The Rings of Power: The good, the bad, and the Spielberg

Beyond the accusations of woke casting or challenges modernizing Christian morality, the problem has always been that no one alive can write on the level required to realize Tolkien’s vision.  Tolkien was a master of his craft and a singular genius, one of the greatest writers who ever lived and widely considered the greatest of his era.  The result is far more Spielberg than Tolkien…

Amazons’ billion-dollar adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s world and work, The Rings of Power, is dividing critics and audiences a mere three episodes into an eight episode first season.  The 84% Rotten Tomatoes critic score suggests that the entertainment community at large have embraced the show’s diversity and believe co-creators J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay have crafted an entertaining fantasy saga that makes Tolkien’s universe more accessible to modern audiences.  A correspondingly dismal 34% audience score suggests a subset of Tolkien-purists stridently disagree, believing the series fails to honor the fantasy author’s legacy and the “woke” changes made to the source material were unwise, unnecessary, and counter productive.  The truth, as usual, is somewhere in the middle.  There is little doubt that some segment of Tolkien purists, of which I consider myself a real card-carrying member, were going to be upset no matter what Amazon did.  The old expression that you can’t please everyone all the time applies all the more to any work as beloved as The Lord of The Rings.  This is the novel voted the greatest of the 20th century by ordinary people.  From the beginning, Mr. Payne and Mr. McKay took on a near impossible challenge:  Transform The Silmarillion and Tolkien’s other supporting materials into a workable narrative for a television show.  This is distinct from Peter Jackson’s earlier Lord of the Rings movie trilogy.  The Lord of the Rings is a fully fleshed out, complete narrative with complex characters and storylines, tailor made for an adaptation.  Mr. Jackson didn’t have to write or create anything new, though inexplicably he chose to do so, much to the detriment of the final output.  Instead, his job was to distill complex material down into three accessible films.  Mr. Payne and Mr. McKay, however, needed to do the opposite to succeed:  Their goal is to build up workable, accessible narratives from source material that condenses hundreds of years into a few paragraphs.  The Silmarillion is not a narrative work by any means.  It is closer to a history or compendium of mythology that touches on everything, but describes little of the action in detail.  There are precious few actual scenes, and only the major characters are identified by name.

Putting this another way, The Rings of Power isn’t really an adaptation in the same sense as The Lord of The Rings.  To work on screen, it requires the creation of a far more narrative story, scenes, dialogue, and a cast of supporting characters.  In other words, someone has to write most of it on Tolkien’s behalf and the question is:  Who possibly can?  The problem from the beginning, at least in my opinion, has always been that no one in the world is capable of filling in theses necessary details at anything close to Tolkien’s level.  Tolkien was a master of his craft and a singular genius.  He is also one of the greatest writers who ever lived and widely considered the greatest of his era, one of the few in the history of art in general who single handedly defined all of the elements of a new genre, epic fantasy, in a single masterwork.  There was fantasy before Tolkien, largely short stories and pulpy myth inspired pieces from Fritz Lieber (Lankhmar), Robert E. Howard (Conan), and others, but these were niche works, frequently published in magazines, and not exactly part of the literary canon.  They appealed primarily to teenage and other immature males in the first half of the 20th century.  Tolkien combined the mythic elements of their storytelling with the traditional epic of Homer, Virgil, and John Milton, crafting something entirely new from a literary history that stretched back close to 2,000 years, defining the genre to this day.  Every modern fantasy writer lives in Tolkien’s shadow, whether comfortably or uncomfortably, whether actively subverting his tropes or expanding on them.  You cannot read George R.R. Martin or Robert Jordan without also reading Tolkien.  Even if you haven’t read it yourself, his words live on in these modern works, clear to anyone familiar with them.  The result is a void in the work itself that simply cannot be filled, certainly not by showrunners that grew up in the television industry.  No one should have expected otherwise who wasn’t overly optimistic or outright dreaming.

The result is a show written by non-fantasists that attempts to capture some of the magic of the master fantasist to varying degrees of success.  When The Rings of Power is treading on Tolkien’s ground it is clearly on firmer footing, from the locations to the characterizations with the dialogue in between.  Classic settings such as the island kingdom of Numenor and the elven stronghold in Lindon are rendered in intricate and mostly compelling detail.  Dialogue that references Tolkien’s rich lore is likewise far superior.  The hammer of Faenor that forged the Silmarils and ultimately led to the elves leaving the Undying Lands.  The alliance between elves and men that resulted in the founding of Numenor.  The underground kingdom of Khazad-dum, with waterfalls and greenery deep below ground. These elements ring true to Tolkien, adding a depth and a realism to the world, certainly helped by a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars, more than twice as much than has ever been spent on television show.  Story wise, it is too early to tell where precisely the creators are taking us, but they have wisely chosen to pursue adventure and action rather than aping Game of Thrones machinations and intrigue.  Mr. Payne and Mr. McKay have so far made it clear that some characters, like the elf Arondir, are simply good.  Others might be more conflicted, but you get the sense that this will devolve into wars and slaughter simply for the sake of power.  There is an unmistakable evil in the world that will require cooperation to be defeated. This is culled straight from Tolkien, though uneven. The dwarves and Harfoot are there too much for comic relief at this point, more of a caper than an epic.

The overall tone, feel, and plotting also appear to be missing something compared to Tolkien.  We might refer to this as the hand of providence.  Reading Lord of the Rings, one gets the sense that every moment is the product of everything that came before it, and everything after is predicated on the outcome of the current moment.  There is a depth to his writing that comes across as contingent rather than contrived, and these contingencies are managed by the hand of providence, guiding events to a positive outcome.  The famous Balrog sequence in the Mines of Moria is a perfect example.  Centuries before the events of Lord of the Rings, the dwarves lead by Durin delved too deeply and unearthed an ancient evil, the Balrog.  The dwarves tried to retake the mines a thousand years later, but failed.  When Gandalf and the Fellowship arrive, having been forced to take this route because the mountains were guarded by wargs, they are aware of the evil within.  The dwarf in their company, Gimli, has heard tales of it his entire life, but no one knows precisely what to expect.  As they make their way under the mountain, they discover the journal of the dwarven party that was wiped out centuries earlier, then of course encounter the Balrog and orcs.  The reader is obviously expecting this encounter, knowing that the party cannot make it through the mines without conflict, but the depth of the backstory makes it seem more real, as do the results.  Gandalf appears to be lost, falling into a chasm to defeat the Balrog by shattering a bridge, and the party has to flee without their most powerful guide.  We learn later, however, that Gandalf’s encounter with the ancient evil caused him to be reborn as the more powerful Gandalf the White and he reemerges in the form necessary for the challenges to come.  The sequence itself is contingent on ancient events.  The past provides a backstory and a sense of dread.  The events in the present, while dire in the moment, ultimately serve to help the forces of good succeed in the end, though the characters themselves cannot see it at the time.  This is providence in action and it fills almost every page of The Lord of the Rings.

The Rings of Power is more Steven Spielberg by comparison.  There has been action and adventure, an exciting encounter with an ice troll and some kind of sea serpent, a face-to-face fight with an orc, and elves facing off against orcs with nothing except the chains that bind them.  These have been impressive visually.  They are well-staged and exciting for a time, but at least so far, it all seems contrived rather than contingent.  The monsters are present not because of mistakes made thousands of years ago, but because the screenplays demanded some conflict and action in each episode, as though the script read {INSERT GENERIC MONSTER HERE}.  The plot itself appears to suffer from the same problem.  For example, Galadriel is granted passage back to the Undying Lands in the first episode, an honor for any elf to return to their lost homelands.  She boards a ship with her fellows and sails west, but before entering the Undying Lands, she jumps into the open ocean to continue her fight against Sauron.  Lost at sea, she encounters a shipwreck.  The shipwreck, however, is being hunted by an unnamed sea serpent, referred to as a wyrm.  Only Galadriel and a recently introduced character, Haldran, survive.  They are ultimately picked up by Earendil, a figure from Tolkien, hailing from Numenor, and they are taken there.  Numenor is, of course, a critical part of the saga of the Second Age depicted in The Rings of Power, but it’s difficult to see how the entire trip to the Undying Lands wasn’t merely a contrivance to get Galadriel into the ocean.  Once there, it’s another contrivance that in miles upon miles of emptiness, she happens upon a wreck with a potentially important character who happened upon the serpent.  Then, they happen upon the Numenoreans, which just happens to set up a critical plotline back in the main arc of the story.  Think of it this way:  The writers knew they had to get Galadriel to Numenor and introduce Hadran.  How to do it?  Well, we’ll send her to the Undying Lands, have her jump ship, and then stumble upon the next step of the adventure.  Perhaps needless to say, Tolkien didn’t write that way and it shows.

Some critics have also pointed out that the series doesn’t capture the moral clarity of complexity of Tolkien’s world.  Nathaneal Blake, writing for The Federalist, claims Mr. Payne and Mr. McKay have abandoned “Tolkien’s moral imagination.”  As he describes it, “Ironically, the flaws of the elves and men of the Second Age are mirrored in the culture and industries (tech and entertainment) that created this show. An Amazon show that was true to Tolkien’s themes would be an implicit critique of the ideology and actions of those funding it.  The Second Age was a tragedy because, in their eagerness for knowledge, the elves of Eregion trusted Sauron’s professions of repentance and friendship. Meanwhile, and worse still, the men of Numenor fell into evil because they loved this world more than they trusted God. Their consequent fear of death was the source of their downfall, in which God Himself intervened against them.”  There is some truth to this, though I think it is too early to tell.  The reality, however, is that writing from a position of moral imagination and clarity is an incredibly rare gift.  Consider George R.R. Martin of Game of Thrones fame:  He solves the morality problem by making his world completely amoral.  In Westeros, moral characters are swamped by others with no qualms about doing anything for power.  There’s nothing wrong with that, provided you are not J.R.R. Tolkien.  He charts a different path, but one few writers could hope to match.

The conclusion of The Lord of the Rings saga is a masterclass in this.  Tolkien has established that no one, no matter how pure or noble, can resist the power of the One Ring for long because evil is all corrupting.  Frodo has managed to carry it across the continent, but when he stands before Mount Doom and has the chance to finally destroy it, he cannot.  The ring is too much a part of him to let it go.  In that sense, he completely fails, and he along with the entire world are only “saved” because of a prior mercy.  Earlier in the book, he refused to kill Gollum, another hobbit who was corrupted beyond recognition by the ring.  At the time, we had reason to doubt this choice.  Gollum is unrepentant evil with no chance of redemption.  Killing him would have been justified, but Frodo decided he is merely a poor creature who has suffered too much already, letting him go against the advice of his friend, Sam.  Gollum has continued to stalk Frodo the entire time, coveting the ring.  As Frodo stands before Mount Doom, his chance has arrived.  Gollum attacks Frodo, biting off his ring finger and taking the ring for himself.  Finally, he has it in his clutches, a reunion he has longed for for decades, but his momentum carries him over the edge and he plummets into the lava below, destroying the ring and doing what Frodo himself couldn’t do.  Thus, the entire world was saved by a single act of mercy, one which wasn’t required, but was a choice made by of one of the characters, one who ultimately becomes corrupted himself and cannot complete his quest save for this earlier decision.  We see the hand of providence here, but also a unique moral clarity and complexity.  In Tolkien’s view, evil cannot be flirted with.  You cannot commit an evil act, however noble the intent, and remain good.  It becomes merely a matter of time before you are corrupted.  This is the clarity.  The complexity comes from the nature of choice and freewill.  Frodo would not have been wrong to kill Gollum.  The reader, in fact, probably prefers that he did, but even in the face of evil, mercy remains an option.  Choosing mercy ultimately redeems Frodo and the world, though they cannot possibly know while it’s happening.  In my opinion, it’s simply unrealistic to expect a showrunner to write at this level.  Few in the history of literature could.

Mr. Blake also takes issue with the portrayal of Galadriel, believing the impulse to appease modern audiences has turned her into a warrior elf and therefore diminished the character.  “Tolkien’s Galadriel was a great elven ruler, not a mid-level military officer who could be ordered around by Gil-Galad. Amazon demotes her to Galadriel: Battle-Elf, vengeful leader of scouting parties — and miscast Morfydd Clark, who might have made a good elven queen, but is a lousy action heroine. This is Galadriel through the lens of the many Hollywood bros of the Joss Whedon mold who believe that nothing is more empowering than another 110-pound woman winning hand-to-hand combat.”  At least so far, I am not sure I agree with this.  It is true that they have turned her into a warrior, but drama requires conflict, contrarian views, and action.  The creator’s choice was either to introduce some other new character, which Tolkien fans would likely take issue with, or adapt Galadriel.  They chose to adapt Galadriel, and in doing so I believe they have created at least the opportunity for future moral complexity.  This version of Galdriel strikes me as similar to another elf from Tolkien mythology mentioned earlier, Feanor.  Feanor forged the Silmarils which hold the light of the Undying Lands, and are supposed to be among the most beautiful objects ever conceived, but he coveted them far too much.  When they were stolen by Morgoth, the first dark lord before Sauron, he makes a pact with his brothers to follow them to the ends of the earth.  The pact becomes an obsession which opens the door to evil, a door that cannot be closed.  Faenor is not evil when he forges the Silmarils.  The pact itself seemed justified at the time, but anything pursued obsessively above all else cannot long remain pure.  Galadriel has the potential to capture some of this, and it seems intentional. Elrond hints at precisely this in the first episode.  She is noble at heart, but obsessed with Sauron, by doing so she keeps Sauron alive in the world.  At some point, she will have to decide how far she is willing to go, and there will be consequences either way.  There is an opportunity to honor Tolkien here even in the breach.

Otherwise, much has been made of the woke casting choices.  Black elves where Tolkien depicts them as fair, black dwarven women without beards, and like.  Personally, I’ve come to accept that some of this is inevitable and find it hard to get upset though I know it is not exactly how Tolkien depicted things.  There have been famous black Shakespeareans since before the Civil War, and it is a reasonable enough proposition that any modern show should reflect the diversity of modern audiences.  I do not necessarily dispute the objections themselves, as there is some truth to the impact on Tolkien lore, but rather consider it a fact of life.  What really bothers me, however, is the moral preening that accompanies these decisions and the smearing of anyone who disagrees as racist.  Everyone knows that the showrunners are counting black and minority actors like beans for purposes of showcasing their “woke” bonafides, what we used to call tokenism in an earlier time.  They do this, in my opinion, to put themselves on a pedestal, telling everyone how enlightened they are for the first “black elf” or “dwarf of color,” as though they were making some important history.  Elves and dwarves, of course, don’t exist and there is no such thing as a white one or one of color.  They also insist that Tolkien needs to be made more accessible, as if there was some failing in his work, when the man is already celebrated the world over.  The Lord of the Rings has been translated into dozens of languages, suggesting that there has never been a challenge of accessibility of any kind and the underlying assumption that one must be white to enjoy these classics is a falsehood close to an insult.  We’d all be better off if we eliminated the preening and let the work speak for itself. The Rings of Power might always be more Spielberg than Tolkien, but more fantasy is generally better than less in my opinion, provided the creators avoid any catastrophic decisions like The Stranger being Gandalf over the next five episodes. Turning it into fan-fiction would kill the show.

2 thoughts on “The Rings of Power: The good, the bad, and the Spielberg”

  1. “every moment is the product of everything that came before it, and everything after is predicated on the outcome of the current moment.” Otherwise known as determinism.
    “evil cannot be flirted with” hmmm … but it is. So mercy is an enabler of evil? An antimony.
    Who, or what, decides?
    Superior analysis.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks, great points! I am not certain that I agree with Tolkien’s philosophy, but I think he does a great job of encapsulating the a pretty conservative Christian worldview that balances freewill and Providence. In my mind, the two are not really compatible. Freedom of choice implies that every outcome is possible, but I know Tolkien is not alone in believe we have freedom to choose guided by a higher power. The Founders believed much the same. I believe Tolkien would claim the higher power in Lord of the Rings is Illuvatar and the other Valar.

    Regarding mercy, I think that is a trickier topic. Tolkien doesn’t suggest that every amoral decision or every bad decision is evil. People do stupid and/or petty things all the time. He also doesn’t seem to believe that pure evil lurks around every corner, but this doesn’t preclude a real evil in the world and that it cannot be messed with. In the context of Lord of the Rings, I think we can see something like the Christian principle that it’s not for man to judge. Frodo is not one of the gods. He doesn’t have a right to punish Gollum, and his willingness to expect that choice enables the Valar’s plan to come to fruition.

    Like

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