On Lord of the Rings and Culture

As a long-time Lord of the Rings fan, I know what it’s like to have ALL the feelings before a major adaptation of Tolkien’s work is released. In fact, thanks to the Hobbit trilogy, we’ve sort of lived through our worst fears: a truly terrible adaptation that was bad as a film, bad as an adaptation, and bad in its inability to understand the core essence of the book it was based on. I know I’ve come a long way personally, from being way too critical of anything touching my favorite “franchises”, to being the guy who thought that The Last Jedi and Rise of Skywalker were perfectly enjoyable Star Wars movies. In other words, I’ve learned to relax.

The movie that changed my mind on this was Alfonso Cuaron’s Prisoner of Azkaban. Sure it wasn’t as “faithful” as the first two Harry Potter films, but it had such a strong point of view. This film had something additional to say about Harry Potter, it added to the conversation. It pushed the narrative further while using the distinct techniques of film- like strong color grading and extremely long, single-camera takes- to expand on its source material. A good adaptation is like a good cover song: if it’s too faithful, it’s just karaoke.

One of the best book-to-movie adaptations in recent years was Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. Gerwig’s film doesn’t really alter the original story so much as fiddle with the dials, turning some frequencies down while cranking others up. It amplifies many of Alcott’s concerns that were present in the novel but kept below the surface due to the time period she was writing in. Themes like women’s rights and gender roles, abolition, women’s suffrage, substance abuse, and income inequality, were brought dramatically to the fore, without any major dialogue, characters, or plot points being altered beyond recognition.

When studying art, we often can see more about the time period of the artist than of the subject. A classic example is the Bible. Often the same mythological stories appear multiple times but written hundreds of years apart. The book of John as compared to the other gospels is one example, David and Goliath is another. The various stories will have a surface resemblance, but the narrative shifts dramatically and contradicts itself depending on the context of the writer- whether Israel was the dominant political force (1 Samuel) or in a phase of oppression and exile (2 Samuel). The point is that art is always a reflection of the culture at the time. Lord of the Rings was a reflection Tolkien’s post-war life, much of the Silmarillion was different. Peter Jackson’s films were certainly a reflection of the early 2000s. The modern day Marvel movies offer a completely different worldview than the original comics.

Which brings us to the new Amazon Lord of the Rings project, which is burning up social media, or at least my social media of mostly random English professors who love Tolkien. The two major complaints I see are distinct, but closely related to social justice / issues of woke culture: 1) that people (and especially Elves and dwarves) of color didn’t exist in Middle Earth, and 2) that the Galadriel and Elrond are being reframed as an alpha female and beta male. So we’ve got it all, race and gender- certainly a product of our time. The only thing we’re missing is Bill Ferny starting a podcast or hawking Ivermectin.

I’ll start with the whole alpha/beta angle. Personally, I think that once you’re even having this discussion with someone, you’ve already lost. Sure the alpha/beta dynamic exists and is a real thing, but it’s just so stupid. Anyway, the main concern is that young Elrond is now ‘political’ (a.k.a uses his brain) and young Galadriel is the warrior, alpha female. This criticism really surprised me the most, because this really is a well-explored dynamic in LotR, mainly in the marriage of Eowyn and Faramir.

Eowyn is a female whose main conflict is very explicitly with the patriarchy of her kingdom. She’s not allowed to go to battle, she fears a domestic life, she sneaks off to war, and literally kills the un-killable alpha male: the witch-king, head of the Nazgul. And she does it moments after her king, the symbol of the patriarchal old-guard, is killed by him first. This isn’t subtle stuff, it’s pretty clear and core to her character.

And take Faramir, little brother of Boromir. Boromir is the alpha male personified: he’s the older brother, father’s favorite, he wins every battle and takes back Osgiliath, he’s well-loved by all, and he craves power so strongly that it destroys him. He’s the ultimate example of an alpha male and Tolkien kills him off one-third of the way through, replaces him with his much less alpha little brother, the romantic and thoughtful Faramir. Boromir the alpha male is also explicitly contrasted with Aragorn, the king who is a healer, a poet, a singer, and so on. Of course, this is why I don’t like the alpha/beta dichotomy: Faramir and Aragorn are still tough characters and leaders, they just don’t push the limits of alpha male behavior: they lead by following. They don’t prioritize power, understanding it’s corrupting influence.

Faramir marries Eowyn because he clearly has the self-confidence to handle a strong female. And they get to live happily ever after. Finally, let us not forget the it was Elrond who failed to just push Isildur into the fires of Mount Doom, letting him walk away with the ring. Then he retires to a fancy mountain cabin and hides from the world singing and writing poetry with the other elves. Its not Elrond’s kingdom that scares the pants off of everyone in Middle Earth. Clearly not an alpha.

Then there’s the race issue. While it does feel pretty clear that LotR is fairly “European-centric” (ok, white), it’s also not explicit in the book. Tolkien draws from many different mythologies, and while his worldview seems to start from the Shire, it moves outward from there. There’s descriptions of darker skin colors in the village of Bree or the lands south of Gondor. There’s plenty of different “cultures” clashing in his books.

On the other hand, Tolkien is a product of his time. When I think of his books, they simply don’t seem to have an opinion on race the way we discuss it in the 2020s. In fact, the closest parallel would really be the various “races” themselves- men, Elves, and dwarves. We could certainly look at the relationship between Legolas and Gimli as a suggestion for looking past skin color and culture to find common humanity, such as allowing Gimli to see Lothlorien and live. Gimli and Legolas also end up “together” in the end. One of the core themes of the Elves is their inability to progress, they’re “fading” as their art and powers are ever looking backwards to an idealized past. By the time we get to LotR, hey aren’t flourishing and are almost completely gone.

The core question about diverse dwarves and elves is this: how would Tolkien feel if he were alive, in the context of our time now, and saw a diverse cast of characters in Middle Earth? Would he be understanding to the spirit of it, or would he be offended? Is LotR sometimes subconsciously reflective of the artist’s white-centric culture? Or was Tolkien a white supremacist who intentionally left out non-white characters in his legendarium?

This is where the “cancel culture” street works both ways. Sure it feels ridiculous to “cancel” Abraham Lincoln because he had some paternalistic views on race or indigenous people. We can look at the whole context of his era, and his core legacy, and cut him some slack. But add a black dwarf and suddenly Tolkien’s a white supremacist who would never have supported diverse casting? Now Tolkien’s promoting archaic gender roles and would be offended at the idea that a female elf would kick ass? It just doesn’t fit with the Tolkien I grew up reading.

We have to move past this idea that we can turn books into shows or movies and not see some changes along the way. Of course our modern culture will affect the final product. That’s exactly what Tolkien was doing when he “borrowed” from Milton and the book of Genesis to write about the Fall of Numenor, which should feature prominently in this show.

The last weird analogy that I think is appropriate is the modern Evangelical church and its views on homosexuality. A fundamentalist mindview says that the Bible condemns it (along with shellfish and fancy fabrics), but many modern Christians feel that Jesus never did, that in fact Jesus’ message transcends the historical context that much of the Bible was written in. While I don’t personally believe in the ‘divine’ aspects of the Bible, Tolkien clearly did and its influence is felt throughout his writing. It may be one of the reasons he often used an unreliable narrator or revised his mythology throughout his life. He understood that current cultural context affects artistic output- that even the way Aragorn tells the story of Beren and Luthien (another ass-kicking female) has more to do with his own feelings about Arwen than some historical accuracy.

I remember being pretty upset about the portrayal of Gimli and Legolas in the Peter Jackson films. In that version, they became sort of the R2D2/C3PO comic duo, with Gimli getting hit in the crotch by an orc one too many times for my taste. But when I watch those movies now, I really don’t think about that. Instead I notice the goosebumps I get during Theoden’s last speech to the Rohirrim. I tend to complain less about Sam and Frodo crossing Mordor in a single afternoon, and instead remember the emotional impact of watching Sam carry Frodo up Mount Doom.

My point is, adaptations change, as do our expectations of them. If you think a bad adaptation will ruin your ability to enjoy the books, then I’m sorry, because you’ve probably already been deeply affected by The Hobbit. Not me, I just chose not to watch those films. Because they were terrible.