This week Amazon Studios finally announced (most of) the cast for their blockbuster Lord of the Rings prequel series. The cast is a lot of unknowns, a couple Game of Thrones veterans, and mostly young actors.
Some people are upset that the cast seems to be more like a teenage melodrama than a high fantasy series, though we don’t know what characters the young actors are playing, how old they are supposed to be, or what they will look like in full costume and makeup.
Some people are upset that some of the cast are “fatties” (none of the cast are “fatties”), as if in a fantasy world of talking dragons, magic rings, and half a dozen species of humanoids, that everyone must necessarily be of an ideal height and weight.
But most of the criticism from the Trollshaws of the internet is that there are non-white actors in the cast. Seriously. Of the 15 cast members announced, one is Persian, one is Puerto Rican, one is African-Persian, and none of them have particularly dark skin. Although complaints about diversity in Hollywood are not new and are self-evidently pathetic, the detailed lore of Tolkien’s world gives artificial cover for these kind of arguments, so a specific rebuttal is required here.
Tolkien was very specific about the geography and demographics of Middle-earth and its inhabitants. Although we don’t yet know exactly who will be portrayed in the Amazon series, most have assumed based on official maps that the story will focus on the Second Age and its conflicts between Elves, Men (and women) of Numenor, and Sauron’s corruption and manipulation of the latter to its downfall. (No Hobbits this time – sorry.)
The Numenoreans are a line of men descended from the Edain, the first men in Middle-earth and since-sundered Beleriand. In The Silmarillion, the Edain are never physically described, though they are said to have been “a mingled people” not long after they were first discovered by the elves. In The Peoples of Middle-earth, the First House of the Edain was described as having a range of skin colors from “fair to swarthy.” None of the other Houses of Men in the First and Second Age are physically described except their hair and eyes.
Some of the comments about the race of the actors tried to qualify their critiques by saying it would be fine if they played Haradrim or one of the other “exotic” races of Men found in Tolkien’s lore. However, Haradrim, who are described as “swarthy” in The Two Towers (like some of the Edain), were descended from those very men who became the Edain. The only difference is the distance on the family tree and their habitat. There is no reason a person in Numenor couldn’t be just as dark as one in Harad.
So, to recap, we don’t know who any of the actors are playing, we know that Men of Middle-earth had a range of skin tones based on where they are from, and we know the people of Middle-earth moved around quite a lot of over the several thousand years of known “history” written in the various books, therefore it is entirely possible that almost anyone in the upcoming Prime Video series had any skin color imaginable.
So why do people rigidly fill in the blanks on the physical appearance of races and characters that aren’t specifically described? It may be natural to assume that a fictional character has traits that match the reader unless otherwise stated. But to loudly whine when a new visual depiction doesn’t match your imagined version with no textual basis? Kind of pathetic.
Even if all of Numenor were described as “pasty white”, why is it important to anyone that every actor portraying them is of European descent? Why is physical appearance more important than acting ability? Similar controversies have erupted over casting non-white actors in such serious literary adaptations as The Little Mermaid and Star Wars.
Although I’m unfamiliar with the source material and thus cannot provide the same level of rebuttal, the same critiques were leveled against the cast of The Witcher series on Netflix.
The ultimate example of diversity-over-fidelity casting is, of course, Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda, himself a Puerto Rican, cast the entire slate of Founding Fathers, from Washington to Jefferson with black and brown actors. Miranda did this to add an extra level of irony to his hip-hop musical about 18th Century slave-owners fighting for freedom and legacy. We all know the people being portrayed were very, very white, but we don’t care, because they are portrayed so masterfully, in the original cast by such legends as Christopher Jackson and Leslie Odom Jr.
Regardless of the reason a non-white actor is cast in a role, whether that role has traditionally been white or not, it doesn’t matter. If the diverse actors cast in Amazon’s Lord of the Rings do a good job portraying their characters, it shouldn’t matter what color the actor’s skin is. I don’t care if Elrond Half-elven of Rivendell son of Eärendil himself is played by an actor of color, as long as that actor inhabits the very essence of the character and chews scenery like a spoiled puppy.