Aesthetics, Bigotry, or Something Else?

Unless you are an aficionado of fantasy, you may not be aware of the two major video releases of 2022 fantasies: the live action version of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series on Netflix and the Amazon Prime series, Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. And if you are not aware of these series, you probably are not aware of the controversies that followed their release. The controversies in both cases boil down to the same thing: fans are not happy with the changes that have been made to the characters in these works of fiction. And the changes in question seem to boil down to the same problem: people of color, although to be fair, there have been gender changes in Sandman which have also upset fans.

Never mind that Sandman casting was done with input from the creator of that work, Neil Gaiman. Never mind that the casting of The Rings of Power was done with input from Tolkien’s grandson, Simon Tolkien. Still, some fans are vocally unhappy; they are sure that these race and gender changes are completely uncalled for and pretty generally ruin the works that they love.

What are these “original” works that they love? In the case of the Sandman, it’s a graphic novel. In the case of The Lord of the Rings, the originals were novels and stories, although many fans are basing their opinions on the film series by Peter Jackson in the very early 2000s.

The specific objections to Rings of Power are not limited to the introduction of non-white characters, but also include making the harfoots, prototypical hobbits, Irish who resemble 19th century cartoons, and minimal facial hair on female dwarves. The objections to The Sandman are similar; they include Death being played by a Black actress instead of a white Goth girl, Lucifer being played by a woman,  and Desire being played by a non-binary actor—and they look different from the comic book drawings.

Neil Gaiman has been quite active defending casting choices and reminding fans that his characters have taken many different forms and genders even in the comic series. Gaiman has also weighed in on the Rings of Power controversy as well. So now a number of fans on Twitter think he was one of the creators of Rings of Power, a series that he has no association with at all. His arguments point out the foibles of most of the critics, and those are many. Some have even tried to say that having people of color in Rings of Power is “historically inaccurate.” Gaiman has suggested that many have not actually read Tolkien.

But what is all this really about? Is it that a certain segment of vocal fans are simply bigoted? Is it that making gender and race changes in an established fictional world is offensive to the audience’s sense of aesthetics? Or is it just that any sort of change to a fiction solidly seated in an audience’s mind is unsettling?

To claim that change in an artwork is unacceptable is an untenable position, particularly while the artist is still active. There have been for example, a number of versions and editions of The Sandman, including both color and black and white graphic versions, film versions, and audio versions; Gaiman has been involved in several of these. Even when authors are no longer available, other artists often reimagine the fictions they have created—sometimes to great effect. The best example of this, of course, are the vast number of interpretations given to the works of Shakespeare, or works based on Shakespeare’s plays.

Certainly, we do not have to like all changes or all adaptations or all interpretations of an existing work, but when we do voice our dislike for something another artist has created or modified, we must be sure of our footing; we must be sure that our reasoning is solid and based on something other than bias. Just as we hope our audiences will stay open to our efforts, we must remain open to the work of others.

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Date: Sunday, 11. September 2022 20:54
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Aesthetics, Audience

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