Translating Tolkien to film has always been a ticklish business. The first attempts to bring The Lord of the Rings to the screen in the late 1950s so dismayed Tolkien that he wrote a page-by-page correction of the “extreme silliness and incompetence” of the screenwriter. The last line of his final letter on the subject offers a fitting summary of the whole affair: “The Lord of the Rings cannot be garbled like that.”
Similarly, and despite the movies’ massive critical and financial success, Tolkien’s son Christopher had little positive to say about the original Peter Jackson trilogy: Jackson had “eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25” and “absorbed [The Lord of the Rings] into the absurdity of our time.” And, of course, the less said about the execrable Hobbit trilogy, the better.
But records are made to be broken, they say—and it seems likely that Amazon Studios’ Rings of Power series will soon surpass Peter Jackson’s Battle of the Five Armies as the worst vandalism of Tolkien ever committed to film. The earliest reports on the series were discouraging enough; practically from the moment the project was announced, ominous portents began to escape from Amazon Studios like flames shooting from Mount Doom.
The showrunners originally brought Tom Shippey—Anglo-Saxonist, medievalist, and one of the preeminent Tolkien scholars of his generation—in to serve as a consultant; he parted ways with the show by April of 2020. Two novice writers were hired to pen the sprawling series, even though neither had a single IMDb credit to their name. The studio hired “intimacy coaches” to help prepare actors for nude scenes.
Now Vanity Fair has given readers their first glimpse behind the scenes of the series—and it looks very much as though fans’ worst fears will soon be realized. But before considering the full range of catastrophic decisions made by the showrunners, let us pause to consider one controversial decision that may actually be defended: the introduction of characters never named or imagined by Tolkien. Granted, the invention of new characters may turn out to be a problem in fact, but it need not be on principle. It is in the nature of a great tale—the legend of Arthur, or the tale of Troy—to inspire imitators, continuators, and even (in a sense) collaborators.
The Lord of the Rings is no exception to this rule—a fact that Tolkien predicted and, at one point, seems to have endorsed. As he developed his mythology, he intended to “draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched”; doing so would “leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.” These other minds and hands would bring the “sketched” tales to full life.
The question, then, is not whether the new work adheres to Tolkien in every detail; Tolkien himself licensed some innovation. The question is whether the innovators have the wisdom to understand Tolkien’s vision, the humility to be guided by it, and the creative skill to bring it to life. In short, the question is whether the new work will be worthy of being accepted as part of some organic and authentic post-Tolkien canon or of being rejected as the product of clumsy and exploitive cynicism.
All signs point to the latter. The problem that has generated the most online controversy—though it is hardly the most serious—is Amazon’s commitment to diversifying Middle-Earth. “It felt only natural to us,” says the show’s executive producer, “that an adaptation of Tolkien’s work would reflect what the world actually looks like.” But their world is not Tolkien’s world; as any serious reader of Tolkien knows, he intended his Middle-Earth to provide a mythology for England.
The work was, as he explained to Milton Waldman, to “be redolent of our ‘air,’” that is, “the clime and soil of the North West, meaning Britain and the hither parts of Europe.” This is arguably the primary aesthetic aim of Tolkien’s work. That the studio is willing to discard it in favor of their own half-understood commitments to contemporary identity politics does not bode well for their other decisions.
This impertinent studio-knows-best attitude can also be seen in the show’s approach to Tolkien’s chronology. Tolkien laid out the millennia of Middle-Earth’s history with meticulous care—the thousands of pages that fill the History of Middle Earth volumes are a testament to his efforts. Largely because of this obsession with detail, Tolkien’s subcreation is invested with much of the layered depth, texture, and contours of Primary Creation. His characters move in a world fully furnished with its own history, folklore, and myth—and so the imaginary world feels authentically real.
Amazon’s writers, however, will have none of this. In an act of shocking literary violence, they compress over three thousand years of Tolkien’s imagined history into a several-year span. The story they tell features events from the beginning, middle, and end of the Second Age—the aftermath of the War of Wrath, the forging of the Rings of Power, and Isildur and the fall of Númenor—all ransacked from their proper timelines, and all compressed into a “single point in time.”
One sympathizes with the writers, at least to some degree: here at least they can offer some artistic reason for their actions. There really is no way to present a millennia-spanning history in a television miniseries. And perhaps the radical compression of the narrative will allow them to tell an engaging story. But whatever story they tell, it will not be Tolkien—his events will be falsified, characters distorted, and fundamental relationships destroyed. And if the writers cannot adapt the book to screen without distorting it beyond recognition, it would have been much better not to adapt it at all.
But there remains a yet greater problem. It looks very much as though Amazon Studios’ impatient scorn for Tolkien’s moral vision runs every bit as deep as their disregard for his aesthetics and his history. The Lord of the Rings was, Tolkien famously noted, “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work”; Tolkien himself is one of the great orderly authors of human history. The screenwriters, by contrast, seem to be thoroughly steeped in the chaos and squalor of our own age, which rejoices in the deconstruction of traditional morality, the breaking of taboos, and the degradation of what previous ages held noble and sacred.
In our modernized Middle-Earth, the wise and gracious Elrond becomes “a politically ambitious young leader;” Galadriel a warrior princess-Rhine maiden-and-goodness-knows-what-else. One of the new characters introduced is “a single mother and a healer”; she has a forbidden romance with yet another new character. It is possible that the writers could handle such themes with something like Tolkien’s delicate touch and clear moral vision. I won’t be holding my breath.
The final impression from the new article is one of overwhelming arrogance and ignorance: the Vanity Fair piece is chock-full of quotations from people quite happy to tell you what Tolkien means without having bothered to get even a passing acquaintance with the Professor’s thought. So, for instance, an actor interprets the rule of General Franco as an apt analogue to Sauron’s domination; Tolkien supported Franco’s side in the Spanish Civil War. So the executive producer defends the show’s diverse casting; she either does not know or does not care that Tolkien identified his imaginary world, repeatedly, with Northwest Europe. So the Vanity Fair reporter sees “unity” as a central message of The Lord of the Rings. And so on.
Why would Amazon bother to spend so much time and money on a work they neither respect nor understand? All of this is happening, we are assured, because Jeff Bezos is obsessed with Tolkien. Here, at last, we come to something resembling sense: it is fitting for Bezos to be obsessed with Tolkien, as Tolkien was, in a way, obsessed with Bezos. Not that the Professor ever met the mogul, of course. But the Amazon executive represents—as well as any individual could—precisely those evils that Tolkien warned about in his novels.
Bezos is the apotheosis of American corporate capitalism; Tolkien was terrified by the prospect of “Americo-cosmopolitanism” and suggested that its triumph would be, at least spiritually, as dangerous as the victory of Nazi Germany. Tolkien was profoundly distrustful of “the Machine” and the engineers who serve it; Jeff Bezos has put an ever-listening Alexa into millions of households and has launched his own space program.
Similarities between Bezos’ Amazon and Tolkienian evil could run to several pages. But one is particularly relevant for our understanding of the Rings of Power series. For the Augustinian and Catholic Tolkien, all stories are ultimately about the Fall, and pride is the primordial sin. But he defines this sin in a curious way. In Tolkien’s legendarium, the Fall comes when a man clings too tightly to the things he has made, when “[t]he sub-creator wishes to be Lord and God of his own private creation.” When he does so, “[h]e will rebel against the laws of the Creator—especially against mortality.” Pride seeks domination; domination rejects death.
Consequently, acceptance of mortality is the great acid test of virtue in Tolkien’s world. The wise (Aragorn, Frodo, and in the end Galadriel) accept their limited span on earth and depart at their appointed time. The rebels do not—and they seek ever-new ways to prolong their grip on life. This is the motive behind the fall of Númenor and the corruption of Gondor, and indeed in the forging of the Rings of Power to begin with.
In a remarkable coincidence, news broke last fall that Bezos has invested heavily in anti-aging technology, seeking to reverse the aging process and boost the human lifespan well beyond its natural range. One can only conclude that, despite his obsession with Tolkien, Bezos has failed to understand the message of The Lord of the Rings at all. Or, perhaps, he has understood it all too well.
In all this, is there any room for hope? It is possible that Vanity Fair’s reporting is inaccurate. After all, anyone who describes Game of Thrones as the “spiritual successor” to Tolkien can be, at best, marginally literate. But it appears very much as though Sauron has, for the moment, captured the Ring: Amazon paid handsomely for the rights to Tolkien’s world and seems intent on exploiting it for all it is worth.
We may never see a suitable adaptation of Tolkien on screen—and it may be the Amazon series will poison an entire generation’s encounter with Tolkien. But as a wise hobbit remarked in the face of a darker hour than our own: they cannot conquer forever.
[Photo Credit: Ben Rothstein/Amazon Studios]