Well, here we are at last. After months of anticipation, argument, and recriminations, Amazon Studios’ The Rings of Power released its first two episodes on September 1. No more trailers, no more rumors, no more prophecies of doom: we now have the show itself. And what to make of it? As C. S. Lewis reminds us, “The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is—what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used”; after all, unless we know what something was intended to do, we cannot judge whether it succeeds. It seems to me that The Rings of Power can be considered in two primary ways: as an attempt to bring Tolkien’s vision to life on screen, and as a stand-alone artistic product.
Let us consider the show first as an adaptation of Tolkien. Here our task is easy: whatever else the show may be, it is not “Tolkien”; nor is it—as the opening credits claim—based on The Lord of the Rings and its appendices in any meaningful way. This point must be driven home: the writers openly insisted that their principle was always to return to the book for guidance and inspiration; credulous critics have believed them. This is simply not true.
Not a single character from Tolkien’s books is preserved intact, nor are any of the fundamental relationships preserved. Timelines, geography, and plot points are mangled beyond recognition. What we have instead is a slate of entirely new characters engaging in an entirely new plot; a handful of these newly forged characters are dignified by famous names cherry-picked from Tolkien’s book. Galadriel, Elrond, Gil-galad: the actors wear these names with all the sincerity, and all the credibility, of a child in a plastic Halloween mask. If I had to guess, I would say that the writers’ chief imaginative influences are (in order) HBO’s Game of Thrones, the original Peter Jackson Trilogy, and Dungeons and Dragons-style role-playing games.
One could be forgiven for suspecting that neither writer had ever read Tolkien’s work. But if they did in fact read The Lord of the Rings, they fundamentally misunderstood it: in their hands, Tolkien’s moral and imaginative universe is simply gutted. I have written at length elsewhere about the moral touchstones of Tolkien’s world: piety, gratitude, and humility. In The Rings of Power, these virtues are absent—indeed, they are acknowledged only insofar as they are repeatedly rejected.
A few examples will have to serve. In Tolkien’s legendarium, the Elves’ flight from Valinor in pursuit of Morgoth was an act of hubris and part of their original sin. In Rings of Power it becomes an act of heroic “resistance.” Nori Brandyfoot—the show’s stand-in for Frodo Baggins—repeatedly transgresses the bounds set by her cautious, traditional elders; the actress portraying the character rejoices in her subversion of “Harfoot tradition.” The human single mother and the elven soldier engage in a forbidden romance to the dismay of their friends and superiors; indeed, the pair at one point run off together on adventure—he deserting his post and she, her child. All these decisions are presented as sympathetic, praiseworthy, and meritorious. By contrast, every authority figure (Elf and Man, Dwarf and Hobbit) is shown to be deeply suspect if not radically flawed —avaricious, insecure, obtuse, or conniving. They are (almost) all driven by a naked self-interest.
The worst of all, however, comes in the show’s protagonist and chief dramatic focus, its reimagined Galadriel. Tolkien’s idealized vision of feminine beauty and grace—a vision, he admitted later, that may have been subconsciously rooted in his love for the Blessed Virgin—has become an arrogant Amazon obsessed hell-bent on revenge. This new character—“Commander Galadriel”—is also one of the least likable protagonists ever committed to screen. She pursues vengeance against Sauron with single-minded purpose and a smothering self-righteousness. The orders of her king, the counsel of her friend, and the safety of her soldiers all count for nothing in comparison (the scene in which her platoon mutinies is, unintentionally, perhaps the most satisfying moment in the first two episodes). The writers attempt to atone for her obvious shortcomings by presenting Galadriel as the victim of a unique and unimaginable suffering (she’s broken, you see!); in practice, this means the heroine repeatedly downplays others’ pain to exalt her own. Perhaps we can forgive her for trauma-trumping the fancy lad Elrond in the security of the Elven capital, but when she does so with a shipwreck survivor facing imminent death by drowning or exposure or dehydration, it feels just a little bit much. My wise and long-suffering wife joined me in my screening of the show; she noted that precisely nothing about Galadriel would need to be changed to make her a convincing villain.
In this, she was certainly right: and I confess that I still struggle to process the transformation of the character. It is clear that the writers think they are making Galadriel more interesting; it is equally clear that they have succeeded only in making her worse in every possible way. Where does their destructive impiety come from? Were I to give full rein to my paranoid and conspiratorial tendencies, I would fret about the Luciferian images and undercurrents in the show: as when the show’s chief moral authority advises another that, in order to follow the true light, she must first touch the darkness; or when Galadriel turns away from the light of the Blessed Realm that she may pursue her quest of self-actualization; or when the Elves’ fall from grace is presented as an act of virtue; or when a major and seemingly benevolent character arrives in Middle-Earth as a fallen star (we see him fall, like lightning, from the heavens). But surely these are merely the private concerns of an addle-brained academic. We pass them by, for now.
For now, let it be sufficient to say the show touches nothing that it does not debase: nothing that it fails to make shabby and sordid. Amazon’s Elves are, as Jackson’s were, regrettably aloof and alien and cold; now they are also conniving and occasionally cruel. The Dwarven realm of Khazad-Dûm has all the majesty and dignity of a frat house on a football weekend. Men—all men, as far as I can tell—are presented as vulgar and suspicious and bigoted. The hobbits are unbearable yokels. Tolkien sought to enchant the world through fairy-story. The Rings of Power is, fundamentally, an exercise in disenchantment.
For all this, there is some good news: if the show fails to capture the spirit of Tolkien, it also fails—as even mainstream critics admit—as a show. The words of Shakespeare’s Philostrate can be easily applied to the Rings: “in all the play / There is not one word apt, one player fitted.” Editing and pacing are poor; the special effects leave something to be desired; costumes and make-up look cheap and silly; there is yet no discernable plot. Characters are inconsistent: we first meet one leading children—children—into reckless danger; not long after she is praised by another for her unfailing sense of responsibility.
The dialogue is similarly reckless and clumsily executed, careening wildly between conflicting registers of speech. On the one hand, the characters frequently slip into frankly modern vocabulary and speech patterns. This is uncanny: the Elves, Dwarves, and Men of Middle-Earth should not sound like characters out of a modern soap opera. But perhaps even more jarring are the attempts at pseudo-Tolkienian archaism; these are usually about as convincing as the efforts of a costumed performer at a second-rate Renaissance fair. “It is said the wine of victory is sweetest for those in whose bitter trials it was fermented.” I suppose it is. “Even stone cannot hide the mark of one whose very hand is flame unquenched.” Well, when you put it that way.
A gleeful essay could be written examining the show’s turgid dialogue. But it gets worse. The problems laid out above can be attributed to poor execution or insufficient art: writers striving after grand effects they are unable to achieve. But then there are the elements of the show that are—for lack of any more precise term—just plain dumb. Nomadic hunters wander about, carrying (for some reason) comically massive antlers on their backs. Proto-hobbits use lanterns filled with lightning bugs. Elrond and Durin share an elevator ride in Moria (my wife, again: “If they’re going to show an elevator ride, they should at least lean into it and have soft jazz playing in the background”). Galadriel decides to swim an entire ocean. But if the show insults the intelligence of its audience, the audience has responded in kind: the show’s fan rating on Rotten Tomatoes sits currently at a dismal 37%. This lack of artistry is, paradoxically, all to the good. A more competently executed product might have become a staple of our cultural imagination and distorted a generation’s understanding of Tolkien. As it is, we have reason to hope that Jeff Bezos’s billion-dollar fan fiction will fail to leave any lasting mark.
And this brings me to the last of my first-blush impressions of Rings: not anger, not a sense of betrayal, but merely a weary sadness. It is, in the end, not terribly surprising that some filmmakers finally succeeded in turning Tolkien’s great work into dull, forgettable dreck: they’ve been trying for over half a century. Other popular intellectual properties—Star Wars and Star Trek and Harry Potter—have been similarly exploited in recent years, ground into dust by the greed of the studios and pride of hack writers. And therein lies the sadness. The Lord of the Rings was always different. It is, unlike the other franchises mentioned, a truly great work: one of the twentieth century’s few real works of genius. Moreover, for decades after its completion, Tolkien’s novel was treasured and guarded, first by Tolkien himself, and then by his son Christopher. But that is gone now: and we have every reason to expect that The Rings of Power will not be the last unscrupulous attempt to cash in on Tolkien’s legacy.
But this is the way of the works of men, a race doomed to mortality and decay. “It is ever so with the things that Men begin,” says Gimli the Dwarf, “there is a frost in Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise.” In Leaf by Niggle—Tolkien’s allegorical exploration of his life and art—the professor imagined a future where his work was ignored and ultimately forgotten: the worldlings and men of affairs of Niggle’s town saw no use for his art and let it decay. In the real world, something very different has happened: the same people have transformed Tolkien’s works into an endlessly monetizable consumer product. I wonder which fate their creator would have preferred.
[Image Credit: Amazon Prime]