren is of course white, and so the idea that he came to love Debbie so dearly, to the point that even when they were forced to part and met years later, he still loved her. It may not seem like a significant point to many, perhaps it’s good if it doesn’t, but for that young black girl who knew even then that she had a preference for those of the lighter persuasion but wasn’t sure if such a love was ok or would ever be a possibility for her, it was everything. I dreamed that one day someone like that would come along and sweep me off my feet.
I’ve yet to meet that person as of this writing, but Debbie and Darren was my first positive reference to understand that it was perfectly fine to have such a preference and that it’s is something I can have and will welcome when that time comes. Their relationship became such a treasure to me, that I must admit that I cried when they had to part at the end of that installment, my hopes being dashed for a time. However, when they met years later in Allies of the Night, the eighth installment, I cried again. This time tears of joy that not only did Darren still love her and she him, but they even wished to progress their relationship fully when the situation was right. Of course, readers will understand why that didn’t quite come to fruition as hoped, but the difference is that there was still a possibility that Darren and Debbie could meet again in better times and under better conditions. It’s my personal belief that they did far beyond the very end of the final installment when Darren grew up.
So, you may wonder what significance the title of this post has to do with this candid confession of just what these two meant to me. Well, that is what I intend to address in the last half of this post. With everything going on in the world and the recent focus on racial injustice and inequality, I felt it was high time to address what has bothered me for quite a long time. That is the injustice done to Debbie Hemlock, most notoriously in the Cirque du Freak: The Vampire Assistant movie and even in the Japanese adapted manga. Both of these mediums erased her blackness and even her identity in the case of the movie. I do want to make it clear that the author had no role in these actions, as he was not given any influence on either adaptation. If he had been, things would’ve been different.
Let’s start with the manga because there’s not as much to say. Debbie in this adaptation was drawn to be much lighter than she was described in the books. Perhaps it could be seen as an artistic choice considering the audience, but there are many manga printed for the Japanese audience that have black characters. There could be more of course, but the point is that they do exist. Considering this was being adapted from an international work, one might think they’d try and keep things consistent, but they didn’t, and that’s unfortunate. However, this injustice while being as such, is not one that I take as heavily to heart, as it is a foreign adaptation and at the mercy of its publisher.
However, the CdF movie was not a foreign adaptation, as it was written based on the English release of the saga. To that end, they had no marginalized audience to adhere to, and were well within their bounds to keep every character true to the source material. Let me say, this isn’t going to be another post ranting about how terrible of an adaptation and insult this movie was to the series. It can speak for itself. Despite this, however, the biggest injustice they did beyond butchering the source’s continuity was not just changing her appearance, but quite literally nuking any semblance of her character. In the movie, they replaced Darren’s love interest with a girl named Rachel. It is quite obvious that she was meant to replace Debbie’s role. Rachel was a white character, which already does Debbie injustice by erasing her blackness. However, what made it unforgivable to me, was that she was also made to be a monkey girl, out of all the animals they could’ve chosen if they were insistent on making her one, which is something quite offensive to the black community, as it has historically racist undertones and has been used as an insult against blacks for centuries. This was an absolute slap in the face to me and all black girls like me who may have looked up to her.
I understand that adaptations can and often vary from their source material. That’s nothing new and isn’t something to become unhinged over. However, the reason I say this is an injustice is because of all the things they changed in the adaptation, the plot, sequence of events, and personality traits, Debbie was the ONLY character to be completely erased and replaced with Rachel to be Darren’s love interest. For what reason did they need to change specifically her? One of the only black characters in the trilogy the movie was adapting? Why make Rachel white? Why make her a monkey girl? I may have still despised the movie anyway even if they had included her, but at least I wouldn’t have been left feeling like my favorite character who I came to idolize so much wasn’t even worth including.
Perhaps others will say it wasn’t intentional, or it was just a re-imagining, but be that as it may, it doesn’t make a difference to me even if this was the case. It was a tragic injustice what they did to Debbie, and so I want to bring this to light for those who may not be aware. I may be in the minority, people might read this and think I’m stirring up controversy over nothing, or perhaps they will simply not care. In whatever case, that isn’t what I care about. What I care about is the potential other black girls like myself who may have come to find a similar significance in Debbie and maybe even in Darren and Debbie’s relationship. If there’s even one person out there who might think, “oh yeah, this bothered me too”, then I’ll be content. Even if there’s no one in the end, I am content to be getting this off my chest at last. I am content from bringing awareness to racial injustice in a source that many are unaware of or may have never even heard of. I am content that the world will have a chance to see what a wonderful and amazing character Debbie is and how much of an impact she had on my life.
On this special day of Juneteenth, during a time where the world is being called to take notice of these racial injustices in every aspect of our society, for the movement that calls to make it known that Black Lives Matter now more than ever, this is my contribution to this moment. I can’t be out there fighting for our equality, protesting and marching with the righteous, but I can try to foster change in my own way. I can write these posts, I can continue to feature black characters in my own original stories, especially strong black women, and I can encourage others to support other black creators out there. I vow to make my work with the diversity I’d like to see and I hope I can inspire other writers out there to do the same if they are lacking or want to join the cause. The lack of accurate Debbie art and content in general is a bit depressing as well to say the least, so I’m hoping that I might be able to contribute some fanfiction soon about her and Darren’s alternative life together.
I respect the author, Darren Shan tremendously, and I am thankful to him for including diversity in his work. Every single novel or series he’s published has a variety of character types, blacks included. They are also often in positions of power, or are just overall kind and favorable people. He continues to be the inspiration of my work as an author. I still have a long way to go before I can ever hope to reach his status, if I ever can, but I know he’s definitely one of the most admirable authors living today. I’ll never forget when I wrote him a letter as that 12 year old girl, gushing over the saga and of course my love for Debbie and Darren’s relationship. I also asked him for advice in becoming an author. He wrote back to me and said that the best advice he could give to me was to just keep writing and love what I write. Don’t worry about meeting others’ expectations or becoming famous, but just write what I want to write and keep at it until it’s complete. Then start again. In a world where other highly respected authors of notable series use their platforms to foster hate and injustices of their own, Darren is a beacon of hope that such authors will not be the only inspiration.
Should there ever come a time when The Saga of Darren Shan might gain enough of an interest to be adapted again, perhaps by Netflix as an original series, I hope that they will do the series justice and I implore them to let Darren be involved in the production to some degree. Debbie deserves justice, and I will continue to pray that one day she will find it.
Credit to this Tumblr for the perfect featured image.
Some black writers and organizations to support: