Jeff Bezos’ new Lord of the Rings show is angering fans because it has Black dwarves. Seriously.

February 19, 2022, 12:00 PM UTC

Amazon’s new big budget Lord of the Rings series may be months away from its streaming debut in September, yet a battle is already erupting over Middle-earth.  

Coveting the phenomenal success of HBO’s Game of Thrones, Jeff Bezos is investing a fortune to grow Prime Video’s 200 million subscriber base by bringing J.R.R.’s Tolkien’s unparalleled fantasy world-building to life on the small, streaming screen.

However, when the first trailer for Prime’s tentpole LOTR epic, dubbed The Rings of Power, dropped on Super Bowl Sunday, Amazon Studios sparked uproar after the all-white, heavily male casts from previous film depictions made way for a more inclusive Tolkien retelling.

Rather than the image of a slender Galadriel dressed in her ethereal gossamer gown that Peter Jackson chose for his Tolkien trilogies, the Lady of Lothlórien was instead portrayed charging a field atop her steed, clad in full armor. All new characters that never appeared in the author’s works were introduced, including Arondir the elf, and the dwarven princess Disa, both portrayed by a Latinx and Black actor respectively.

Some felt the deliberate attempt to broaden the series’ appeal clashed with the world and its figures as they were described in the books, while others championed the diverse cast and suspected the outcry disguised latent racism and misogyny.

The latest uproar follows a Vanity Fair story published earlier this month in which Amazon executives directly addressed some fans’ opposition to a multicultural cast.

“Tolkien is for everyone,” said executive producer Lindsey Weber. “It felt only natural to us that an adaptation of Tolkien’s work would reflect what the world actually looks like.”

After the trailer dropped, fans angrily pointed to Amazon Studio guidelines about trying to make their audition and casting process more diverse. They also began plastering the official YouTube page with a quote loosely attributed to the author. 

“Evil,” they wrote in reference to the mega-cap corporation, “cannot create anything new, they can only corrupt and ruin what good forces have invented or made.” 

But casting multicultural actors isn’t at all contrary to the author’s underlying theme of disparate peoples joining forces to overcome hardship, Luke Shelton, a medievalist scholar and editor in chief of Mallorn, the Tolkien Society journal, tells Fortune, adding that he personally supported it. Academic researchers have debated the undertones of institutional racism in Tolkien’s works, he added, and his society held its first seminar discussing topics related to diversity in Middle-earth last year.

“I think a lot of fans are pushing back against where the show may be going, because it conflicts in some cases with their mental image of Middle-earth,” he said.

Appointment television

But can Lord of the Rings really be Bezos’ version of HBO’s Game of Thrones or Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe?

Those properties’ phenomenal successes did not herald the virtues of a simpler pre-industrial age as Tolkien’s masterwork—Marvel films usually show futuristic technology, and Game of Thrones offered a visceral take on fantasy with plenty of gratuitous sex and graphic violence. And, although Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning films transformed Hollywood and kickstarted the modern thirst for fantasy epics, they were based on pre-existing source material (which this series is not) and cast overwhelmingly white actors. 

The stakes have never been higher for Amazon, which reportedly has already committed to five seasons at a total price north of $1 billion. Similar attempts to emulate the epic scope of GoT led streaming rival Netflix to produce its first big expensive flop, Marco Polo.

When asked how many viewers would need to tune in for the show to be a financial success, Amazon Studios boss Jennifer Salke was under no illusions. “A giant, global audience needs to show up to it as appointment television,” she told website IGN last May.

Left in the dark

The current fan backlash against diverse characters is not the first for Bezos’ exorbitantly priced gamble.

First, the series had no initial concept when Amazon bid for the rights. The studio is allowed to weave a story using only the lore contained in the Appendices, little more than a collection of historical notes Tolkien wrote that lacked granular detail. Without a straightforward narrative to follow, the production team could suffer from the same problems GoT had in its final seasons when it ran out of George R.R. Martin books to adapt.

Worse, a couple of novices were entrusted to run the first ever LOTR series thanks to a recommendation by J.J. Abrams, a red flag for certain devoted fans. The Hollywood filmmaker’s emphasis on big budget action spectacles over story led to what some say is his uneven stewardship of not one, but two previous franchises beloved by the fantasy and sci-fi community: Star Wars and Star Trek

Finally, a leading Tolkien academic who worked with director Peter Jackson on his original LOTR trilogy, Tom Shippey, was brought on to ensure the show would remain faithful to the source material, only to abruptly depart the project for no clear reason.

An almost complete lack of public outreach by the studio or the show’s two freshman creative directors, Patrick McKay and J.D. Payne, left legions of worried Tolkien followers with little to go on.

“We haven’t seen as much from the two showrunners as we did with Peter Jackson because Amazon has been very secretive,” said Shelton. “I would love to see more engagement—what they like and dislike about Tolkien’s works—so there’s a lot more information for fans without getting into specific plot points.”

Amazon Studios did not respond to a request from Fortune for a statement.

A troubled history of backlashes against diverse casting

This is not the first time that fans have reacted negatively to diverse actors being cast in major franchise films. 

Actress Kelly Marie Tran, who is Asian American, was the recipient of a swell of online attacks about her ethnicity after she was cast in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. And actress Anna Diop, who is Black, was the recipient of a racist backlash after she was cast in the DC series Titans

“Racist, derogatory, and/or cruel comments have nothing to do with the person on the receiving end of that abuse. And because I know this – I’m unfazed,” Diop wrote in a now-deleted Instagram post. 

“I never really understood the importance of representation until a woman with Asian heritage told me she broke down crying when she saw another Asian actor in Laketown,” Shelton told Fortune, referring to a town in Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. “For a story she loved so much, it felt as if she finally had a place in Middle-earth.”

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