The Rings of Power Controversy: Why Some Viewers Are Upset About Race and Gender in This Fantasy Series

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The most expensive (and anticipated!) TV show of all time is finally here, but instead of endless praise, The Rings of Power is facing endless trolling

scene from Rings of powervia amazon.com

When the new TV series The Rings of Power was first announced in 2017, it made major headlines as the most expensive Amazon Prime Video TV show—the most expensive TV show ever created, for that matter. Based on the Lord of the Rings books by J.R.R. Tolkien, the series seemed like a slam-dunk for the streamer. The novels are considered some of the best fantasy books of all time, and the film trilogy ranks among the best movies of all time. Amazon snapped up the rights for a cool $250 million. It gave the series a five-season commitment, which means it will eventually cost at least $1 billion—yes, billion—to make.

But ever since The Rings of Power‘s Sept. 1 release, it’s been making headlines for another reason: Thousands of so-called Tolkien fans have bombarded the internet with racist and misogynistic complaints. On the other side of the spectrum are the fans embracing it—25 million viewers tuned in to the series premiere, and many are calling it one of the best TV shows on air right now.

And the studio stands with them, releasing a statement that denounced the racist complaints: “We, the cast of Rings of Power, stand together in absolute solidarity and against the relentless racism, threats, harassment and abuse some of our castmates of color are being subjected to on a daily basis. We refuse to ignore it or tolerate it.” Want to learn more about The Rings of Power controversy before tuning in? Read on for all the details, then check out these other bestselling books behind TV shows.

What is The Rings of Power based on?

More than two decades after Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring wowed audiences with the breadth of Tolkien’s imagination, and a decade after the prequel, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, released in theaters, The Rings of Power hits small screens to give fans a taste of what happened before Frodo’s fateful trip to Mordor.

The show is roughly based on people and events mentioned in the Lord of the Rings book series and its appendixes. But it’s actually set thousands of years before The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It depicts the major historical events that took place during Middle-earth’s Second Age. That includes the rise of the Dark Lord Sauron, the forging of the Rings of Power and the fall of the human island kingdom of Numenor. It also covers the alliance between elves and men, who must stick together if they wish to defeat the forces of evil.

One of the main characters is the elven warrior Galadriel (played by Morfyyd Clark), who believes evil is coming back to Middle-earth. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because she appeared in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, portrayed by Cate Blanchett in the films. (Yep, elves have long lives.) You’ll hear a few other familiar names in the new series, including Elrond (played by Robert Aramayo in the show and Hugo Weaving in the films) and Isildur (played by Maxim Baldry in the show and Harry Sinclair in the films).

Plenty of characters in The Rings of Power have been created completely from scratch for the series—including the harfoots, who Tolkien briefly described as ancestors of the hobbits. Why include them? In an interview with Vanity Fair, showrunner Patrick McKay said, “Really, does it feel like Middle-earth if you don’t have hobbits or something like hobbits in it?”

How closely does the series stick to the source material?

Unlike the films The Fellowship of the Rings, The Two Towers and The Return of the King, The Rings of Power doesn’t follow a single book or plotline written by Tolkien. Instead, it pulls from the entire Lord of the Rings series, including the appendixes. The streaming service’s eight-episode first season focuses on events and people who were mentioned throughout the books, no matter how briefly.

In an interview with Vulture, McKay noted that he and showrunner JD Payne truly studied all Tolkien’s works to gain knowledge about historical events that happened in Middle-earth. Snippets from songs and tales of the past helped build The Rings of Power. Take, for instance, the story of the forging of the rings. The action happens ages before The Lord of the Rings, but characters like Gandalf tell the tale during the books.

Why are people upset about The Rings of Power?

Tolkien fans whose imagined version of Middle-earth puts white people front and center have taken issue with the show’s casting. They claim The Rings of Power is doing a disservice to the books, which Tolkien based on ancient European civilizations. As they see it, there wouldn’t be any people of color around during the era. Declaring showrunners McKay and Payne “Hollywood woke” for the diverse casting, detractors claim all characters should be white, just as they were in the films.

And many take issue with the fact that the female dwarf Princess Disa (played by Sophia Nomvete) doesn’t have a beard when the books say all dwarves—male and female—have beards. Many also chafe at the idea of women in lead roles. Even Tesla founder and pot-stirrer Elon Musk got in on the complaints, taking issue with the portrayal of men versus women in the show. “Tolkien is turning in his grave,” he tweeted on Sept. 5. “Almost every male character so far is a coward, a jerk or both. Only Galadriel is brave, smart and nice.”

These aren’t just benign groanings of internet trolls. They “review bombed” both Rotten Tomatoes and Amazon, posting negative reviews that had nothing to do with the show’s quality. (Amazon even suspended reviews for 72 hours to weed out trolls.) And they’ve inundated the cast’s diverse actors with racist tirades. Black actor Ismael Cruz Cordova, who plays a new elven character named Arondir, noted he’s been harassed by hateful direct messages related to his casting for two years.

Who has come to the show’s defense?

group of people from a scene in rings of powerCourtesy IMBD

The backlash to the Rings of Power backlash has been swift, with the show’s cast and crew supporting the diverse cast and Amazon backing them up. “We refuse to ignore it or tolerate it,” Amazon’s statement said of the harassment. It went on to add that the company’s “love and fellowship goes out to the fans supporting us, especially fans of color who are they themselves being attacked simply for existing in this fandom.”

Celebrities were quick to point out a key fact about The Rings of Power: It’s a fantasy show. The inclusion of people of color can’t be inaccurate because the entire world is fiction.

“They have trouble believing Black people could be hobbits,” said actor Lenny Henry, who plays a type of character known as a harfoot. He points out that these same viewers have no problem believing in things like elves, hobbits and, in the case of the fantasy show Game of Thrones, dragons.

On The View, Whoopi Goldberg made a similar point: “You know that? There are no dragons. There are no hobbits. Are you telling me Black people can’t be fake people too?” she said. She added that if anyone had problems because there are Black hobbits, they should “go find yourself, because you are focused on the wrong stuff.”

Fantasy writer Neil Gaiman took to Twitter to push back at both Musk and others who sent hateful messages to the BIPOC actors in the show. “I feel like I’m taking a sledgehammer to squash the tiniest ants, and you really shouldn’t, but then again, they can be really irritating,” he wrote.

And original Lord of the Rings film stars Elijah Wood, Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd all posed for a photo wearing T-shirts that said “You are all welcome here” in Elvish.

The racist comments haven’t done anything to temper most viewers’ excitement, though. If anything, the hate has made even non-fantasy fans more eager to watch to see what the show is all about. And while review bombing may have hurt its audience score on Rotten Tomatoes (currently at 39%), its score from critics is a solid 84%.

What’s actually in the source material?

Considering critics point to Tolkien’s original work when decrying the diverse casting, it’s worth considering what the classic novels actually say. And as supporters point out, Tolkien never explicitly wrote that his characters were white-skinned. In fact, as Gaiman pointed out in a tweet, Tolkien described harfoots as “browner of skin.”

Amazon’s statement of support also references the diversity inherent in Middle-earth, noting that Tolkien created a “world that was multicultural, a world in which free people from different races and cultures join together, in fellowship, to defeat the forces of evil.”

It only makes sense to include people from diverse backgrounds in the series. As McKay pointed out Vanity Fair, the show is about power and race—even if those races are humans, elves, dwarves and other fictional beings. “[It’s about] the forging of the rings,” he said. “Rings for the elves, rings for dwarves, rings for men and then the one ring Sauron used to deceive them all. It’s the story of the creation of all those powers, where they came from and what they did to each of those races.”

And remember: The Rings of Power isn’t a strict retelling of a single Lord of the Rings book, and many of the characters were created for the show.

As for gender-based complaints, well, the Lord of the Rings series is no stranger to strong female characters. Eowyn is one of the greatest warrior women in cinematic history.

What other shows have faced similar backlash?

Sadly, other movies and TV shows have faced similar complaints for daring to have diverse casting. It may be one of the most popular HBO Max TV shows currently airing, but the Game of Thrones prequel, House of the Dragon, got pushback for its casting of Black actors.

The backlash primarily centers on the casting of actor Steve Toussaint as Lord Corlys Valeryan of the House of Targaryen. In the George R.R. Martin books, his character is described as having white-blonde hair, which his TV character indeed does have. Critics’ issue? Toussaint is Black.

“It seems to be very hard for people to swallow,” the actor said in an interview with Men’s Health. “They are happy with a dragon flying. They’re happy with white hair and violet-colored eyes, but a rich Black guy? That’s beyond the pale.”

And let’s not forget what happened when John Boyega was cast as a Black stormtrooper in 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He faced endless trolling from so-called fans who said they would boycott the film in response to his casting.

“It makes you angry with a process like that. It makes you much more militant; it changes you. Because you realize, ‘I got given this opportunity, but I’m in an industry that wasn’t even ready for me,'” he said in an interview with GQ about his Star Wars experience. “Nobody else in the cast had people saying they were going to boycott the movie because [they were in it]. Nobody else had the uproar and death threats sent to their Instagram DMs and social media, saying, ‘Black this and Black that and you shouldn’t be a Stormtrooper.’ Nobody else had that experience.”

Shonda Rhimes’s frothy romance series Bridgerton also found itself the object of certain viewers’ ire when it cast characters of color in high-society Regency England.

And Gaiman, who readily defended The Rings of Power against racist complaints, recently dealt with similar protests about the adaptation of his comic book The Sandman. When the cast was announced, complaints rolled in: They didn’t like that a Black actress plays Death (a character portrayed as white in the comics), a woman plays Lucifer (who is male in the comic) and a nonbinary actor plays Desire.

But perhaps Gaiman’s response to The Sandman trolls is most apt for all the shows above: “Watch the show, make up your minds.”

Sources:

  • Vanity Fair: “Amazon’s Lord of the Rings Series Rises: Inside The Rings of Power
  • Vulture: “Close-Reading Lord of the Rings with the Creatives Behind The Rings of Power
  • @ElonMusk
  • @ElijahWood
  • @SeanAstin
  • Hollywood Reporter: “Everything You Need to Know About Tolkien’s Second Age to Watch ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power'”
  • @NeilHimself
  • Men’s Health: “Steve Toussaint Isn’t Fazed by Racist House of the Dragon Criticism”
  • GQ: “John Boyega: ‘I’m the only cast member whose experience of Star Wars was based on their race'”
  • @NeilHimself

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Gillian Telling
Gillian Telling is a New York-based entertainment journalist who, for the past 15 years, has covered the entire spectrum of pop culture as a writer and editor for publications like Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and People. She's interviewed hundreds of celebrities throughout her career, ranging from Alex Trebek to Jennifer Lawrence, and prides herself on being the first person to ever declare that Schitt's Creek was an amazing new show. (Five years before everyone else caught on!) She's also a published author, whose 2010 humor book Dirty Girls was optioned by ABC in 2012.