Diversity Casting & the LOTR movies

Recently I read am interesting criticism of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien movies - the writer was amazed that the films, made after the year 2000 as they said, were cast with all white actors.
I had honestly never given this much thought . Either because my white privilege is showing, or because the look of the movies matched up with the look of the books in my mind so well.
Anyway, fellow Dopers, do you think this all-white casting was a bad thing? (didn’t seem to hurt box-office world wide.) If the books got a ‘reboot’, were filmed again by someone else, do you think the cast would be more ethnically/racially diverse? Should it be?

Especially jarring now that we know hobbits were from Indonesia.

“Hobbits” are from a place called “Shire” which is in a larger place called “Middle Earth.” Since Tolkien describes them as being two-to-four feet tall, the characters in the movie already didn’t match up with their look in my mind.* I also don’t think Tolkien ever described them as looking like white folks, either.

In other words, maybe all-white casting wasn’t “bad” but neither was it necessary for the story.

*In all honesty I imagined Hobbits to be a cross somewhere between garden gnomes and Ewoks.

I enjoyed the movies, but IMO it was yet another missed opportunity to show that ethnicity doesn’t have to be terribly important to an actor’s ability to inhabit a role. There doesn’t need to be any more difference between a white and a black actor with regards to fantasy-world roles than there is between an Irish and a German actor.

IIRC, Frodo and most of the elves are described as pale in the book. Sam, on the other hand, is some shade of brownish.

I think it’s a sign of western culture that we think of white people as the default “normal” even in situations like fantasy or science fiction where there’s no reason to do so.

I don’t think it’s as common in other cultures which are widely exposed to western (especially American) entertainment. People in Asia or Africa are used to seeing movies and television where the cast has a different skin color in a way that western audiences are not.

And yet I’ve never seen a (for instance) Chinese, Japanese, HK, or South Korean film that makes sure that they cast caucasians and blacks for roles in their historical dramas.

I’d be interested to know if Jackson or anyone else involved has ever addressed the question directly. But I suspect that the answer is that they were trying to make the movies as “authentic” as possible, in the sense of matching up with the way generations of readers had pictured them (and artists had illustrated them). And we’ve pictured all the characters as “white” because Middle Earth is so steeped in European-style folklore and tradition.

There is a reason to do so here: It’s set in a pseudo-European medieval milieu with a strong Nordic mythological influence to aspects of the world.

I’m not saying that it couldn’t have had a black, Asian, Indian, etc actor in it or that there were zero non-lily white people ever stepping foot in medieval northern Europe but defaulting to “white” for the cast isn’t completely arbitrary either.

The Haradrim oliphant driver looked decidedly non-white. Of course, that might be even worse if the only non-whites were bad guys…

That about covers it. There aren’t many characters that could plausibly be played by non-white actors without throwing a monkey wrench into Tolkien’s cosmology. The Istari could since they’re not mortal beings, but the trope of “wizard = gray-bearded old white guy in a robe” is so engrained in pop culture that it would have felt off. Ghan-Buri-Ghan could have if he’d been in the movie, and perhaps the Mouth of Sauron. The dwarves could have been dark-skinned, since their culture and language is meant to be vaguely Semitic, but again, “gruff bearded Scottish guy” is the way people imagine dwarves in pop culture.

Do you feel The Lord of the Rings was a historical drama? That the reason the cast of the trilogy was all white was because that reflected the historical races of Middle Earth?

I do.

It’s not even “pseudo-European.” It’s meant to be actual Europe, some six thousand years before recorded history. One of the conceits behind the book is that it wasn’t authored by Tolkien, but translated by him, from a very old copy of The Red Book of Westmarch, the account written by Bilbo and finished by Frodo, that he acquired at some point in the 20th century.

Note quite a few Maori played minor roles and extras (and orcs…).

I love me some Tolkien, but his politics is jacked. You’ve got the civilized European paleskins versus the savage dark-skinned races like the uruk-hai and the goblins. You’ve got the hereditary monarchy as the saviors. You’ve got the Chosen One syndrome.

So the fact that Jackson let non-white people play the roles of the savage races doesn’t exactly endear me to the movies. I mean, I love the movies, but they sure didn’t unjack the politics.

Rather than re-film them, though, I’d like to let them stand, and instead get some films of some non-European fantasy. Get some NK Jemisin on the screen, or some Minister Faust, or some Kai Ashante Wilson, or some Octavia Butler, or some Ken Liu. There is plenty of mindblowing fantasy being written that doesn’t depend on a European fantasy world.

So far as I remember, Tolkien doesn’t describe Orcs (or goblins) as being “black” or dark-skinned. They use the “Black Speech”, but that’s because it’s developed by Morgoth, a name with literally means “Black Foe” (Morgoth Bauglir actually, or, if you prefer, Moringotho (Q); thank-you, Fëanor). Not shockingly, for Tolkien, evil = black and good = white, a relationship that has nothing to do with “whites” and “negros” so far as I know, but rather with darkness and light.

Now, if you want to rail about the dark-skinned people of Haradwaith, or worse, Khand, be my guest. Yeah, he wasn’t particularly liberal in his opinions of peoples from places like Africa…

In fairness*, the one time he directly describes an Easterner, it’s Sam sympathetically regarding a dead soldier. While the setting unfortunately plays well into a “swarthy hordes invading Europe” narrative, he’s never actually disdainful or insulting to the human minions of Sauron, who don’t have any real choice in their lot.

And, of course, there is the matter of his letter regarding the potential publication of The Hobbit in Nazi Germany:

Plus, he helped Rip Hunter, Time Master, and Citizen Steel find the Tomb of Sir Gawaine before the Legion of Doom.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a righteous dude.

Well, maybe a little sexist.


Tolkien was literally trying to create a mythology for England – and using Germanic myths and legends to do so (e.g., Túrin’s story). He talks about this in the Letters. Heck, the Rohirrim actually speak Old English. So, I’d expect the LotR characters to look… English. It would be jarring if they’d cast the movie like Hamilton.

I think the look of the movies matches what Tolkien had in mind, which is the important thing. I don’t think it was a bad thing, and would not look forward to a reboot that gave us a black Sam, Hispanic Pippin, Native American Gandalf, and wheelchair-bound Polynesian Legolas.

Personally I find the Disney/Marvel Comics approach of having one and only one token black guy in a minor role in every movie to be a lot more problematic than having an all-white case. Casting should follow setting and logic. If a movie is set among the Norse Gods, an all-white cast is reasonable. If it’s set in modern-day California, a racially diverse cast is reasonable.