Ethan Alter
October 17, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Armed with a pedigree cast (Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, and ”Sixth Sense” wunderkind Haley Joel Osment), and weighty subject matter (a boy from a broken home attempts to change the world by performing selfless acts), ”Pay It Forward” could become the first breakout tear jerker/ Oscar contender of the fall movie season. But the Warner Bros. film, adapted from Catherine Ryan Hyde’s 1999 novel of the same name, may also meet with some unexpected controversy when it opens Oct. 20.

At issue is the casting of Spacey in the role of Osment’s emotionally and physically scarred teacher, who in the novel is an African American. In a statement posted on her website, Hyde confirms that more than a few readers have written to her about the change. ”Many will object and I won’t say they are wrong to care,” the author writes. ”But if you ask me why I think this was done, the answer is easy. They cast Kevin Spacey because he’s Kevin Spacey. He’s a tremendous talent… and will bring a lot to the film.” Director Mimi Leder (”Deep Impact”) echoes Hyde’s sentiments: ”When I first read the script, there was no color indicated whatsoever. I read it and said, ‘Kevin Spacey would be great for this role!”’ Steven Reuther, one of the films producers, agrees: ”It was a color blind role. It wasn’t really essential to any of the emotional parts of the story that the character be black, white, Hispanic, or any other [race].”

This answer doesn’t satisfy everyone, however. In a letter published Oct. 1 in the Los Angeles Times, a fan of the novel questions the filmmakers’ decision, observing that there are a number of African American stars — Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, and Morgan Freeman, for instance — who could have played the role as it was originally written. In the book, the teacher is a scarred Vietnam vet who becomes romantically involved with the boy’s white, alcoholic mother; in the movie, the relationship is no longer interracial, and there’s a different explanation for the teacher’s facial scars.

According to Hyde, other readers have pointed out that Spacey’s presence means the issue of racial healing, which is an important theme of the novel, will be absent from the film version. ”I think it’s very sad that a novel that has been so well received had to change the color of a major character for the film version,” says Tanya Kersey-Henley, the publisher and editor in chief of the trade publication Black Talent News. ”It is a missed opportunity for a black actor losing a [major movie] role. It’s also a missed opportunity to portray a positive black male character who makes a contribution to our children.”

Complicating matters further is the fact that the only African American character with extensive screen time is a gangsta style thief named Sidney (David Ramsey). While the filmmakers argue that he is not an entirely negative figure — Sidney saves the life of a stranger, albeit by intimidating unarmed bystanders with a loaded gun — Kersey-Henley finds it problematic that, because of Spacey’s casting, there is no longer a positive black role to balance the more dubious Sidney.

As for the author herself, Hyde tells that she will miss the original character she created, but is very happy with the film adaptation, particularly Spacey’s performance. ”I’ve had a wave of readers who write to say that they adore Kevin Spacey, that he will bring a great deal to the film, and it doesn’t matter what color he is because the whole point of my book is that color doesn’t matter. The numbers of those letters are growing, so I think some people just needed time to adjust to the change.”

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