Colourblind Casting

For discussion of Amazon's new television show "The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power"
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Re: Colourblind Casting

Post by narya »

Anduril wrote: Mon Feb 14, 2022 9:08 pm If Dwarves never get their skin tone mentioned then most likely it's not notable enough to distinguish them from generic western Men, let alone Elves.
I've had a similar complaint about The Expanse series - the authors go to great length to describe the shade of skin color for many of the characters, if that shade is "stained oak" or "almost black" or "bronzed", to let us know that their ancestries are not all from Western Europe. But for the rest of the characters, the skin tone is not mentioned. The unspoken assumption is that the characters are pale Caucasian and don't need to be described, because we (presumably Caucasian) readers will automatically default to that look in our heads. While it may have been true in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s that most of Tolkien's and other speculative fiction authors' readers were of north-western European extraction (and male), and visualized their characters looking like themselves, that cannot, and should not, be the assumption now.
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Re: Colourblind Casting

Post by Alatar »

I don't disagree with that Narya, but we're talking specifically about Tolkien here, and in that specific case, the assumption would be correct.
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Re: Colourblind Casting

Post by Voronwë the Faithful »

Here is a piece co-written by Dimitra Fimi (author of Tolkien, Race and Cultural History) and Mariana Rios (the scholar whose comments in the Vanity Fair piece that have generated so much controversy).

Lord of the Rings: debunking the backlash against non-white actors in Amazon’s new adaption
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Re: Colourblind Casting

Post by Anduril »

Pardon me for posting the response I originally wrote for another forum under a different username. Not enough energy right now to rewrite it substantially, to make it not obvious. Well, not like anyone cares...

And while it can't be overstated how this entire thing is irrelevant compared to current world events, consider this a break from worrying about that. I do. The indignation as a fan was a distraction from the pensive mood as a human being/Earthling these last few days.

Disclaimer, I had a text copy of the article while writing this, not the site itself, so if there's linked stuff in the body, I missed it.
But it is the diverse casting, which includes non-white actors playing an elf and a female dwarf, which has caused uproar
The readers with issues would point out it's the "diverse casting" of the non-human characters. If the humans are cast diversely, then they're supposed to be.
First, these are imaginary creatures which are not always clearly described in the original books

It's not clear if elves have pointy ears. But whenever he describes their skin tone across different subgroups, it's almost always pale or white. (He uses "fair" sometimes to mean this way, but more often uses it in the sense of beautiful, or sometimes "blonde".) A few are ruddy, like Fëanor's wife and father-in-law.
Still, there is some evidence of dark-skinned elves and hobbits in drafts of The Silmarillion and the prologue of The Lord of the Rings
For elves, it's literally just Maeglin who was ever explicitly described that way. The earliest version of "Meglin" from 1916-1917 was described as swart, so that the people of Gondolin thought he had orc blood, despite the elf narrator not knowing how this could be possible. Does this imply his father Eöl was also swart, or rather that the people of Gondolin knew his father wasn't, and did not think elves could even be swart, so somehow orcs must be in the picture? Is it just a rather on-the-nose way of making him the odd duck? The literally dark traitor? Anyway, this says nothing about "people of color vs Europeans", and is very early, and in the latest version that's found in the 1977 Silmarillion, Maeglin is pale.

Then concerning hobbits, Harfoots are browner of skin than Stoors and Fallohides. That doesn't have to mean dark-skinned in the sense a modern-day American would understand it. Sam is called brown, and the Southron man he sees is called brown, but he also calls them Swertings, so brown must be relative. Surely he is not as brown as these men from nearer or below the equator. Context is important.
In 2005 the Nigerian-British actor David Oyelowo was cast as Prometheus in the Greek tragedy, Prometheus Bound.
On stage. Standards are different, colorblind casting is not such an issue as it can become for movies and TV. And this isn't Ancient Greece.
This version of the play presented audiences with a black Prometheus in chains, bringing to mind images of slavery.

You know who had slaves? Sauron and the Numenoreans who fell to evil. Likely to surely, many of these slaves would have been "black" humans. Why not show that instead of tinkering with the elves, dwarves and hobbits?
...the face of evil in Middle-earth is invariably non-white/non-European

Invariably? Oversimplifying it. The world is Eurocentric by design yes, but what of it? The bad guys across all ages aren't only "non-Western", and the good guys are not only "Western'". True there are much less named characters who qualify in the latter case, but an adaptation can elaborate on what the lore already says without really changing existing things to the degree they have. The Second Age in particular could have been used to show the changing relations between "non-Europeans" and Numenoreans which have lasting repercussions into the Third and beyond. Not all of the men East and South followed Sauron. The Blue Wizards could have been in the picture much earlier, helping those men resist, etc.
Tolkien’s portrayal of the Orcs... and the men who ally themselves with Sauron... uses many stereotypes associated with orientalism and the language of prejudice often found in literature from the era of British imperialism
One can't assert that sort of thing without explaining. But we all read the books here, we all know about scimitars and slanted or squinting eyes etc. Yes, he was not a modern-day author, but he did not espouse hatred. Yes, in a sense Orcs are "Eastern" because they mirror threats from the East as seen through a European historical-cultural context, and someone has to be because it's baked into the Eurocentric medievalesque setting, but they don't feel very "Eastern". Basically just skin deep to show that they look different and are equipped differently. More attention is given to their symbolic? metaphysical? roles in the story as the minions of evil. They talk like regular grumpy old soldiers, grunts. Much the same can be said of the Eastern and Southern men, and they are depicted more sympathetically especially if one reads beyond LOTR. Yes, they don't have dialogue like orcs do, but an adaptation can give them that.
...but in the same letter also wrote that he wanted to leave space for “other minds and hands” to contribute to his mythology

He ends the oft-quoted passage with "Absurd", and years later he got hilariously mad at a guy who wanted to write or collaborate on a LOTR sequel, calling him a young ass and his stuff impertinent (in letter 292, to Joy Hill of Allen & Unwin).
The country has become a vibrant melting pot of which people of colour are very much a part.

Middle-earth isn't only reflective of "England". "People of colour" are very much a part of the setting across all ages. Just not as elves, dwarves and hobbits. Book fans would expect to see the stories of the Eastern and Southern men.
Why would an contemporary adaption not reflect that?
In a sense all creations are "contemporary". But as a setting, Middle-earth was never "contemporary", except the hobbits who are based on the rural England of his youth. All adaptations are "contemporary", but others did not feel the need to change certain things.
...the idea that people of colour were not part of Britain or Northern Europe in the ancient and medieval past is false. There is plenty of evidence of diversity in Roman Britain, for example.

One can't assert that sort of thing without explaining. But yes, not all Romans were "Italian", they encompassed people from all over the Empire, soldiers, traders, slaves etc. so some non-Europeans must have ended up in Britannia. But did they leave a mark in the sense that immigrants do? Like some Chinese forming insular communities, Chinatowns, in various places? Would they not have instead as a rule intermarried with the locals, adopted their culture (as did other Chinese immigrants in various other places, like my great-grandfather who went and lived elsewhere in Asia, and his adopted land is mine and none other), and in time would their descendants not be basically indistinguishable from the locals except through DNA testing or whatever? Much the same could be said of the medieval era. And weren't European insular communities in medieval times based on religion instead ? Like Jewish people in medieval England or Venice. Would they have looked more Middle Eastern like the remaining Jewish people in Palestine at the time, or more European?

Then what has this to do with dwarves, elves and hobbits? Men did the moving around across the greatest distances. Like in the First Age, the folk of Hador, Bëor, Haleth, Bor, Ulfang, etc. and thanks to Sauron etc. the migrations in later Ages before the War of the Ring were often hostile, like groups of Easterlings going to Gondor and ending up battling with the also migrating Eotheod.
As for the Vikings, they were not a homogenous or “pure” racial group (especially due to trade and raids).

...One can't assert that sort of thing without explaining. As in they were not all "white"? Would such exceptions not be extreme outliers?
More recently, films such as Thor... show figures of Norse mythology played by black actors Idris Elba and Tessa Thompson. Why should an adaption of Tolkien’s literary work not do the same?

Like perhaps because the Thor comics are a work of many hands, while Middle-earth is the work of one man? That Lee and Kirby did not initially set out to create a European-style mythical history but literally just transplanted a Norse god into the modern world in superhero format, complete with secret identity? That the mythical history, stories, world etc. and the man are what people admire and want to see reflected on screen?
...adaptations are products of their times and a re-envisioning of the original material they are based on

Always, and there are limits to what some fans will tolerate as "compatible". The Jackson movies already downplayed Aragorn being a kingly superhuman due to his Númenórean descent, made him more self-doubtful, downplayed the class-based nature of Frodo and Sam's relationship etc. In the end many still prefer the books.
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