Debates I Have With Friends: Was the Lord of the Rings films whitewashed?


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Ok ok ok I’m not trying to stir up a political debate I swear
I was talking to a friend and she made the comment about how the films were whitewashed. I disagreed with her saying that tolkien based most of the main peoples in the film that we visit and see on European cultures. I know he hated allegory within his work so I’m not trying to say “they’re this race” but is there any concrete references I can cite about his inspirations behind these cultures and people? Mainly the ones we visit in the films though any information on the outlying races in the films. Even if I’m wrong ilike to know

also she isn’t convinced that Manwe and Varda were a couple/married because the first lines about them doesn’t explicitly call her his spouse and that only they are just that they are close and that he and Ulmo may have shared a more romantic leaning relationship. I’m not sure why either it’s just something she talks about

Ann’s I’m not saying she is stupid, far from it! She is one of the most intelligent peopleI’ve ever met but if we have these discussions again I’d like to be able to back up my points with evidence.
Any information is awesome and any critique is too (just please be kind, I want to learn)
I think that calling the casting choices of the Lord of the Rings films 'whitewashing' is maybe going a little too far with that term. Typically, what that term means is that a character who is *clearly* meant to be of a particular race or ethnic background in the source material is cast as a white actor/actress rather than as someone who represents the original character. So, if the story is set in China, or India, or Africa, but oh look, white protagonists...or if it is based on a story in which the characters were not written as white.

Some of the most egregious examples are when studios cast white actors to portray non-white characters - this would be blackface or yellowface, and for the most part, that is not a current practice. 'Whitewashing' typically does not mean that, but rather 'reimagining' the character as a white person. So, to give an example - Tilda Swinton was cast to play 'The Ancient One' in the Doctor Strange Marvel film. The character she portrays is of Celtic background, so...she thought that was okay. However, in the comics, this character is meant to be Tibetan. So, fans of the comics did see this casting choice as whitewashing from the original, though Tilda Swinton did not see that, because the role was not yellowface; the character was rewritten to fit her, rather than putting makeup on her to fit the character. People were upset over the loss of opportunity for representation there - the adaptation erased or 'whitewashed' the Tibetan character. [Also worth pointing out that this decision - to change the character from a Tibetan man to a Celtic woman - was almost definitely made to preserve access to the Chinese boxoffice.]

Here are two clear cut recent examples of whitewashing in the past decade. "The Ghost in the Shell" is a fairly famous anime about robots and identity - it's set in a futuristic Japan, and the manga was originally written by a Japanese author. The main character in the live action film is played by Scarlet Johansen. There was a lot of anger over that casting; the film did not do well in the US.
Khan Noonian Singh is a character from 'Space Seed', an episode of the original series of Star Trek. He is famous for also appearing in the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. In both instances, he was played by Ricardo Montalban. The character is clearly meant to be of Indian descent; the actor who played him was Mexican. In the Star Trek reboot based on the Wrath of Khan (Into Darkness), Khan is played by...Benedict Cumberbatch. I really don't know who thought it would be a good idea to replace an Indian character with a white British actor, but I'm still salty about that choice (and almost every other choice made in Into Darkness, but I digress). That film did well enough at the box office, and Star Trek fans were grumpy about enough other changes that...the casting choice wasn't top of the list of things to complain about.

And here is a much murkier example. In James Fennimore Cooper's novel The Last of the Mohicans, Cora and Alice are half-sisters with different mothers. Cora, the older sister, has a mother from the Caribbean who died, and then their father (a British military man named Col. Munro) remarried Alice's mother (who also died). N.C. Wyeth's illustrations suggest that he may have viewed Cora as mulatto; but as far as I know, the book never made that explicit. A lot was made of how fair Alice was, and how she was blond while her older sister was dark-haired, but is there an explicit reference to Cora's darker skin in the novel? Not that I recall. It is a reasonable interpretation of the story as written, though.

Here is one of Wyeth's illustrations of the sisters:

(I know the lighting of this scene is partially responsible for the apparent differences, but Cora is still the darkest-skinned 'white' person in this scene.)

In the 1992 film of The Last of the Mohicans, Cora is played by Madeleine Stowe. They neglect to mention that Cora and Alice are half-sisters; they are simply sisters in this version. They also add a romance between Cora and Hawkeye that is not present in the book (which has a one-sided Uncas/Cora romance). Now, to be clear, Madeleine Stowe's mother is from Costa Rica - so they *did* choose an actress with some family connection to the Caribbean.
bd5a859f88d63fb3fcda5ab9620657e1.jpg this 'whitewashing'? Did they 'erase' Cora's Caribbean heritage simply so audiences could enjoy a romantic scene between her and Daniel Day-Lewis' Hawkeye without any pesky questions about race being involved? I mean, maybe. One can certainly *suspect* that. But, one could just as easily defend the choices made as being faithful to the content of the book (more or less) when it came to casting Cora (they changed key aspects of how the story played out in this film). She's darkhaired, at least. If Cora's heritage were a key part of the story, then it would matter if she were portrayed differently. But in this case, it's difficult to even be certain what her intended heritage is.

That is why I call this case 'murky' - someone with a better understanding of the source material than my memories of reading the novel when I was 11 would have to weigh in to determine James Fennimore Cooper's intent; perhaps there is a clear description I have forgotten about* (see below). Certainly, a case could be made that Cora's casting is another change from the novel, and people could argue that this is indeed a case of whitewashing. All I know is that 12-year-old me had a very confusing conversation about this story with my father, in which I had read the book, and he had seen the film, and nothing was matching up - who lived, who was in love with who, what was happening. And at some point, in trying to distinguish between the sisters, I think I said, 'you know, the black one,' and then he was very puzzled!

As the Marvel and anime examples should make clear, fantasy stories are not automatically immune from accusations of whitewashing simply because they don't take place in the real world. The liveaction film of Avatar: The Last Airbender certainly erased the intended culture of its main protagonists - the Water Benders are meant to be based on the Inuit, and in the film, they are...decidedly not. Likewise, almost all portrayals of 'Tiger Lily' in Peter Pan are considered problematic (to put it mildly).

So, to circle back to Lord of the Rings. Is it true that Peter Jackson cast white people (and only white people) as 'heroes' in his films? Yes. Hobbits, elves, dwarves, Men of Rohan and Gondor - all 100% white IIRC. it also true that Tolkien wrote his stories with all of these characters also being white? That...would be more difficult to prove. Sure, Middle-earth is 'fantasy Europe' on some level. But hobbits, elves, and dwarves aren't even meant to look human, let alone specifically European. And Tolkien is notoriously scant on physical descriptions of his characters, giving just the vaguest of impressions about them. So...any reference to someone not being white-skinned would be fairly significant, right? This is just the prelude to pointing out that hobbits are described as brown-skinned more than once. Sure, maybe that just means 'tanned'. They are curly haired. They typically have dark hair and brown eyes. So, given that description of hobbits, would your mind immediately go to 'white Europeans'? Yes, yes, I know about the Shire being based on the English countryside during the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. And hobbit surnames are all meant to sound very English. There is certainly an argument to be made for portraying hobbits as English people who are just over 3' tall with hairy feet. But...there is also an argument to be made for portraying hobbits with more skin pigmentation...based on descriptions Tolkien wrote.

Failure to do so is not necessarily 'whitewashing'. Whitewashing would have been portraying the Pukel-men as white people. Instead, Peter Jackson's film cuts them entirely. I think it would be more accurate to say that Peter Jackson's interpretation is a possible, but by no means the only possible, reading of Tolkien's stories when it comes to the portrayal of race. I am not suggesting that Tolkien never told us that his characters were white. Of course there are explicit references to that (such as the description of Isildur in The Lost Road). But he didn't tell us that all of his characters are white; that was an adaptation choice made by Peter Jackson.
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Define whitewashing! American identity politics are confusing to most europeans as US americNs for some reason seem to think of latinos Orientals, sometimes even mediterraneans as non-white and non-caucasian... which is weird to us because in europe we tend to see these groups as whites, though whites which have different stereotypes attached to them than north, middle or eastern europeans.

One could argue the Lord of the rings movies by jackson were whitewashed because they ommited more-dark skinned hobbit-types, such as sam gamgee who was "brown", by not showing the easterlings, who may have been oriental or asian looking, by replacing the Black men of Harad , corsairs and Haradrim, who may at least partially been mediterranean, oriental, african looking, by white actors, by ignoring the more dark skinned, rather mediterranean look of the Gondorians and Dunlendings by having them played by typical western-european looking actors...

So in a way yes one could argue there has been some degree of whitewashing. Movies do that all the times because of the actors they cast... back in the day they even had asian and native american parts played by whites with bad make-up.And today theres a reverse tendency to cast afro-american actors into white roles... probably in order to repay some historical debt, but that is also rubbish in my eyes... it does the movies no good.If they want to give jobs to non-white actors they should start to write and produce material that actually does have good and legit roles for them.

On the other hand in the Hobbit movies deep roy appeared as a bree-hobbit, so some "less-white" Hobbits DO exist in the movieverse as well ,though admittendly not as lead characters. And they had some asian people and even a black woman in lake-town... which seems to have upset some people claiming there were some weird pc identity politics at work there... while i think it makes total sense for a trade hub such as Esgaroth which was CLOSELY neighbouring the Easterlings to have a more diverse population... you know, whatever you do, you can just never do it right for everyone.
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To follow up on my Last of the Mohicans example....

At any rate, I am hardly the only person who noticed this in the film treatment. Here is a messageboard discussion from 1998 touching on the same issue:
And a newspaper article from 1992 discusses race, casting, and historical accuracy in the film:
(In case anyone thinks it is simply a 'new' complaint when Hollywood does stuff like this.)

But more importantly, I did look up the relevant passages!

Here is how Cora is described early in the book:
"The tresses of this lady were shining and black, like the plumage of the raven. Her complexion was not brown, but it rather appeared charged with the colour of the rich blood, that seemed ready to burst its bounds. And yet there was neither coarseness, nor want of shadowing, in a countenance that was exquisitely regular and dignified, and surpassingly beautiful."​

Naturally, that could describe a variety of different backgrounds. If this were the only indication within the story concerning Cora's particular background, I would consider that very open to interpretation and not at all definitive. But, it is not.

Here is how Cora's father responds to a young man who has just asked for her younger sister Alice's hand in marriage (This is a Leah and Rachel situation; you're not supposed to propose marriage to the younger sister if there are older unmarried sisters in this culture):
"Duty called me to the West Indies. There it was my lot to form a connection with one who in time became my wife, and the mother of Cora. She was the daughter of a gentleman of those isles, by a lady, whose misfortune it be descended, remotely, from that unfortunate class, who are so basely enslaved to administer to the want of a luxurious people!... But could I find a man...who would dare to reflect on my child, he should feel the weight of a father's anger. Ha! Major Heyward, you are yourself born in the south, where these unfortunate beings are considered a race inferior to your own!"​

Major Heyward is from Virginia; this conversation is taking place in New York state in 1757. Col. Munro is a real historical person (though as far as I know his daughters are fictional). The novel was written in 1826 by Cooper, who is from Cooperstown, New York. I would say that Cora is explicitly mulatto in the novel (having one grandparent of African descent), and her father refers to her racial background as something that others may think make her less suitable for marriage to a white man, but that *he* does not. Also, enough reviewers were critical of having a black heroine in the novel when it came out to leave no question that contemporaries saw the distinction between the races of the two sisters quite clearly! So, I am glad that 11-year-old me was not mistaken about this aspect of the story, though naturally, there was a lot I didn't know at the time. Like the context of this quote from the title page from the Merchant of Venice, which I did not read until 5 years later: "Mislike me not, for my complexion, the shadowed livery of the burnished sun." That suggests that the races of the characters was hardly incidental to the story Cooper was telling - I am much more willing to label the 1992 casting of Cora Munro definitively an example of white-washing now, rather than simply something I thought after reading the novel and later seeing the film.

Here is a talk given in 2000 by Hugh C. MacDougall about the geography of Glens Falls, the role of the Fort William Henry massacre in early American history, and the depiction of race in the novel. This definitely counts as my seeking out someone who knows more about James Fennimore Cooper than I do to figure out what was intended here!
To leave the subject of whitewashing, and go on to your second question about Manwe and Varda:

JRRT's conception of the Valar, and of relations between the Valar changed many times as he wrote, and re-wrote, and revised his 'Silmarillion' material.

Early on, he conceived the Valar as having marriages and having children. Later on, he dropped the idea that Valar could have children, and seemed to move away from a strictly 'marriage' conception of Valar interpersonal relationships. He still often linked individual 'male' and 'female' Vala, but the connection was much more spiritual than physical, sexual, or 'marital'.

The Valar depicted in 'The Silmarillion' no longer have children. They are also probably not 'married' as we would define it. 'The Valaquenta' describes the relationship between Manwe and Varda as: "With Manwe dwells Varda.... Manwe and Varda are seldom parted and they remain in Valinor.... When Manwe there ascends his throne and looks forth, if Varda is beside him, he sees further than all other eyes.... and if Manwe is with her, Varda hears more clearly than all other ears."

It does not say that they are 'married', though clearly they are partners, both opposed to Morgoth, and each is more powerful in the presence of the other.

In 'The Silmarillion', Yavanna is called the 'spouse' of Aule. Vaire is called the 'spouse' of Namo (Mandos). Este is called the 'spouse' of Irmo. Nessa is the 'spouse' of Tulkas. Vana is the 'spouse' of Orome. Ulmo and Nienna are both said to dwell alone.

So, in the published 'Silmarillion' ten Vala are said to be in 'spousal' relationships. Manwe and Varda are said to 'dwell together', but are not referred to as 'spouses'. Ulmo and Nienna are said to 'dwell alone'.

What exactly a 'spousal' relationship was meant to be at the time of the writings which Christopher Tolkien included in the published 'Silmarillion' is not particularly clear. In earlier JRRT writings, the Vala had marriages, and they had children. Manwe and Varda were married in these earlier writings and they had a son, Fionwe (later Eonwe). However, JRRT later dropped the notion of children of the Valar. By the time of the 'Silmarillion' writings, Eonwe had ceased to be a son of Manwe and Varda, and become a Maia, the Herald of Manwe.

In later writings, which Christopher Tolkien did not include in the 'Silmarillion', I think JRRT moved even further away from the notion that Vala had spouses or marriages.

So, in answer to your question, you might both be right. In early conception by JRRT, Manwe and Varda were certainly married and had a son. In later conception, JRRT moved away from the notion that marriage and children happened with the Valar. If JRRT had ever arrived at a version of 'The Silmarillion' which thought ready to publish, I suspect that all mention of 'spouses' amongst the Valar would have been dropped, and, where they were paired up, it would have been in spiritual partnership, with physical, sexual, or romantic connotations clearly excluded.

By the way, the notion of any 'romantic leaning' relationship between Manwe and Ulmo seems unfounded and unlikely.

The trend of JRRT's thought over time on the nature of the Valar was to make them less physical, more spiritual, less human, more angelic, less 'married', more 'collegial' the more he thought about it.