When I was young, the on-screen representation of fantasy dwarves was hard to watch. Seeing people who look like me with their faces painted orange in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, merrily singing as they worked away their lives in a windowless building, felt othering and weird. The reductiveness of the dwarves in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was insulting, to put it mildly, and I couldn’t exactly relate to being an Ewok (in Return of the Jedi).
This winter has seen the release of two new major fantasy series, Willow (Disney+), set years after the original film, and The Witcher: Blood Origin (Netflix), a prequel to the hugely successful series The Witcher, based on the books of the same name by Andrzej Sapkowski. Both feature actors with dwarfism playing fantasy dwarves in central roles.
You might be thinking “hurrah for diversity!”, but the existence of fantasy dwarves on screen holds a complex and sensitive history for those of us who have dwarfism off screen.
Fantasy “dwarves” – the spelling of which was coined by JRR Tolkien – first appeared in Norse/Germanic mythology as a fictional race that are slightly shorter than average height and have attributes that are unique to being make-believe characters – for example being exaggerated muscular and stocky. Other characteristics differ depending on the story, but they all typically wear the same clothing, share habits, live together and move as a group. Prime material for playground bullies.
I am still haunted by memories of primary school kids asking if I was the “Grumpy” or “Happy” dwarf today, and singing “heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to work we go” at me. Don’t get me started on the Oompa Loompa song, unless you’re planning to foot my therapy bill.
On the news of a Snow White reboot earlier this year, actor Peter Dinklage voiced similar concerns. While it is great for actors who have dwarfism to be given roles in an industry so toxically exclusive that most of us have no hope, how can it be progressive when those characters perpetuate such harmful, negative tropes about us – and hold us back from being Seen as human at all?
On the other hand, the decision Peter Jackson made not to cast actors with dwarfism in his The Hobbit film series and The Lord of the Rings felt frustrating at the time, given the aforementioned lack of jobs offered to actors with dwarfism. As I said – this topic is complex.
The Star Wars films have featured a number of actors with dwarfism, the majority of whom were dressed up as Ewoks – allowing them no room to shine under all that fur. The actor Warwick Davis, who played Wicket in Return of the Jedi, then went on to star as the eponymous Willow (1988), a film that was very progressive for its time because not only were the dwarves actual people, not creatures, but they also now personalities! I remember watching it as a child and thinking: “Wow, this is a bit of me.” That said, Willow’s dwarves, in the original and the new series, are still a fantasy race, and thus contribute to the other illusion that we exist separately to average height people, not among them.
Of course, all of this self only fantasy, and people might be reading this thinking “it’s obvious those characters aren’t real, so what’s your point?”. My point is that we need to see more accurate dwarfism representation on screen before people who know nothing about us can reject the wealth of misinformation they often subconsciously consume. If the only exposure someone has to dwarfism is from a fantasy dwarf race, they are going to assume things that are likely incorrect about people who have dwarfism, whether aware of it or not.
But maybe that’s all about to change. I’m halfway through The Witcher: Blood Origin and can safely reveal that Francesca Mills’ character Meldof is funny, fiery and independent, all things that are so obviously about her person rather than her race. She is surrounded by an average height cast and forms meaningful connections with them. Seeing this character in her full humanity, yes I relate to her because we share an impairment, but I also relate to her as a personality. Viewers will care about her character because of who she is, not because she looks different.
People with dwarfism should be given the opportunity to play fantasy dwarf roles; if we were absent from the genre it wouldn’t be fair. But while there is still such a lack of dwarfism representation on-screen in general, it’s important to ensure that what is there doesn’t further any negative tropes. I’m glad shows such as The Witcher: Blood Origin are finally tackling that tricky balance of bringing fantasy dwarves and people with dwarfism together in a human way. So long as this kind of representation prevails, I think there might be hope for us in fantasy yet.