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Adapting Middle-earth for a contemporary audience can be done in a representative way, racially speaking, that does not diminish the original work at all. The inclusion of people of varying levels of melanin in Esgaroth as part of the third (second? They all bleed together in nightmarish fashion) Hobbit film is a good example. Lake-town was a trade hub, so it follows that folks from all over the east and south would end up there. I also would have no problem seeing dark-skinned Gondorians (or dwarves for that matter). 

This kind of thing didn't really become important to me until I got super into Deep Space 9. Avery Brooks went out of his way to say in interviews that part of the reason he did Star Trek (besides the monetary benefits) was to show little brown-skinned kids that they can be captains, too. This can be a part of LOTR without "breaking" canon. People also often overlook that there are literally different peoples (species) represented in these stories, even if they all seem to have European heritage.

Anyways, I have no idea how we wound up here but I think Wandalf is on to something. New cycles, guys?

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16 hours ago, Authraw said:

A problem only arises when you pull back the focus and look at the stories we tend to tell (and retell) as a society. You begin to notice trends--like the fact that people of color rarely appear as protagonists, but when they do appear it's frequently as antagonists. (This trend has been slowly getting better, by the way, which I would argue is the result of creators being aware of and intentionally trying to counteract the trend... but of course that's a tangent). No one of these stories we tell may necessarily be problematic on its own, but when you look at all of them together they form an uncomfortable picture about how we as a society tend to interact with race.

But this, of course, makes the problem difficult to talk about, because it means that any given work can be both part of a problematic system of thought and completely fine on its own.

From this point, there are lots of places you can go with the conversation. What are the responsibilities of content creators relative to the larger social systems with which they interact? What are the responsibilities of consumers of media? I have my own perspectives on these sorts of questions but I think the answers to them are far from settled.

I think the effect described in the first paragraph is not necessarily about race specifically, and more about ethnocentrism.  In historical English literature, Frenchmen rarely appear as protagonists, but when they do appear it's frequently as antagonists.  In France I suspect the reverse is true.  I've read folk tale collections from many different countries, and the protagonists are overwhelmingly from the countries in question, while people/creatures from outside the originating culture appear frequently as antagonists.  Even in the artificial worlds of SF&F, humans are overwhelmingly protagonists and when non-humans do appear it's frequently as antagonists.  I would argue that neither content creators nor content consumers have a responsibility to undo this situation, merely to create what they wish and consume what they want.  Creation is too hard, and life is to short, to do otherwise--and the common situation also allows works that go against the ethnocentric grain to stand out, and be selected by those it appeals to.

At the same time, I certainly think that it's true that harmful racial stereotypes (and for that matter, non-racial stereotypes) can propagate through creative works, and both creators and consumers should be wary of them.  Certainly any works created for the purpose of demonizing a particular ethnic group should be strictly avoided.

What about a derivative work set in a particular (fictional) setting?  Do the creators have a responsibility to faithfully reproduce the setting of the original work?  Obviously Peter Jackson felt the answer was no, and if I were to lay a bet on this new show I'd bet against it as well.  Should the creators feel obligated to produce a diverse set of heroes to better reflect the demographics of their target audience than the demographics of Middle Earth?  Of course not, IMO.  But if they did, would it be a disaster?  No way to tell.  If Kahliel were borrowed from FFG and made a major character, with his backstory as a plot element, that'd actually be pretty cool.  If the show had the new member of the Valar, Captain Planet, select a child from each of the peoples of Middle Earth to fight against the evil property developer Sauron, and the male Dunedain child was depicted as uniquely stupid and selfish, it'd be unwatchable drek.  If the show cast the actors without regard to whether their skin colors matched what we'd expect, it'd be startling, but not necessarily bad.  If Gandalf were the focus of the show and was portrayed by a "person of color", if the acting and story was good I think it'd be fine as long as Gandalf was still Gandalf.  He didn't become Gandalf the White because of the color of his skin.  But if they did that and made a major plot point how racial prejudice against him impedes Gandalf's efforts to work against Sauron, you've left Middle Earth far behind and returned to a more modern morality play.  This would not bode well, both because it's abandoned the material I love, and because I find most morality plays to be simultaneously insufferable and boring.

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I think adapting a work can be tough, because what works in text doesn't always work on screen, and vice-versa.  More important is to retain the theme and feel of a work (or to deviate from it intentionally, if you have your own point to make, I guess).  In this, I actually think Peter Jackson's Hobbit movies did remarkably well, especially when compared to other adaptations like Middle-earth:  Shadow of Mordor.

I will be very interested to see what themes are woven into the show's narrative.  Will we see high hope (the knowledge that, "in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach")?  Will faithful service and humility correlate to a character's awesomeness?  Will elven military leaders display even the tiniest bit of tactical know-how, or were all such captains killed off during the Last Alliance?

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The most culturally and racially respectful and progressive thing to do in Middle-earth is to show Harad and Rhun etc., as civilizationally and culturally distinct from the West yet equals on firm footing. Showing them as "protagonists" isn't it; you know, a band of tattered Haradrim in desperate need of the white heroes' rescue to escape the wrath of Sauron and then join in the grand fight, thus saving their people, that actually feels more offensive. They don't need to be on the side of good; they aren't according to Tolkien. And storytellers don't need to justify those people by showing the "good ones" among them. Sure, fringe rebellious groups are cool; that's showing diversity among diversity. But true justified portrayal is to show people who are reasonably outside of the West's religious and political framework. Come now, if Harad and Rhun don't know about the Valar, don't worship, and don't care for European myths, it's perfectly rational for them to treat Mordor just as another nation; a weird one, but still a perfectly legitimate ally for their own political objectives. I mean, Middle-earth hasn't reached enlightenment and industrial revolution in general, so you would imagine non-European civilizations actually being larger in scale, mysteriously and fabulously wealthy, etc. 

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30 minutes ago, Otherworlder said:

The most culturally and racially respectful and progressive thing to do in Middle-earth is to show Harad and Rhun etc., as civilizationally and culturally distinct from the West yet equals on firm footing. 

One way they could do this kind of thing right (and just do the show right) would be to bring in the right people. There are so many Tolkien scholars out there doing great work, and they're going to have a huge budget, so I hope they hire a Corey Olsen or Tom Shippey type to help keep things in line.

 

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7 minutes ago, shipwreck said:

One way they could do this kind of thing right (and just do the show right) would be to bring in the right people. There are so many Tolkien scholars out there doing great work, and they're going to have a huge budget, so I hope they hire a Corey Olsen or Tom Shippey type to help keep things in line.

If I recall correctly, Professor Olsen said he's contacted someone at Amazon offering his services.

37 minutes ago, Otherworlder said:

The most culturally and racially respectful and progressive thing to do in Middle-earth is to show Harad and Rhun etc., as civilizationally and culturally distinct from the West yet equals on firm footing. Showing them as "protagonists" isn't it; you know, a band of tattered Haradrim in desperate need of the white heroes' rescue to escape the wrath of Sauron and then join in the grand fight, thus saving their people, that actually feels more offensive. They don't need to be on the side of good; they aren't according to Tolkien. And storytellers don't need to justify those people by showing the "good ones" among them. Sure, fringe rebellious groups are cool; that's showing diversity among diversity. But true justified portrayal is to show people who are reasonably outside of the West's religious and political framework. Come now, if Harad and Rhun don't know about the Valar, don't worship, and don't care for European myths, it's perfectly rational for them to treat Mordor just as another nation; a weird one, but still a perfectly legitimate ally for their own political objectives. I mean, Middle-earth hasn't reached enlightenment and industrial revolution in general, so you would imagine non-European civilizations actually being larger in scale, mysteriously and fabulously wealthy, etc. 

It makes sense.  Sauron wouldn't bother gathering armies from that far abroad unless the armies were worth gathering.

Edited by JJ48

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5 hours ago, Otherworlder said:

The most culturally and racially respectful and progressive thing to do in Middle-earth is to show Harad and Rhun etc., as civilizationally and culturally distinct from the West yet equals on firm footing. Showing them as "protagonists" isn't it; you know, a band of tattered Haradrim in desperate need of the white heroes' rescue to escape the wrath of Sauron and then join in the grand fight, thus saving their people, that actually feels more offensive. They don't need to be on the side of good; they aren't according to Tolkien. And storytellers don't need to justify those people by showing the "good ones" among them. Sure, fringe rebellious groups are cool; that's showing diversity among diversity. But true justified portrayal is to show people who are reasonably outside of the West's religious and political framework. Come now, if Harad and Rhun don't know about the Valar, don't worship, and don't care for European myths, it's perfectly rational for them to treat Mordor just as another nation; a weird one, but still a perfectly legitimate ally for their own political objectives. I mean, Middle-earth hasn't reached enlightenment and industrial revolution in general, so you would imagine non-European civilizations actually being larger in scale, mysteriously and fabulously wealthy, etc. 

Thank you for an interesting set of comments. I thought that FFGs approach to the Haradrim in this cycle was revolutionary and actually quite sophisticated - showing them as culturally more complex than just unthinking baddies. In the last AP which should be appearing any time now, the Gondorian's are shown to be racist - which they actually were. To my mind this subverts just about every previous view of Middle Earth. I do take your point that this cycle could be seen as offensive, but overall I think FFG deserve lots of credit. Had they done as you suggest, they could be criticised for following the trope that "all coloured people are evil".

Two further points:

1) Tolkien didn't detail much about the Haradrim but he deliberately gave Sam famous lines in which he wonders about them and their motivations - hinting that there's more going on than unthinking evil. In my view FFG are following Tolkien's conception.

2) FFG haven't shown all Haradrim as tattered - Na'asiyah in particular is very tough. Others are shown as evil, but in all fairness they're encounter deck cards and not player ones. Overall I do think there's nuance into FFGs conception of the Haradrim. 

Edited by JonG
Remove moderately naughty word

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Tolkien mentions in Appendix A, part I, section v, that after Aragorn's stint as Thorongil, he "went alone far into the East and deep into the South, exploring the hearts of Men, both evil and good, and uncovering the plots and devices of the servants of Sauron."  So it's certainly canonical that good as well as evil was to be found among both Southron and Easterling; and "uncovering the plots and devices" also means both that Sauron did not have full control of those two vast areas, and that exposing Sauron's role made those peoples less likely to cooperate.  Even of the subset of Easterlings and Southrons gathered by Sauron to fight directly for him, the most part abandoned his cause once deprived of his will (in "Field of Cormallen") -- though there was some even then, "those that were deepest and longest in evil servitude" that continued to fight even then, and we know from Appendix A part II that Aragorn & Eomer fought "beyond the Sea of Rhun and on the far fields of the South" before "the White Tree could grow in peace."

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19 hours ago, Authraw said:

The more I think about it, the more I think I'm ready for some new stories in Middle Earth. Maybe I'll pick up a copy of Adventures in Middle Earth by Cubicle 7 and tell some of my own while I wait for the show to start! 

I recommend it! The original game (The One Ring RPG) is a self-contained system and I've been playing it for years. It's really, really fun and I think these guys "get" Middle-earth.

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On 2/6/2018 at 12:58 PM, Authraw said:

The more I think about it, the more I think I'm ready for some new stories in Middle Earth. Maybe I'll pick up a copy of Adventures in Middle Earth by Cubicle 7 and tell some of my own while I wait for the show to start! 

Adventures in Middle Earth is SOOOO good!   :)

Did you end up getting/playing it?

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22 minutes ago, Erekose said:

Adventures in Middle Earth is SOOOO good!   :)

Did you end up getting/playing it?

Bought it, read it cover to cover, but I haven't had a chance to play it yet. Hopefully soon though! We just wrapped up our long running D&D campaign, so perhaps this is next. 

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I mean it might but it is basically almost everything, so I assume it was more of a jest, whilst the real hints were the maps, and the show will be about the Second Age (for the start, at least). And I would be very happy with that, much happier than the young Aragorn plotline...

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