So — ooh, boy. We’re going to make a mistake here. We abandon the website for a year, then with the second post upon our return we wade into the waters of fandom, racism, and social media. Top shelf idea, there. It’s gonna be great.
Look, LOTR and criticism thereof sort of has this problem.
And the problem is that you have to measure anything LOTR against the films of the original trilogy.
Why is this a problem? Because the films were just so damned good.
Say what you will about the novels. (They were formative for me — I discovered them in high school, read them, loved them, and have re-read them a few times since.) And say what you will about the adaptations. (There were some things I disagreed with, given my knowledge of the books. Some things that just didn’t make sense to me then, though now that I know a bit more about storytelling and movies, we get it. (See: moving the encounter with Shelob from the end of book 2 to the middle of book 3.)) But good ol’ PJ did that rare thing with the trilogy: he caught lightning in a bottle. He brought to life on the big screen a story that for so many of us had lived only in our imaginations, and it was as good, if not better, than we expected. He brought new fans to the story who never would have read the books otherwise. Oh, and he changed the way Hollywood thinks about stories and trilogies and series and all that stuff (for better or for worse.)
(Sidenote: We don’t talk about The Hobbit films.)
And, well, now we have to (or rather, now we get to) live in the universe where all those things happened.
And like any good series or book or otherwise IP, What Comes Next will inevitably be measured against the standard of the original. (Which is never going to be favorable for the new stuff. You can’t catch lightning in a bottle twice. You can’t even catch it once. This is metaphor.)
We talked about this a bit back when Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out and all the hubbub about that film (spoiler alert: the hubbub did not quiet down, it only got worse, and that’s all very dumb, but that’s not our focus today, please stay on topic). About how the longtime fans feel some ownership over the thing, so when the New Stuff comes and it’s not exactly what they remember and expect, they get upset. But it’s rearing its head again and we’re thinking about it again, and well, I’m back, baby, so we’re gonna dive in and make some sweeping generalizations.
So, the new series is coming out. We haven’t even had the first episode yet, but people are angry. They will cite any number of reasons for their anger, but what they generally boil down to is: Thing Does Not Conform To My Expectations For Thing. Dwarves and elves with dark skin, Galadriel in battle armor — these things did not exist in the original works of Tolkien and they therefore have No Place in the new Tolkien thing.
And then, like clockwork, come the rebuttals and indignation from the other side. We’re not living in Tolkien’s time; we’re living in the 21st century, and representation matters. These stories belong to everybody, not just a bunch of white dudes. Say what you will about the response to the response, but it follows its own (entirely predictable) patterns.
We should point out, here, that there’s no simple answer to this problem, for reasons that will quickly become apparent, but it’s important as story-consuming people to think about these things, and what they say about us, and what we can learn from this, so that maybe (okay, probably not, but we can dream) we don’t have to keep having the same arguments over and over again.
The problem here is the same problem you have when debating a societal issue of any other stripe. Abortion. Religion. Gay marriage. Trans issues.
That problem is: both sides are right.
Let’s pick a spicy one, to make sure to offend as many people as possible. Abortion. One side says it’s the woman’s body, so it’s the woman’s choice, and they’re right. The other says all life is sacred, that every new life should have a chance, and they’re right, too. Gay marriage? On one hand, two people who love each other should be able to enjoy the benefits that society offers to the married just like anybody else. On the other, if marriage is defined as a union between a man and a woman, then calling a same-sex union a marriage is, by definition, wrong. (Personally, I think we need to abolish the concept of recognizing marriage through government institutions anyway — theoretically we have a separation of church and state in this country. That would unmake this whole issue, but it’s largely moot these days anyway. History moves on and the arc bends towards justice, or so they say.) The problem is that we get all territorial and tribal and we take bad-faith shots at the other side’s arguments and call them idiots and knuckle-draggers and anything else under the sun, and we try to make that comment that’s going to go viral, and we can’t compromise. We’ve forgotten how, in The Discourse.
Well, LOTR is the same. Dedicated, lifelong fans are right. Tolkien’s works were written by a white dude without much consideration for diversity, and possibly (probably?) with some assumptions that might not sit well with our collective consciences here, half a century and more on from when he set his tales down. To change the texts, to introduce characters outside of that mold, is, in fact, to change the texts themselves. But fans who want more inclusivity are also right: that the texts don’t represent the world we live in now, that the stories have appeal for a broader audience and, as a result, it would be nice to have a bit more inclusivity than the books did in their original form.
And you can already hear the arguments from both sides. “Why not make new stories with more diverse characters and casting needs — why do they have to change this one that’s already out there?” Well, that might be a good point … but no new series is going to have the brand appeal that LOTR has. It just can’t. New stories are great — and coming out all the time, by the way — but they’re not LOTR, and they can’t be. And from the other side — “why do these fans have to be so closed-minded and racist? Why do they have to pretend like they own everything?” But they’re not wrong — the original series actually is written that way.
Is there middle ground to be found between these two viewpoints? Almost certainly not, because we’re too conditioned by our echo chambers to seek out the support of those on our own side while scoring points at any cost against those guys over there.
It’s a depressingly obvious and probably unavoidable cycle. It played out with Star Wars, it’s playing out now with the LOTR series, and it will keep playing out as long as there are fandoms and social media and the internet and, probably, people.
I don’t actually have a solution for this problem at the macro level, because the problem doesn’t get solved at the macro level. It comes from one-on-one conversations and the commitment of the individual to stop shouting “OTHER SIDE BAD” for a minute and actually listen to what’s being said.
Our society just isn’t built for those conversations any more. It’s built for quippy one-liners, mic-drops, and dunking on the other side. And it’s a shame.
Sidenote and disclaimer: the world we’re in is changing, and media and filmmakers are changing with it. If you are bound and determined that your old stories remain what they are and never get changed to adapt to the times we’re living in … I have some unfortunate news to give you. That may or may not be right, but it is a fact. And life is just easier when you accept facts as facts. But that’s a whole other topic.