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Guess Who’s Coming to Mordor

Emilia Clarke does not have purple eyes. Her character in HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” Daenerys Targaryen, is described in the source novel by George R.R. Martin as having “violet” eyes, a distinctive feature of her family. The producers decided against using colored contact lenses. Somehow, millions of viewers were able to suspend disbelief.

HBO’s prequel series, “House of the Dragon,” is full of Targaryens and other nobles hailing from their home region of Valyria. Again, there has been no particular outcry about the dearth of purple peepers.

The outrage has been reserved, among a loud subset of fans, for the casting of Steve Toussaint, a Black actor, as the wealthy Valyrian Lord Corlys Velaryon. This, Toussaint says, brought him blowback from viewers who see his appearance as a betrayal of the source material.

You can probably guess the reason for the different reaction. If not, see also the attacks on Disney’s upcoming remake of “The Little Mermaid,” starring the Black singer and actress Halle Bailey. Using the hashtags #notmyariel and #gowokegobroke, social-media users have denounced the new depiction of Ariel, whom they apparently found more plausible as a red-haired, white cartoon serenaded by a crab.

The screams have been especially loud over the diverse casting of Amazon’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” which — unlike the lily-white Peter Jackson movies — cast actors of color as elves and dwarves, humans and diminutive Harfoots. For weeks, disgruntled viewers have swarmed the series’s review pages, published disdainful thinkpieces and even made threats.

The sudden interest in the ethnic integrity of dragonriders, elves and fish women is part of a broader reaction in pop culture against inclusive casting of stories that were once largely white, from “Star Wars” to “Bridgerton.”

You could explain this in one word — racism — and that would get you a long way. (There is, in the “Rings” discourse, a lot of pejorative use of “woke” as adjective, noun and euphemism.) Many fantasy culture warriors, on the other hand, insist that they are simply defending authorial intent.

Explore the World of the ‘Lord of the Rings’

The literary universe built by J.R.R. Tolkien, now adapted into a new series for Amazon Prime Video, has inspired generations of readers and viewers.

  • Artist and Scholar: Tolkien did more than write books. He invented an alternate reality, complete with its own geography, languages and history.
  • Being Frodo: The actor Elijah Wood explains why he’ll never be upset at being associated with the “Lord of the Rings” movie series.
  •  A Soviet Take: A 1991 production based on Tolkien’s novels, recently digitized by a Russian broadcaster, is a time capsule of a bygone era.
  •  From the Archives: Read what W.H. Auden wrote about “The Fellowship of the Ring,” the first volume of Tolkien’s trilogy, in 1954.

In their view, J.R.R. Tolkien created a specific world and narrative, rooted in northern European mythology, whose themes are undercut by casting an adaptation to look like multicultural 21st-century society. “Diversity isn’t a bad thing by itself,” Brandon Morse wrote in Red State, “but when it becomes a major focus it means the story is being shoved further back in terms of importance.”

You would think that a society that was fine with depicting the Middle Eastern Jew Jesus of Nazareth as a flaxen-haired white European would be a little more flexible. At minimum, it’s suffocatingly literalistic to argue that Tolkien’s themes can’t survive casting a Black actress as a dwarf princess.

Steve Toussaint plays Lord Corlys Velaryon in “House of the Dragon,” which has seen blowback from viewers who see his appearance as a betrayal of the source material by George R.R. Martin.Credit…Gary Moyes/HBO

Shakespeare also based his works on European history and geography. Yet his plays have been race- and gender-bent every which way and thrived. If we want to treat fantasy as literature, then it should be able to tolerate reimagining.

(Also — and here I must break out my nerd license — all this leaves aside the fact that Tolkien himself described the Harfoots, the proto-hobbits of “The Rings of Power,” as dark-complected. And while Tolkien has described some characters as pale, his physical descriptions are often so minimal that fans and scholars disagree about whether he even intended elves to have pointy ears, a detail only hinted at in his marginalia.)

Now you could argue that the eye color of a fictional human is a minor detail whereas fidelity to the skin color of a fictional elf is essential. You’d sound ridiculous, but you would be on to something.

In the actual, nonfantasy world in which you and I live, the color of people’s skin does matter more. It has been the dividing line between star and sidekick. It has meant that some kids get to see countless heroes who look like them in fantasy, sci-fi and superhero stories, and others don’t.

The critics of “The Rings of Power” argue that its casting introduces social-justice politics into Tolkien’s world. But the series’s story doesn’t engage contemporary or historical racial issues. No one in Middle-earth is experiencing the effects of British colonialism or Jim Crow restrictions.

No, the real issue is that the casting is addressing a problem in our world, the real world of hiring decisions and increasingly diverse audiences. As Adam Serwer wrote in The Atlantic, campaigns against diverse casting “are not about the integrity of the art, but about who gets to see themselves in it.”

Can you change the meaning of a story by changing the race of the characters? Of course. Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” includes actors of color among Gilead’s ruling theocracy and its subjugated handmaids. This gives it a more diverse cast, but it elides the Margaret Atwood book’s depiction of Gilead as a racist society (which “resettled” the “Children of Ham”). In AMC’s new “Interview With the Vampire,” the undead Louis de Pointe du Lac (Jacob Anderson) — played by Brad Pitt in the 1994 film — is no longer a slavery-era plantation owner but a Black Creole brothel owner, whose race makes a salient plot element in the new setting of early 20th-century New Orleans.

But those stories take place on our Earth, in an imaginary future or past. In Tolkien’s and Martin’s worlds, race doesn’t function as it does in ours. When Tolkien uses the term “race,” he means something like “species” — humans, elves, dwarves et al. Skin color simply doesn’t matter in the same way. (To the extent that Tolkien’s work does recall real-world racial language, as with the swarthy “Easterlings” and “Southrons” who ally with the evil Sauron, it isn’t a high point.)

From left, Thusitha Jayasundera, Lenny Henry and Sara Zwangobani play Harfoots, proto-hobbits who are described by J.R.R. Tolkien as having dark complexions.Credit…Ben Rothstein/Amazon Prime Video

There are plenty of legitimate, nonbigoted grounds to criticize “Rings.” But ultimately the casting complaint is just one more entry in the eternal index of culture-war gripes. (See also “Christmas, the war on” and “Female Ghostbusters, my childhood memories and.”) Like certain odious political rhetoric, it is not-too-subtly about preserving perceived white spaces — the specter of “replacement,” or as the right-wing commentator Matt Walsh put it, “white erasure.”

Erasure from what, though? It isn’t exactly hard to find white stars onscreen, even in “The Rings of Power.” What these viewers are losing is the feeling of centrality, the comfortable assumption that they and people like them should be the protagonists in the larger story.

In this view, getting actors of color to play mythical beings who used to be portrayed as white is one more reminder that whiteness, in the real world, is no longer the unexamined cultural default.

That said, diversity in casting isn’t the same thing as diversity in storytelling. As the conservative purists note, Tolkien and Martin’s stories — like “The Witcher,” “Harry Potter” and many other big-budget fantasies — remain largely based on European models. (Amazon’s “The Wheel of Time,” with its elements of eastern philosophy, is a partial exception, but still within the familiar bounds of high fantasy.)

So when you cast something like “The Rings of Power” colorblind, yes, you’re making progress on hiring, but you’re also simply fitting different faces into the same monocultural frame. You’re changing up who gets to play the wizards, lords and ladies, while Hollywood spends billions depicting the same small fraction of global mythology and lore.

There’s much more to fantasy than that. The author Marlon James, for instance, has described his Dark Star trilogy-in-process as an “African ‘Game of Thrones.’” It’s an intoxicating, twisty thriller of quests and royal intrigue, filled with witches, shape-shifters, bush fairies and vampire lightning birds, with a sprawling geography of mysterious wild lands and floating cities.

It’s the kind of story that could dazzle on the screen, if it ever makes it to one. (James has said that an adaptation project, produced by Michael B. Jordan of “Black Panther,” is still in “the very preliminary stage.”) And there’s a whole globe of magical traditions beyond the usual variations on medieval Europe.

Fantasy, after all, is meant to expand the world, not make it smaller. It would be better — for storytellers, for performers and above all for viewers — if this ever-more-popular genre realized its potential to show that dreams come in every imaginable color.

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