Adele Lim on Crazy Rich Asians and representation in film and TV

by Akinna Aquino

After finding Adele Lim on a popular Facebook group used to share delightfully relatable memes between members of the Asian diaspora, I flippantly joked with my partner that I would reach out to her and ask if she would consider speaking at the London Screenwriters Festival. 

Just imagine what it would do for underrepresented screenwriters to listen to the woman who was part of making Crazy Rich Asians the monumental global success it had become. To my absolute joy and excitement, Adele Lim responded that she was happy to do a session with us and within a week we made it happen!

Adele Lim is a Malaysian-born American film & television producer and screenwriter who has worked on Lethal Weapon, Reign, Private Practice and, of course, the 2018 Romantic Comedy blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians. The session was moderated by Emma Ko, a British East Asian Screenwriter and Spokesperson for Equal Media for the Women’s Equality Party.

The session begins with Adele’s “origin story” and we quickly start to see just how much of a humble and headstrong writer Adele is. She speaks of the initial resistance to her aspirations of writing that she had to deal with from her family and it opens up the conversation about who is able to see it as a possibility to become a writer in the first place.

“Working as a television writer – the job exists but we don’t really think the job is within our grasp”

Introduced to the world of screenwriting through a “cute boy” Adele talked “her ass off” and got herself a role as a Writer’s Assistant on Xena: Warrior Princess. She spoke about the benefits of starting off as Writer’s Assistant in terms of learning collaboration and patience. These definitely don’t come easy for many, but Adele shows that openness and humility is the way forward to improve yourself as a writer.

“You can’t be precious about your script; you need to have a community of writers you can give it to who can respond to it”

But while speaking practically of how we can improve as screenwriters, Adele also recognises the meritocracy myth in the Writers’ Room and how she has seen underrepresented writers overworked as they bank on the idea that their work will speak for itself even though sadly it’s often the case. 

Though she has been in many supportive Writers’ Rooms Adele points out that she is nevertheless almost always either the only woman/woman of colour, or one of two, in the room. We have to ask; why?

“There are big systemic issues that are working against minority content creators and storytellers. The landscape is still dominated by white men whether it’s writing, directing or producing, it’s a craft that has taken them years to get better at and a lot of Asians and people of colour have not been given the same opportunities”

Landing the unmissable opportunity to write for Crazy Rich Asians, Adele gushed over the liberating feeling of writing about what you know, your own truths, and making sure you’re hitting the nuances of what makes your world what it is. Something that a white male writer with little understanding of the culture, no matter how talented he is, could not have brought to the film in the way that Adele, as a Malaysian-born writer, was able to. 

Crazy Rich Asians had a solid opening weekend in 2018 at $26.5 million, but the amazing thing is that in its second weekend it grossed a total of $24.8 million which is an infinitesimal 6.4% drop which is basically unheard of, especially when most blockbusters fall by 40 to 60% in their second week. 

It’s clear that viewers want shows and films that authentically look like their lives – with diverse characters and stories. There is a want for it, there is a need for it.

“The experience of living in the skin of those characters cannot be replaced by a writing course”

On top of holding diversity and representation to a high importance, Adele’s session also showed how key it is for minority writers to know their worth and stand their ground as she did when she walked away from being a part of the Crazy Rich Asians sequel. Adele did not feel that the pay offered to her, which was a fraction of the pay offered to her white male co-writer, was not equitable. Adele walked away from the film and told us that she knew her experience and worth as a writer was far beyond what was offered to her.

The brilliance of this session was seeing Adele’s voice and presence bring forth delegates, who have not engaged with the content at LSF before, expressing exactly how validating it is to see and listen to what she had to say about the industry and her experience within it. 

Adele highlighted the barriers facing minority writers but also gave us hope that change can be made. If you are not accustomed to never seeing yourself represented, it is difficult to explain exactly how validating it can feel when you finally are. 

To many, Adele’s success is the validation they need to continue writing their stories because it is proof that their voice as a writer is just as needed and should be treated as such.

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