Tired of the Rings
A Tale by Jeremy Grigson.
Warning: Opinions ahead.
I made a bit of a mistake these past few days. While I have steered clear of the shitstorm that is Twitter for what must be over half a year now, I’ve had an unfortunate relapse and delved into the darkest depths of YouTube and watched a number of videos on a topic that has, in the past few days, become prominent in the Lord of the Rings community. Time to let off a little bit of steam to get it out of my system.
Some of you may be aware that Amazon has finally released the first look at their attempt at bringing Middle-earth to the silver screen, with an expected reaction of mixed reviews from netizens around the world (mainly the US). Initial reactions were probably not too bad; it’d be difficult to be negative about some simple shots of characters’ hands, but of course people were able to make something out of it and addressed the controversial coloured oliphaunt in the room.
I won’t go into specific details as to what problems many people have with the show, but I will provide a list with a very brief explanation of the issues that have been raised to get things started.
- Galadriel in armour. ‘Galadriel, Warrior Princess’ as she is mockingly called. This apparently goes against her character in the books and the description of her character as ‘young’ and ‘brash’ doesn’t make much sense considering she is already thousands of years old at this point. Her back story has also been changed for no apparent reason.
- A black elf. Elves are very clearly described as tall, fair skinned with long, flowing hair. What they’ve given is the opposite of this.
- Elrond has short hair and is described as a politician. Similar to the above, Elrond has short hair and his personality does not match that which is given in the books.
- A black, female dwarf with no beard. Male and female dwarves are so similar to be extremely difficult to discern and must have a beard. Dwarves are based on European mythology and therefore you should not be dark-skinned.
A very petty list of things to complain about, I am sure many people may think, including myself. But for many others, it is not the actual changes themselves, but what they represent. The show isn’t out for another 7 months and already Amazon have shown what many consider a complete disregard for the source material and concern over what fans of the books may think, palming them off as racists and misogynists. It is interesting to note that before the first look and trailer was released, they already commented on subject of ‘trolls’, ready to bark back before anything was even said and done. Effectively, Amazon are using the show as a means to attack those who they deem ‘racist’ but actually aren’t and to propagate their political agenda onto the world, or so the argument goes…
Yes, it appears that, to the surprise of no-one, Amazon has cast some black actors in this show. This, again unsurprisingly, has created quite the discord online and has even caused me to have a few conversations with myself (literally) to go over some of the arguments from both sides. It would be fair of me to say that I am more in one camp than the other for one reason alone: it’s the only one with a valid argument for its case. But I’ll spoil the ending here and write that ultimately I could not care less anymore.
Fantasy seems to have a very odd relationship with ‘diversity’. I could be wrong, but it seems to be the only genre that ever gets brought into online spats about it. I can’t think of any other genre that causes these types of arguments and gets the fan bases so riled up, and in a world now that seems increasingly divided, the fantasy genre is used a way of gaining brownie points to that very small minority of people who actively demand it. I think the main issue ultimately comes down to immersion, which I will touch on again later. Specifically for the Lord of the Rings, the question ‘How do we make sure the characters in this show are as diverse as possible?’ shouldn’t even be asked. It’s very simple: the question should be, ‘How do we make sure that we create something as close to Tolkien’s stories that have been loved for generations?’ I should add here that according to the Vanity Fair article, the ‘driving question’ behind this production was actually “Can we come up with the novel Tolkien never wrote and do it as the mega-event series that could only happen now?” Whoever came up with that question deserves the sack.
This could and probably should be applied to any adaptation. Why else would anyone make an adaptation if not to create something that accurately reflects the source material that people so obviously enjoy? Ah, money. I always forget that’s my answer to these types of questions. Of course it’s all about money – a subject that is often brought up around this show, it being the ‘most expensive’ show ever created. But wait. You’d think that with such a big budget they would opt for the safest course, so that doesn’t make sense… I actually can’t think of an answer to that other than to purposefully destroy something. But it can’t be that, right? Right? Amazon have done something that they were so aware would result in backlash, that they full-on addressed it in the Vanity Fair interview that was published a few days’ ago. I think there is argument to be had that it also creates discussion around the show or movie, albeit not in a good way, but any publicity is good, right?
In principle, I don’t have anything against casting people of different races or sexes to play a role that is traditionally not their own. Theatre does a very good job of this, and I think that’s because it has a lot more flexibility and fun to it. I’ll admit I am not a big theatre-goer, but I never get the impression that they are trying to create the same level of immersion in their plays such as they try to make in TV shows and movies, particularly with fantasy. The whole idea of fantasy is that it is not this world, so applying real, modern-day politics and diversity (for the sake of it) is nonsensical and creates only anguish in the core fan base. They go so far to make the world as realistic as possible, but then take it further that it becomes ultimately unbelievable and skewered with red flags.
Continuing on the topic of immersion, I wanted to highlight that I have read and listened to people say they would like to see a female Gandalf, for example. While there is nothing wrong with having a female wizard (or witch if you prefer), the idea of a female Gandalf would destroy whatever immersion or believability the show is trying to create, because they have changed something loved and well-established for no reason whatsoever. You wouldn’t think ‘Oh, there’s Gandalf!’ you would think ‘Oh. A female Gandalf?’ Why do we have to make a female Gandalf? There are plenty of other fantasy stories out there that have prominent female magic users that are perfectly good in their own right. The idea that there has to be a female character in a story to engage with a female audience I’d say is a bit offensive really. Is that true? While my separation of the two may seem arbitrary, if they wanted to cast a woman as Gandalf or a black actor as Frodo in a stage play, I would have zero problem with that. Go for it! It’s much easier to shake things up a bit in theatre and it actually adds to the entertainment in many ways.
It’s sad. This discord is now so prevalent in the topic of fantasy shows, that I find it impossible to watch any now without internally commenting that whenever I see a character of some other ethnicity in a world that they ‘should not be in’, that they have been placed there purely to reach a quota. I don’t want to think this way at all, but it’s become such a recurring theme that even if I am not involved in any discussions that may exist around it, I can’t help but think any other way. I’ve had this with probably every fantasy show I’ve watched: (I’ve also found that they’re all pretty bad, but that’s an entirely different topic.) However, my level of caring does depend on how close I am to the original material. Without trying to confuse, I also think that it’s perfectly fine to have people of different races in fantasy shows, even if they are set in the well-worn medieval European setting as long as it makes sense with the construct of the world in which the show is set.
And that’s the real crux of the issue. It seems that those who support such changes to a well-established story, find that anyone who disagrees with that notion are automatically racists. It’s a very sad and simple way of looking at it. If I were asked ‘Do you think black elves should be introduced into Middle-earth?’ I would probably say ‘No.’ Does that mean that I am a racist? No, it does not. Does it mean that I am against the idea of black elves in general? Again, no. I personally would just like to see Tolkien’s world on screen, which is not something that Amazon are making. In fact, it’s probably impossible to create what Tolkien envisaged, which begs the question, why bother? Ah, now that I can answer with money. People on the other side of the argument will argue with things like ‘Well, Tolkien never explicitly described elves as having white skin and long hair’. This is a very weak argument, as the only elves he did describe had white skin and long hair, and therefore I think it’s safe to assume that this was the theme he was going with, which in itself is not inherently bad and should not be seen as such.
Evidently they aren’t meeting a lot of ‘fans” expectations. So much so, that as soon as the Rings of Power trailer was uploaded to YouTube, it was flooded with comments ostensibly quoting Tolkien himself in various languages:
Evil cannot create anything new, they can only corrupt and ruin what good forces have invented or made.
Tolkien didn’t actually write this and I am not totally sure where it came from, but the closest is something that Frodo said to Sam in Mordor:
The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own.
While this is different to what is being thrown around online, the message is still essentially the same and I can see the connection that everyone posting it is trying to make and a big part of me agrees with that message, just perhaps not for the same reasons.
I believe that it’s great that many TV shows and movies provide more opportunities for other ethnicities to shine, but I feel it could be done so much better than it is even now, which in my opinion is more lazy than anything else. The way to do that is not to take something famous and throw in some other ethnicities for no other reason than to check some boxes, but to look into the cultures of those ethnicities and produce well-funded and thought-out adaptations of those works for everyone to enjoy. You don’t have to be black to enjoy an all-black cast TV show and the same applies to any other ethnicity. Do people grumble that they are not properly represented in Chinese martial art films or Japanese horror movies? I highly doubt it. If anything, people are up in arms when those stories are taken and ‘white washed’, which ironically is what we’re talking about now, but the reverse and to a much lesser degree. I’m more for countries to recreate a film entirely in its own image as opposed to shoe-horning in a particular race just for the sake of it, but that in itself is not something I particularly appreciate either; I’d much prefer to watch the original cuz I is lyk well cultured n shit.
The discussion goes much, much wider when we look at franchises that have been destroyed by large corporations, but for the purpose of keeping this as short as possible, I will stick to The Lord of The Rings Amazon show. There are a multitude of other references I could bring up surrounding LOTR and representation, but let’s keep it simple.
Representation is not limited to an actor’s ethnicity. Next on that list is women. Tolkien’s works have often been criticised for their lack of female characters, but I think that’s a very unfair critique to make on a book that is 90 years’ old and whose author is long dead and can’t defend himself on these types of questions. Apparently ‘It was a different time back then’ isn’t a good enough excuse. Why not? I have no idea, but to be honest, it’s not even a very good argument on its own anyway. The real question to me is ‘Why does it matter?’ That’s just how the fantasy world was laid out. Yes, you could argue that perhaps Tolkien didn’t want prominent female roles in his stories, but I think that’s rubbish. There are strong female characters, but there doesn’t even have to be. You can have a perfectly good story of all-male characters (which, just as a note, LOTR is not) without it being an issue and it shouldn’t be criticised purely on the basis that there aren’t ‘enough’ strong female characters. How much is enough? How you do you quantify that? It’s ultimately down to the author and when we look at what the world was like 90 years ago, it isn’t really a surprise that there aren’t that many female characters in his books but that doesn’t make it any less a great story. I think it’s valid to point it out, but that’s really as far as you can go; you can’t change something that is.
And that’s exactly what it is, a story. It should be taken at face value and appreciated for what it is, not warped into something that it isn’t. Let’s flip the script a bit here and consider what the ramifications would be if we took an African legend and treated it the same way. If an American movie studio decided to take the mythology of an African country and mix up some of the cast and throw in some white people without any context whatsoever, it would cause an outrage. Criticism would be understandable. Why is it then that the same type of criticism to something that was created by a white man as a mythology ‘for England’ should not carry the same weight? I am not going to give my answer to that here, but I feel it’s a valid question in the context of this discussion.
Before I go too far off on a tangent, I’ll bring it back to Galadriel as right now she is the only prominent female character currently introduced that everyone knows (the others are characters created for the show, which I will not discuss here). As we’ve already briefly seen, Galadriel is now portrayed as a strong female warrior, in very stark contrast to the character played by Cate Blanchett in Peter Jackson’s LOTR trilogy. I am not wholly against this. Many people probably mistake Galadriel as a very demure character, when she’s actually the strongest being that remains in Middle-earth at the end of the Third Age (i.e. the end of the movie trilogy) and based on some of Tolkien’s writings it is reasonable to assume that she probably did get involved in a lot of fighting in the pursuit of gaining her own kingdom to rule. The history of the character shows her as ambitious and I think it’s a good idea to use her as the anchor for the show, especially considering she’s one of the few characters from that Age that regular viewers will recognise from the movies. Some people have issue with this as it may have been done at the detriment of male characters such as Elrond, but I think that’s thinking a bit too far into things.
The reality is that Amazon is not creating something with the intention of sticking to what Tolkien wrote and I think that’s clear and cannot be argued. This show will not be what Tolkien fans want it to be; it might even be impossible to make what they want, and to me, that’s fine. The books will always exist. The text is out there and accessible to anyone who cares enough. To those who don’t care, this will be another fantasy to add to their watchlist that they will probably enjoy. That’s the audience that Amazon are going for and I wouldn’t be surprised either way if it’s a success or not. I personally have a very simple view of what I would like adaptations of Tolkien’s work to be like, which you can see in the image below:
The show could be good, by which I mean entertaining, which is the ultimate goal of creating a TV show and I accept that. Anyone who thought that this was going to be a page for page adaptation of Tolkien’s works was kidding themselves from the start; it was never going to happen. It’s so easy to be negative; we’ve seen it time and time again with large, ardent audiences that go wild for the thing that they love to an extreme level, hence fanatic. And exactly like those franchises such as Star Wars and the like, The Lord of The Rings simply is not what it once was, which was a book written by an old man who loved mythology and languages. It has become a multi-billion dollar industry that has been stretched, warped, beaten and moulded into something that is far apart from what I personally love and not just by large corporations, but also by the so-called fans as well. So perhaps some of the arguments as to why there shouldn’t be coloured actors or more female characters no longer apply.
Anyway, I don’t want to write any more on this for now. I think I’ve dumped enough of my thoughts into this for me rest. I will more than likely watch the show. The idea of not watching it purely for some of the reasons that a lot of people are arguing about I feel is not justified. The only reason I wouldn’t watch it is if I am just not interested in it and I feel my interest will wane as these arguments continue and ‘fans’ on either side persist with this war. I will try and steer clear of those types of discussions at least, and attempt to enjoy it just for what it is, which will probably be an OK TV show. While I’d rather it just didn’t exist, what does my opinion really matter?
In other, much less important news, an invasion by Russia into Ukraine is supposedly imminent and the state of emergency in Canada over COVID-19 restrictions rages on, affecting many Canadians’ lives.
Thanks for reading.