Amazon’s Arrogant Betrayal Of ‘The Lord Of The Rings’
Amazon’s The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power is now over. Its eight-episode, eight-hour, reportedly $1 billion run has come and gone. So what to make of this lavishly expensive fantasy show?
Ostensibly, this is an adaptation of Tolkien’s Second Age. The story, by showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, is drawn from The Lord Of The Rings and its appendixes, though unfortunately Amazon never bought the rights to The Silmarillion, wherein lie so many of Tolkien’s best pre-Third Age stories.
Then again, perhaps it’s all for the best that The Silmarillion remains outside the grasp of these creative butchers. Payne and McKay sold their vision of a Lord of the Rings adaptation thanks to what has been described as a ‘fidelity’ to Tolkien, yet nothing could be further from the truth now that we have the entire first season to analyze and unpack. Far from sticking to the stories and themes of Middle-earth, the showrunners created their own story entirely, abandoning Tolkien’s lore and making wild, reckless changes to the Legendarium in the process.
Perhaps worse, Amazon’s “adaptation” is badly made TV with a nonsensical story built on wild coincidences, contrived plotlines and a blatant disregard for the various building blocks that make any story complete: Logical character choices, a sense of time and place, and narrative tension—not to mention an overly large cast of mostly forgettable and uncharismatic characters, some wholly made up for the show and others changed entirely as to be almost unrecognizable.
In every way that truly matters, The Rings Of Power fails from the writing to the acting to the presentation. It fails as an adaptation, neither enriching Tolkien’s work nor remaining true to it. It fails as a good fantasy, giving us generic tropes and melodrama rather than blazing new ground. And it fails as a compelling story, filled with cheap mystery boxes and unsurprising ‘twists.’ So how bad has this show dropped the proverbial palantir?
Allow me to explain.
Rings Of Power Fails As An Adaptation Of Tolkien’s Work
When adapting an established work from one medium to another, changes will invariably be made. These will never please everyone, of course, but a new medium demands it. What works on the page won’t necessarily work on a screen. When adapting something as vague and open-ended as Tolkien’s Second Age, many gaps will have to be filled in to create a narrative fit for a multi-season television show. Again, these choices are going to please some and enrage others.
But I think it’s fair to suggest that when adapting any work, some degree of faithfulness and fidelity to the source material should be at the very least a guiding principle. The question isn’t whether changes should be made, but what kind of changes and why. Every change should exist in service to translating the original work to the new medium in a way that enriches it within that medium.
In Tolkien’s Second Age, there are several major events that lend themselves very well to a retelling in a big-budget show like The Rings Of Power. One of these is, unsurprisingly, the forging of the Rings of Power.
In the original story, the forging of the rings takes place between 1500 and 1600 SA. Sauron, disguised as Annatar, helps the famous elven smith, Celebrimbor, and his compatriots with this magical craft, and together they create the Nine Rings that eventually go to Men and the Seven Rings that eventually go to the Dwarves. The Three Elven Rings, Celebrimbor forges on his own after Annatar/Sauron leaves Eregion. Sauron crafts the One in secret. This all takes place over a century. In a faithful adaptation, these events might be condensed to some degree, or the passage of time would be conveyed and only the important and crucial moments highlighted. But all the Rings would be forged over the course of the story.
Here I have described for you a fitting first season to a show that deals with the Second Age and the Rings of Power. In this season we would learn more about the ambitious elf, Celebrimbor (who could be presented as young and beautiful just like Galadriel and Elrond rather than inexplicably their aging elder—elves are immortal!) We could delve into his relationship with the mysterious Lord of Gifts, Annatar, and learn why these two connect whereas Gil-Galad, Elrond and Galadriel mistrust him. In any faithful adaptation of this story, it seems obvious that Celebrimbor—not Galadriel—would be the central, and ultimately tragic, figure.
We could also introduce the Nine Kingdoms of Men and the Seven Kingdoms of Dwarves—the same kingdoms and kings to whom the Rings of Power are later given by Sauron so that he might control them with the One Ring. A great deal of potential storytelling exists in these realms that could be embellished and elaborated upon by a competent TV show. A similar theme could course through each of these characters: Temptation, ambition and a fall from grace.
In the first season of The Rings Of Power, we are shown no realms of men other than Númenor, which is not one of the Nine. Nor are we shown the other six Dwarven lords beyond Durin. We spend a total of about fifteen minutes on the forging of the Rings, which is done out of order and almost as an afterthought.
Indeed, the Nine and the Seven simply aren’t made at all in Season 1, and the only way they can now be forged with Sauron’s help is if Galadriel and Elrond keep silent about Sauron’s identity. The Three are made, and those with the help of Halbrand/Sauron (who explains alloys to the greatest elven smith in the world). Halbrand visits Eregion for all of a day or two before revealing his true identity to Galadriel and running away to Mordor. Galadriel and Elrond, perplexingly, keep his true identity a secret from Celebrimbor.
These are not the only bizarre changes to the actual story, either. The Mithril plotline, which makes the dwarves and elves both look bad, also makes the precious metal magical, and gives the elves until Spring to survive without it. This is all entirely made up by the show’s creators. So is the creation of Mordor with a magical sword hilt and a broken dam. So is the existence of Hobbits and Istari in the Second Age. All of it, start to finish, top to bottom, invented for the show. I’ve asked this before, but to what end? What do showrunners think that all these additions and changes will accomplish other than making this not Tolkien’s story at all, but a Frankenstein’s monster all their own.
Meanwhile, the Second Age’s timeline has been bizarrely compressed. While the fall of Númenor could be its own two-season arc (easily) later in the show’s run, it’s instead been compressed to take place alongside the forging of the rings—despite both stories taking place thousands of years apart. And to what end?
Changes to the characters—Galadriel is a sour-faced Karen, half as tall and half as compelling as Tolkien’s elven queen; Isildur is a mopey emo kid who everyone despises; Gil-Galad is a scheming, short-sighted despot—only seem to make each lesser versions of themselves, thin and pale in comparison to the source material from whence they’re drawn. The show’s new characters, meanwhile, are built around cheap Hollywood tropes rather than given the depth and complexity one would hope for in any good story, but especially an epic based allegedly on The Lord Of The Rings.
We’re left with some “cliffhangers” in the end, like whether Isildur survived the volcano blast—but these aren’t really mysteries given that we all know what happens to Isildur in the end, all of which makes one wonder why they structured a series this way. Why so many mysteries? Why so many “surprise” twists?
Do these changes enrich Tolkien’s work? Do they improve upon his stories or help us gain a clearer understanding of his themes and ideas? Do they provide us with new context or fill in important gaps in the Legendarium? Hell, do they even just entertain us?
I am hard-pressed to see how. Instead, they lead to a first season that is unrecognizable except as an aesthetic homage to Peter Jackson’s far superior adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Visually, there are callbacks to those films. As far as narrative goes, this is simply not recognizable as Tolkien in any sense of the word. That modern audiences seem suckered in easily by the inclusion of cheap Easter Eggs is no excuse for poor storytelling (the Stranger saying “follow your nose” seems to have pleased many, and a few pretty shots—like the one at the top of this post—appear to be capable distractions).
But what if we were to simply enjoy this for what it is, not worry about whether it’s a faithful adaptation of Tolkien’s work? Does that help matters?
Alas, the answer to these questions, dear readers, is a resounding “no.”
Rings Of Power Fails As Good Fantasy And Good Storytelling
Let’s strip away the Tolkien from this show, pluck The Rings Of Power out of Middle-earth entirely and plop it down into a totally made up world. Let’s call that world Iddlemurth.
Iddlemurth is a relatively small land, quickly and easily traversed, filled with elves and dwarves and halflings and a single human kingdom called The Southlands which consists, apparently, of two villages and a missing king that people only know is their king because he hasn’t got shit all over him.
Just off its coast is the kingdom of Ronemún, a day or two’s voyage from The Southlands by sea, and near to the capitol city of the elves, Lesdom, as well (and just six days hard ride to the elven smithing city of Edgeon). Everything is rather close together in Iddlemurth, which is convenient for its characters who like to hop from one place to the next with little sense of time or distance.
The story goes something like this: An ancient elf warrior princess is exiled from Iddlemurth but changes her mind and decides to swim across the ocean to get back home and continue her hunt for an ancient evil dark lord named Ronsaur. As she swims she runs into a raft of shipwrecked survivors and, as coincidence would have it, one of these survivors is the dark lord Ronsaur himself, though in disguise. After centuries of searching, a bit of good luck and a suicidal swim across the ocean get her what she’s been looking for all this time.
Our hero, Dadladriel, and Ronsaur (going by the name Halberd) are rescued by a ship from Ronemún that just happened to also be sailing in this exact part of the ocean at this exact time. Its captain, Lord Crybaby, takes the pair back to the queen who quickly agrees to send her army with Dadladriel and Halberd to The Southlands (despite Dadladriel being awful to everyone and generally bossy and unpleasant for no reason) where a village they don’t actually know about is being attacked by orcs.
Whether or not they go, the orcs and their leader will use a magical key to break a dam which will set off a volcano explosion and transform the Southlands into Rodrom, the Realm Of Evil, because I guess that sounds like something that happens in fantasy stories to people who don’t actually read fantasy stories but do watch a lot of J.J. Abrams movies and spend too much time on Tumblr.
The battle in what will soon be Rodrom is between a paltry band of villagers, a small war party of Ronemúnean riders whose magical shrinking technology allows them to fit all their horses on their tiny ships, and a band of goblins—all over two hardscrabble villages filled with people we dislike intensely. The Ronemúnean riders show up just in the nick of time. It’s over quickly and nobody important dies, even when the volcano erupts and chokes the land in ash and smoke and flame.
Elsewhere, a group of halfling Irish stereotypes have encountered a mysterious Stranger who may or may not be evil but is kept in a mystery box until the very end of the season just to keep everyone guessing. The halfling plot goes nowhere fast. They’re pursued by three extremely stupid witches who are so incredibly dense that they mistake the mysterious Stranger for Ronsaur. No explanation for why they think this is given. They’re dispatched easily enough by the Stranger who, we discover, is good. We learn that the halflings, on the other hand, are very bad, choosing to abandon their sick and injured at every possible opportunity, just because.
Elsewhere, an elf and a dwarf charm us with their friendship but this initially charming relationship is soon sullied by a contrived conflict over a precious metal we’ll call Methril. It’s blue and something like 96.7% pure so the elves clearly need it just to survive until Spring. For reasons. None are given other than “the light is fading” which, again, sounds like something you’d find in fantasy books if you never bothered to read any and were going off of your baked in prejudices toward people who play D&D instead. Much arguing between the dwarven prince and his dad ensues, but no reasons for not dealing Methril to the elves are given. Some crying, some shouting, lots of melodrama. In this fantasy story, arguing and bickering drives all the conflict.
Nowhere is this more true than in the Ronemúnean plotline where Daddy Crybaby argues incessantly with his son, Lil’ Emo, who also argues constantly with his best friend, Punchy. They all argue a lot before they go fight the orcs in the Battle To Save Dirt Village.
In other words, almost nothing happens over the course of eight hours except for a lackluster battle, the creation of Rodrom via a Rube Goldberg machine and, in the end, the forging of three rings of power. Though in Iddlemurth these are not rings, but rather Methril shrubberies.
This is not a good fantasy story even divorced from Tolkien’s work. Imagine re-adapting this back to book form. How could you? Simply jotting down the dialogue on paper would be torture.
The characters are forgettable at best. I didn’t even mention several of them because their stories amount to so precious little and their personalities are as flat and dry and empty as the Southlands. Who (and why) is Bronwyn? Arondir? Theo? Why do we care about them at all? What do they bring to the story other than generic platitudes and fantasy tropes?
The Rings Of Power is an empty husk of a show. The story’s pacing is all of the map and it lacks any real tension or stakes.
In the end, it’s seven-and-a-half episodes of filler before finally arriving at the obvious twist and the forging of the rings in the final half of the final episode. It makes egregious changes to Tolkien’s work for no apparent reason and with no fidelity to the source material. Frankly, we should stop referring to it as an adaptation of Tolkien’s work entirely. Amazon should have saved the money and hired better writers to create something new instead. The only way The Lord Of The Rings actually serves this story is as marketing material.
The Rings Of Power barely even qualifies as fan-fiction. At least with most fan-fiction, the writers (however terrible at their craft) have enough respect for the source material not to toss it into the fires of Orodruin at the first opportunity. This show’s creators, far from showing off their fidelity to Tolkien, have exhibited nothing but arrogance and disregard—or perhaps ignorance—of his writing and storytelling.
What a shame. There are wonderful stories to be told here, and a great deal of room for creative minds to embellish and enrich the source material with characters and conflicts that Tolkien never inked, building on his work rather than replacing it wholesale. Alas, they have opted for cheap imitation rather than a loving adaptation.
I have little reason to hold out hope for season 2, in which the showrunners apparently hope to make Sauron more like Walter White and Tony Soprano, giving him an origin story that he doesn’t need (he has one already) and that they will surely not have the skill or wisdom to craft.
https://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2022/10/18/the-rings-of-power-season-1-review-amazons-arrogant-betrayal-of-the-lord-of-the-rings/ Amazon’s Arrogant Betrayal Of ‘The Lord Of The Rings’