by JohnCarl McGrady, editor in chief
This is part two of a two part series exploring race in adaptations of fantasy works. While this piece can stand alone, it is complimented by the first part here.
When we left off, I had just explained the realities of historical racism in fantasy. For a quick summary, a lot of older fantasy works contain racist elements, and it is important to acknowledge and understand this to properly understand the books and the history of racism in our world. Arguing that the racist elements are justified in the story fails to understand that the problem is not that the characters in the story are racist, but that the story perpetuates racist stereotypes in the real world. It is impossible to argue that books don’t interact with the real world, and understanding how is an essential part of interacting intellectually with media. Further, it is critical to realize that individual works of fantasy are not the main issue. A single novel with a white protagonist and a non-white antagonist, on its own, is completely inoffensive and not racist, for example. The larger issue is the cultural context of the works. One hundred books all with white protagonists and non-white antagonists, and not a single book with the reverse, would clearly constitute a pattern of racism. Reality contains a little more nuance than that, but the patterns remain.
Once we understand this, an interesting question rears its head; how should books with racist elements be adapted into TV shows and movies? Well, conveniently, one of our primary examples from part one, Lord of the Rings, is currently being adapted into a TV show, and was already made into three movies. Using that as an example, let’s dissect what is likely the single most divisive and interesting question circling the fantasy community today.
Part One: Death of the Author
Before we really get into adapting fantasy works with regards to race, we have to actually decide what we’re adapting, which is why any discussion about how to appropriately adapt a fantasy work with racist elements is incomplete without mentioning death of the author.
Proposed by french literary critic Roland Barthes in 1967, death of the author suggests a radically absolutist idea; once a book is published, the author loses all control over it. To the reader, and thus to the critic, it doesn’t matter what the author intended. All that matters is what is interpreted. By this line of thinking, who the author is, what they believe, and even what they say about their own books is irrelevant. All that matters is the literal words on the literal page.
Barthes’ theory, however, while often condensed into single-paragraph summations, is a lot more complex than that. Unlike many modern proponents of the theory, Barthes wasn’t trying to say that books don’t have deeper or hidden meanings, but rather that those meanings should be up to the reader to interpret. He referred to texts that made the reader engage with the meaning as writerly texts, as opposed to readerly texts that wore their meanings on their sleeves.
In the most absolute sense, it’s hard to say that Barthes’ was entirely right. “Ender’s Game,” is one of my favourite science fiction books of all time. Despite that, I have not, nor will I ever, read the sequels, even though “Speaker for the Dead,” is often considered to be just as good if not better. Modern media critic and bestselling author Lindsay Ellis touched on why in her video essay about the death of the author. Orson Scott Card, the man who wrote Ender’s Game, is a virulent homophobe who uses his money to aid groups whose sole purpose is to oppose LGBTQ+ rights. Buying his books gives him monetary power, and even just taking his books out from the library heightens his social power and influence. While you might disagree with the second point, it’s hard to say that the first point is wrong. Thus, in an important way, the author is not dead, at least until they are quite literally deceased.
In addition, a deeper understanding of texts almost always requires some understanding of what forces shaped their creation, from the time period they were published in, to the personal values of the author who wrote them.
However, Roland Barthes’ was right about some things. While the author isn’t necessarily dead, the author is also not God. Their life and times certainly influence the books they write, but they do not wholly dictate them. Looking back on books through a modern lens can often reveal a lot of interesting ideas and thoughts that the author didn’t necessarily mean. Marry Shelley’s “Frankenstien” can be viewed as parable about the dangers of creating a sentient A.I, even though that wasn’t how she meant it. While a literary critic would never say Frankenstien is about computers, they would also never say it can’t be applied to computers.
A lot of stuff about Lord of the Rings, and other fantasy works, is also assumed by the reader without being outright stated. Contradicting those assumptions can be a powerful way to make an analytical statement about the work, and does not go against the nature of the work at all, since the assumptions the reader is making aren’t backed up by the text at hand. Most people assume that the elves in the Lord of the Rings are white, but in actuality, they are only described by Tolkien as “fair-skinned.” Many people from East Asia, Hispanic America, North Africa and the Middle East could easily be described as “fair-skinned,” and casting one of them as an elf would invite viewers to examine and understand Tolkien in ways they hadn’t before, while also staying true to the text. For what it’s worth, many Hispanics consider themselves “white,” or “white-passing,” and the Common App for college admissions literally calls people from the Middle East white. Now, Tolkien didn’t mean for the Elves to be Middle Eastern, the same way Mary Shelley didn’t mean for Frankenstien to be about computers, but exploring that possibility heightens the reader’s critical reading of the text and maybe even makes them more aware of the latent racism in every day life. Seeing a Middle Eastern elf on screen doesn’t directly contradict the text, and ideally would lead to viewers pausing and reflecting on why they always assumed all of the elves were European, and why Tolkien didn’t ever feel the need to clarify as such.
Inviting deeper understanding is definitely a positive for a film adaptation, and those authorial literalists who believe it is imperative that all adaptations adhere precisely to the unspoken implications of a fantasy work, not just what is in the text, are missing a key point of literary criticism. Roland Barthes would like a word with them about writerly texts.
Part Two: Critiques from the Right
Most of the people who disagree with me in general on this topic agree to some degree with what I wrote above. Some of them argue that my Tolkien example is wrong, because Tolkien intended the Lord of the Rings to be a European mythology—to which I would reply that people of colour have been a part of European history, as immigrants, slaves, and conquerors, since the very beginning—but they tend to agree in general.
However, you may have noticed that what I described above doesn’t work in every situation where a text has racist elements. It only works if the racist elements are implicit, but a lot of times they are explicit. There really isn’t a lot of room to have good guys in an adaptation of Tolkien who are black, for example. Perhaps a human here or there, but not much. We know the elves, for instance, are all fair skinned. But let’s say that the adaptation currently in the works—which I feel obligated to note is technically a show about the time period before Lord of the Rings, more a prequel, and thus bound to feature numerous characters who are not in the published book—includes a black elf. This would generate a lot more ire than a fair skinned Middle Eastern elf, because racism, but also because it would be breaking canon.
Canon, in this context, meaning the details included in the source text. Okay, I’ll admit, that doesn’t make much sense without examples. Here, have a few. In Star Wars, it is canon that the Sith use red lightsabers. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is sadly canon that Tony Stark is dead. The movie version of the “Hobbit” breaks the canon of the book in a lot of ways, including by adding entire main characters who don’t exist in the book. Or, in our case, it is canon that the elves in Tolkien’s mythology have fair skin.
A lot of people care a great deal about canon accuracy and it is often one of the most important factors by which the fans of a book judge any adaptations of it. However, usually this anger is saved for things that change the nature of a character or the plot. Like, some people complain about Kili being conventionally attractive in the Hobbit movies, but nobody cares that much. What really makes them angry is the fact that he’s in love with some elf who literally never appears in the book.
The big exception to that is with race, and it doesn’t make much sense. There’s no reason to be more upset about a character’s skin colour being changed than an adaptation changing a character’s eye or hair colour, which people obviously are, or this debate would simply not be happening. If skin colour matters a lot in universe, say there’s an oppressed racial minority with blue skin, then yeah, obviously don’t change the character’s race. In a situation where race matters more than eye colour, it makes logical sense to be more upset about it, but the same should be true in the reverse situation. That’s not a strawman. In the “Stormlight Archive” by Brandon Sanderson, eye colour decides social status and skin colour doesn’t matter (and isn’t tied to eye colour.) In this scenario, changing eye colour would be horrible and changing skin colour wouldn’t matter.
In most cases, though, neither is super important in world. But people still care a lot more about race in adaptations than eye colour, so this argument doesn’t hold water. Now, some people counter this by saying that race matters more in real life, but if changing a character’s race in the fantasy world doesn’t affect the fantasy world, then the only reason to absolutely avoid it would be if it was harmful in the real world. The changes we’re talking about, though, are doing the reverse, mitigating harm in the real world and increasing representation. Unlike with movies and TV shows about historical events, a whole different can of worms, there is no argument to be made that increasing diversity here will harm anyone. No one’s culture is at stake, because the characters don’t actually exist. The danger is in leaving racist elements, not fixing them.
This is also the response to the common criticism that supporting increased diversity, termed racewashing by critics, is an example of “reverse racism,” because the people who support it also oppose whitewashing. White people have a ton of representation in media, and there are almost never elements to fantasy works that are racist against white people that need to be fixed. So-called racewashing is good because it increases diversity and helps address racist elements in the source texts. Unless we reach a point where that is no longer true, it’s really not comparable to whitewashing.
Part Three: Critiques from the Left
Just as some on the right support changing character’s skin colours, some on the left oppose it, if for different reasons than those on the right.
In general, opposition from leftists boils down to a single point. People of colour deserve better representation, and this isn’t going to do anything. I do understand that argument. Creating new characters specifically designed to be people of colour from the beginning is definitely better representation, and it’s also really important to show non-white cultures and not just non-white races. That said, in fantasy worlds, culture and race are often not tied in the same way as they are in the real world, and are sometimes not tied much at all. It is important to show non-white cultures, and it is also important to show non-white races, but those goals don’t always have to coincide. Even in the real world, lots of non-white people live and feel attached to white cultures, and representating them in fictional works is also good.
Showing a black elf in a stereotypically European culture overlayed on a stereotypically European mythology isn’t as good of a step towards diversity as showing a character initially conceived as black in a black culture overlayed on a black mythology, but it’s still a step and it’s still good. There’s a lot of fantasy written by people of colour featuring characters of colour that should be adapted for the screen, but that doesn’t mean we can’t also increase diversity in works that lack characters of colour, especially when those works are very widely known and the adaptations will attract massive audiences. Do both.
We know, scientifically, that people who see themselves represented in media, especially from an early age, are more confident, less likely to have depression, and in general have a more positive outlook. Leftists, if you knew someone who agreed to stop flying in airplanes to help fight climate change, would you tell them to keep flying in airplanes because the only way to beat climate change is through systemic, government backed action, or would you encourage them, and let them know about the other things they can do as well, because every step counts?
Part Four: Conclusions
I know some people will probably respond to this as if it is suggesting all of their favourite fantasy books are bad, and they’re a racist. I’ve gotten that response a lot before. But that’s not what I’m saying. A lot of these classic fantasy novels rank right up there with my favourite books of all time. Loving Tolkien doesn’t make me a racist.
But maybe, if after reading this, you still think that the upcoming Lord of the Rings show featuring a black elf would be an unforgivable breach of canon, you need to examine where that thought comes from, and perhaps to read the book again, critically.
Or as Barthes would say, writerly.