On Fantasy, Shakespeare, and the Decline of the Attention Span | Entry 3
Entry III: On Rings of Power and the Fuss about Middle Earth’s Races
If you are not living under a rock, you probably heard something about Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power series. Why do I think you’ve heard of it? Mostly because of how much money Amazon spent making it. If their marketing efforts didn’t reach you, you may still have seen headlines about just how much money they were pouring into the project. At roughly $58 million in production costs per episode, it is the most expensive show ever made.
If you didn’t see the show, and you missed all the headlines about its production costs, maybe you saw something about the backlash that broke out against the show—and the actors themselves—when it was revealed that people of color were cast alongside white people in the roles of elves, dwarves, and hobbits. Maybe you heard that Amazon froze user reviews for three days in response to a flood of negative reviews to sort through how many of them were genuine. (The show’s rating on Rotten Tomatoes right now is 38% from the audience, though it received 83% from critics.) Despite the negative attention, though, 100 million people watched the show, and it got renewed for a second season.
So what’s with all the fuss? Why so much money? Why so much hate? What’s going on?
Well, the ‘so much money’ part is fairly easy to account for. After the smashing success of Game of Thrones, everybody’s been looking for the next hit fantasy series. What better candidate than something new from the world that started the genre—Tolkien’s Middle Earth? Especially considering how well Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies did at the box office? Such a venture is basically guaranteed to be successful, so why not pour all your money into it to make sure it becomes something able to hold all the attention it’s going to get? And if you’re Jeff Bezos, and you have more money than God to begin with, yeah, your spending on what you intend to become ‘the next big thing’ is going to smash records.
So why the hate? You may have seen headlines like “Rings of Power sparks racist backlash.” Now, the media has been known, on occasion, to jump to crying “racism” prematurely, or to apply it to motives that turn out to be more complex and arguable than headlines would have us believe. So, you might have been tempted to ask, as I was, “Was the backlash to the show really racist, though?” In this case, it must be admitted that racism did indeed play a role, and pretty obviously so. Some people expressed outrage over seeing actors of color in Tolkien’s world through online harassment, racial slurs, and threats directed at the actors of color in the cast. I want to take this moment to clearly condemn both racism and harassment, which should never be a part of our response to fantasy (or, indeed, anything).
That said, it’s not hard to imagine why non-racist Tolkien fans may also have been disappointed with the show (and maybe left some of the negative reviews). For starters, most of the story is completely made up, and a lot of it is incompatible with what Tolkien wrote (besides just the casting). When you realize that Amazon only bought the rights to appendices from The Return of the King, and not to any of the stories in The Silmarillion, this starts making sense—but I think most people didn’t realize Amazon’s rights were so limited and expected to see a much more faithful adaptation.
We can also imagine a non-racist critique of the casting in specific. Such an argument doesn’t even need to depend on the lack of faithfulness to Tolkien. The argument might run something like this: how did an elf, a dwarf, and a hobbit of color come to be living among fair-skinned elves, dwarves, and hobbits, respectively, at this early stage of Middle Earth’s history? Even if we expand Tolkien’s world to allow for elves, dwarves, and hobbits of darker complexions, we might reasonably expect folks with significantly different complexions to have evolved (or been created) separately from one another. When white people reproduce with one another in our world, the babies are white, so why would it work any differently for fair-skinned elves? If there is one elf with dark skin, doesn’t that mean there should be a whole group of dark-skinned elves somewhere, and wouldn’t the elf in question (or one of his ancestors) have to have come from wherever that is? And yet, Rings of Power makes no attempt to account for the origins of any of the characters of color; we are just asked to accept that they exist and that they live among fairer-skinned folk without any backstory necessary.
This approach to world-building is not only different from Tolkien’s; it is, in a word—according to this view—lazy. And if Tolkien’s world-building was anything, it wasn’t lazy.
Nevertheless, I will come to the show’s defense here. Given the enormous popularity of Middle Earth, and the fact that today’s audience for it is so much broader and more diverse than the one Tolkien might have thought he was writing for, I think the show did right to look beyond only white people in assembling its cast. I’m not saying Tolkien was racist or that Peter Jackson’s movies were racist for handling casting the way they did (though some people do say those things). What I am saying is that today, Middle Earth has an enormous fanbase, but some of those fans have felt a bit alienated from the material, like Middle Earth isn’t really meant for them or like they can’t really be true fans or participants in it—because it looks like Middle Earth is only for white people.
And sure, that’s the way Tolkien wrote it, but does it have to stay that way? Now that Middle Earth has become so special to America, can’t it adapt a little so all America can own and love it? Especially considering how the makers of Rings of Power are changing Tolkien’s story in so many other ways.
I am sad that the actors of color on the show have been subjected to so much harassment, and I am happy for them that they are getting to play roles that they wouldn’t have been eligible for when the Peter Jackson movies were made. I am especially happy for Ismael Cruz Córdova, who is fulfilling his lifelong dream of playing an elf. I, too, love Tolkien’s elves, and if I were given the great privilege of playing one in a billion-dollar production, I can’t imagine how devastating it would be to receive so much hate from the fans because they thought the color of my skin wasn’t right.
And as for the question of backstory, I get why the writers didn’t address it. Tolkien didn’t have any dark-complexioned elves or dwarves, so any attempt to account for them could only drive the story further from his original lore. Better to include actors of color while still centering the world around the racial dynamics Tolkien chose—elves, men, dwarves, etc.—rather than introduce fair/dark dynamics within each race and make a big deal out of them. So, I’m on board with the casting decisions.
But one question I do have for the industry at large is this: is this kind of random intermingling between dark and fair-complexioned folk the only responsible way to do fantasy? We’ll talk more about this—and take a look at how Shakespeare handled race—in our next entry.