How 'Warcraft' is Rewriting Tolkien's Fantasy World Invention, The Orc

'Warcraft' evolved the orc from its LotR roots, but will its vision stick?


J.R.R. Tolkien brought us the orc, and like most things Tolkien, it has become a staple of the fantasy genre. They were the perfect evil mercenaries for an epic fantasy battle: growling, ugly, uncomplicated, and in endless supply. It’s no wonder they were quickly adopted by numerous tabletop and video games. Yet Warcraft has been rewriting the orc into a complex race for years, which means moviegoers are in for a whole new orc experience.

Inverse wrote previously about how The Lord of the Rings (both book and film trilogy) defined the elf in our collective conscious. But unlike the elf, which was pulled and clarified from a number of mythologies, Tolkien basically invented the orc. In his telling, the orcs were originally elves, tortured and corrupted by Melkor until they became the purely evil, disfigured creatures we know today.

The word has an etymological link to ogres and even giants, but the physical appearance and characteristics have much more in common with the goblin. Tolkien establishes orcs and goblins as separate races, a distinction that also appears in Warcraft. Peter Jackson’s film trilogy defines what an orc is and what it looks like (varied but all pointy-eared and ugly as all get out) for the moviegoing public.

An orc from 'Lord of the Rings'


Meanwhile video games have adopted a very different orc aesthetic. The orcs of Warcraft are hulking warriors, with giant tusks and fully fleshed out cultures. (It’s an image also found in Skyrim and other popular games.) They are an entirely separate race and, in fact, come from a whole different planet. The circumstances of their arrival to Azeroth, the planet of the humans, are the subject of the upcoming film.

So while it’s a change that has been in place for a while, the average moviegoer may be surprised to see orcs that look more like this guy:


There’s even a sexy lady orc? Half orc, actually.

Evolving the orc has been an essential part of the world building of the Warcraft franchise. They did not start with this enlightened vision of the orc as a sympathetic character. The orcs of the 1994 game that started it all, Warcraft: Orcs and Humans were a lot more Tolkien-esque. By nature of its time, the game was a simple real time strategy one. The fleshed out universe came later, so Orcs and Humans was more of a straight-forward Orcs vs. Humans. For this, the ‘endless warring horde’ vision of the orc worked just fine. Yet as the subsequent Warcraft games expanded the races and histories into the ubiquitous gaming universe it is today, orcs had to grow with it.

The result is a race of creatures as fully fleshed out as any of the other. The orcs have their own cultures, histories and religions. They are warmongers, yes, but to varying degrees, and definitely not the mindless, scrabbling creatures we saw in Khazad Dum. There are also orc families, orc gender roles, and orc traditions.

Although the upcoming Warcraft film is a sort of origin story, set in the time period of Orcs and Humans, it has understandably kept the nuance of the contemporary orc. The characters you will see in Warcraft all hail from the planet Draenor, but they come from a variety of different orc tribes. The orcs here are mainly shamanistic cultures, and expect dark magic and mysticism to play a major role.



Unlike sexy elves, orcs do not have a centuries old tradition to draw from. Instead we have two very different, equally prevalent versions that are alike in name alone. As a made-up creature, the orc is ultimately defined by our popular understanding of it.

There’s a lot at play in the upcoming Warcraft. It’s taking the story back to the beginning, to the debut RTS game, while demonstrating just how far the franchise has evolved the orc. The character designs are stunning and we have high hopes it will break the mold of crappy video game movies.

While the Warcraft universe has been well known and loved by gamers since its inception, this is the first time Azeroth will be brought to life on the big screen for the moviegoing public. If the film can live up to its visuals, it may be set to rewrite the orc in our collective conscious for years to come.

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