“The Rings of Power” is a new streaming series based on Appendix A of “The Lord of the Rings”. It gives the history of Middle Earth before the War of the Ring: the second rise and fall of Sauron, the destruction of the greatest land of Men, Numenor, and of the Dwarves’ greatest domain, Khazad-dum. It stars major characters like Galadriel, Elrond, and Gandalf. Amazon Studios paid $250M for just the story rights, and triple that for the production. When all else fails, it has the scenery of New Zealand to fall back on.
So it’s got a big story, a big budget, and great visuals. Yet it’s not working, especially compared to the movie version of LotR. Galadriel, for instance, is a kind of grim bully instead of being the sorceress queen of the world:
The new actress, Morfydd Clark, is 6″ shorter than Cate Blanchett, and doesn’t have her bearing. To be fair, no one does. Elrond is no longer the wise duke of Rivendell – he’s a slick political aide. Elendil and Isildur are not the mighty father-and-son warriors who go after Sauron in single combat – they’re a grouchy middle-management dad and his moody teenage boy. I’m sure they’ll all evolve over the course of the series, but the first few episodes have given us little reason to care about them.
The dialogue is pedestrian too, but maybe that can’t be helped. Tolkien wrote the languages of Middle Earth before he created the world, and it shows in the sonority of his writing. Only someone with an expert ear, like George R. R. Martin, can actually do this well.
So that’s all a shame, but the world is full of bad Tolkien pastiches. I care because I’ve always been a Tolkien fan, but why should you care?
Because it’s being politicized. Right-wing trolls are seizing on its diverse casting to say “Look, the globalist media elite is ruining your beloved books to cram their phony progressive agenda down your throats!” There is now a Black elf, a Black dwarf and a Black hobbit. There’s only one of each, so they’re pretty much tokens. The female characters are consistently smarter, tougher, and bolder than the males. It’s full of what the trolls call The Message, and they’re using that slant to tar the whole production. It’s not mediocre because Tolkien is a hard act to follow; it’s marred by its progressive elements.
Amazon is not taking this lying down, of course. They’ve invested an enormous amount in this, perhaps because it was one of the few major genre intellectual properties still available. Other studios are busy exploiting Star Wars, Star Trek, Marvel, DC, and Harry Potter for all they’re worth, although there’s little to wring out of them at this point. Apple even produced a Foundation series, but I thought it was a disaster. So Amazon is pushing tRoP pretty hard, with ads for it on the packaging of their boxes. Their proxies have put out lots of stories criticizing the criticism, calling it racist and MAGA-ish. They have a point – a lot of the criticism really does sound nasty, but it’s a replay of the defense of the slack Ghostbusters reboot and the under-cooked Ms Marvel movie.
So a routine piece of Hollywood adaptation gets sucked up into the American culture wars. That’s mortifying, but it’s also a sign of how Hollywood misunderstands the soul of what they’re adapting. They take great works but don’t trust the writer’s understanding. “Game of Thrones” fell apart when it moved beyond Martin’s novels. Star Wars 7, 8, and 9 were glitzed-up copies of the original, sometimes scene-for-scene. Star Trek re-booted with a different cast and timeline because the original wasn’t violent enough. Even Marvel had a consistent theme in the first few movies of sons-with-difficult-fathers, and diversity-creating-strength, and that’s gone in the recent ones. Amazon actually did do this right in their great adaptation of “The Expanse” novels, but they kept the original writers involved all the way through.
The show runners here just don’t seem to get it. The theme of the Lord of the Rings is that the world is vast and ancient, and full of wonderful and terrible things, but that even the humble can contribute. It opens on the smallest scale in the Shire and then expands from there, showing the above, not telling. Gandalf is actually an archangel, but he starts as an old guy in a cart.
This starts with Galadriel jumping around in a cave while battling a snow troll, and that just takes the mystery out of her. When we meet Durin, the crown prince of the dwarves, he’s irked because Elrond didn’t come to his wedding. Dwarves aren’t fearsome figures from the underworld, they’re grumpy building contractors. This all makes Middle Earth seem more like our own, and that’s not what we want from it.