A casting director working on the two Hobbit movies has been fired after placing an advert in the local newspaper specifying the need for 'lighter-skinned' people and turning away a woman of Pakistani descent, saying she had the wrong skin colour to play a Hobbit. When the casting director was fired by Peter Jackson, who states there are no restrictions on race when applying for the role of an extra in the film.
This has triggered an interesting debate online, with some crying "Political correctness gone mad!" against others pointing out that a 2010 movie should reflect modern multicultural sensibilities against a few frothing that "Tolkien was a racist!" (Tolkien, of course, once turning down a German publisher in the 1930s asking for the reprint rights to The Hobbit, finding his questions about his racial heritage and whether he had any Jewish blood to be insulting, Tolkien going as far to say that he was sorry to not be related to that gifted people). As it turns out, though, this is a bit of a non-issue. Tolkien himself said that the Harfoots (one of the three different ethnic groups of Hobbits) had darker skin than their compatriots, as did inhabitants of southern Gondor (which had a Mediterranean climate), whilst it is likely that the men of Dale and Laketown (being in the equivalent of Eastern Europe) could also have a more multicultural feel to them as well, so even within the context of the original stories there is no reason why non-white characters could not be present.
This issue has also raised its head with regards to other recent TV projects. The BBC series Merlin was initially derided by some commentators for having a black actress playing Guenivere and not providing any accurate historical explanation for it. Later episodes have revealed that rather than being set in historical post-Roman Britain, Merlin is in fact set in an ill-defined fantasyland called 'Albion' which has a different cultural mix to the historical source of the legends (not to mention a massive mountain range dwarfing anything in the real Britain), and thus the incongruity is not particularly relevant. More to the point, Merlin is a family show aimed partially at young children, and as such showing positive female and minority role models is laudable.
We are also likely to see this issue raised again when Game of Thrones airs next year. In the books Westeros does not have an indigenous black population, although the people of Dorne have Spanish and Moorish features. The Summer Islands to the south of the continent do provide a number of black characters, however, such as King's Landing brothel-owner Chataya and her daughter (we have no word if they are in the TV series, however), the crew of a Summer Islander 'swan ship', and exiled prince Jalabher Xho, who despite being frequently mentioned hasn't even had a line of dialogue in the books so far. In Daenerys's storyline set on the eastern continent there is a much greater racial mix going on, but some fans have expressed disappointment that HBO didn't take advantage of some characters' vague descriptions and origins in the books to cast actors of colour in a higher-profile role. For example, there was a strong, 'Idris Elba for Bronn' movement for a while (Idris Elba being the excellent British actor who played Stringer Bell in The Wire and Vaughn in Ultraviolet).
An interesting debate, and one that is likely to run and run.