The new Lord of the Rings prequel streaming on Amazon Prime represents the latest episode in a long-running series of criticism over racially diverse on-screen adaptations of literary works.
This controversy is nothing new.
Recall the criticism around casting Will Smith, an African American, as gunslinger James West (originally a white character) in The Wild West from the previous century (1999 to be exact). More recently, there have been raised eyebrows over the inclusion of people of color in the cast of the Amazon series The Wheel of Time and discussion over the appropriate race and gender for 007 in future James Bond films.
The most recent installment of this unfolding and, we feel, puzzling drama can be found in the wildly expensive fantasy series set in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional Middle-earth.
Is Harassment Over Casting Misplaced?
“The large cast of Amazon's heavily hyped ‘Lord of the Rings’ prequel series, ’The Rings of Power,’ includes a group of actors from different racial and ethnic backgrounds,” writes Kelly Lawler in an article for USA Today. “Last week's premiere has been accompanied by a small but vocal backlash online from viewers angry that the elves, dwarves, harfoots, and humans of the series include people of color. Actors on the show have been subjected to harassment and threats.”
Criticizing Diversity in a Make Believe World
Critics of the racially diverse casting argue that Tolkien’s setting of the main events in the Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Simarillion was meant to resemble Europe. That being said, the entire series is, of course, fantasy.
Can it truly be argued with a straight face that elves, dwarves, and harfoots should be cast as white because that’s how they “really” look?
To their credit, the cast of the earlier Lord of the Rings Trilogy have been vocal in their support of the diverse casting. It’s hard to say with any certainty where Tolkien himself would have fallen on the question of the appropriate race of the actors portraying his characters on screen. The author passed away in 1973. However, in an article for The Wrap on the subject, writer Jonathan Svetkey makes a compelling argument in favor of diverse portrayals of Tolkien’s story.
Leading the Way for Inclusion—and Diversity—No Matter the Setting
“I suspect Tolkien would be pretty ticked off at his would-be defenders on the right,” Svetkey says. “After all, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is about nothing if not different races — some with pointy ears, others with furry feet — working together to defeat a common evil enemy.”
These are interesting times we live in where controversy over inclusiveness arises even in relation to fictional beings that don’t exist! The popularity of the series and the controversy it elicits may offer a teachable moment for conversations around the importance of diversity, inclusion, and equity when dealing with decisions of all kinds—even the skin tone of the predecessors of hobbits.