Why This Tolkien Fan is Bailing on 'Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power' for Good
In case you haven't been paying attention, let me point out to you that everything is terrible now. At least terrible in the sense that our whole culture is so divided down socio-political lines, that every work of art and entertainment that gets produced gets judged through that filter instead of its quality. Whether a thing has merit or is enjoyable to watch is now secondary to watching it to "own the libs" or "piss off the fascists" or whatever.
So when the biggest online retailer gambles the future of its production studio on the most expensive TV series ever attempted, it's going to find itself right in the middle of the culture war. Intentionally or not. Which Amazon Prime most definitely has with The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Which is yet another example of a piece of entertainment with a huge chasm between the way it's being viewed by critics and fans:
So much so, that Amazon has blocked reviews on some of its platforms:
Forbes - Amazon is not amused about the fanboy wars that have surrounded its billion dollar Lord of the Rings series, Rings of Power. …
On IMDB (which Amazon owns) it has a 6.2/10 with 25% of reviews being 1 star.
On Amazon itself, it has…nothing, because Amazon has disabled reviews of the series entirely. Normally when you watch an Amazon show or movie, whether it’s an original or not, it will have user star ratings there. But Rings of Power has zero reviews listed because Amazon didn’t want to be broadcasting its premiere with a low score right next to it, no doubt.
And according to how they measure viewership - whether it's by total hours viewed or what's referred to as "sampling," Rings of Power is reportedly getting its Elvish ass kicked by HBO's House of the Dragon.
Because this is 2022 and therefore everything has to be a referendum on society, politics, race, gender and representation, a lot of the supporters of ROP are chalking it up to -ists and -phobes of different ilks with hate in their tiny hearts over the fact that there are characters of various colors in the series. And to some extent that has to be true, because it's a big, cruel world out there, filled with bad people among the 7 billion of us. But that wouldn't explain the relative popularity of House of the Dragon which also has minority actors in major roles. Or of Game of Thrones. Or the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Or Top Gun: Maverick. Or Hamilton. Basically anything that studios produce these days features ensemble casts with diverse actors. Friends went off the air a long time ago.
I'm here to tell you why I won't be watching ROP going forward. I've given the series the Old Balls Two Episode test, and there will not be a third. Because the show sucks.
To be clear, it's not terrible. It's not CW network levels of bad. At times the CGI scenery is visually stunning to the point you can see where a lot of that billion dollar investment went. But on the whole it's just boring. Tedious, stupefying, enervating, soul-crushingly dull and boring.
I love the works of JRR Tolkien:
This isn't Tolkien. It's a Tolkien tribute band. Jeff Bezos sent a check for $250 million to Tolkien's estate for the rights to use the names of some of his characters. (Though, interestingly not the use of the word "Hobbit".) And to generally follow the broad strokes of the histories he included in footnotes, appendices and companion pieces like The Silmarillion. He then gave those rights to people who are trying to imitate the author's style. And they are not up to the task. Like not at all. As the wizard Saruman the White says of King Theoden in the original novels, "You are a lesser son of greater sires." That sick burn applies to these showrunners.
Not that you can blame them, really. It's too big a challenge for anyone. Tolkien tops every, single poll as the greatest author of the 20th century. Which pisses off the literati to no end because they're rather see someone less accessible, with less broad appeal, like James Joyce or someone. But there's a reason why the trilogy has sold more copies and been translated into more languages than any other book. The reason every bookstore (they still exist) has a Sci-Fi/Fantasy section is because of his influence.
I read The Hobbit when I was in middle school. And The Lord of the Rings trilogy immediately after. And they left an indelible mark. Same with Peter Jackson's films, which I consider the best movie trilogy of all time. I always wanted to see the books on screen, and it's hard to imagine anyone doing a better job than he did of adapting a deep, complex, vast and very wordy set of novels into incredible cinema.
I can still pick up LOTRs, go to any random chapter, and lose myself in Tolkien's prose. The best description I've ever heard of the world he wrote about is that it's like he didn't actually create Middle Earth; it always existed, and he's just the one who discovered it. That's how complete his vision is, how compelling and fleshed out his characters are, and how vivid his language is.
Rings of Power has none of that. Even more than an incomparable storyteller, JRRT was a linguist. A student of ancient languages who at one time worked as a lexicographer, translating dictionaries. In school his class was assignment was to give speeches in Latin. He did his in Gothic, which is a dead language. And as you read LOTRs, he uses this talent in his world building. The Elves are the oldest characters, so they speak in an ancient tongue. The Dwarves language is borrowed from Norse culture. Men speak in English of the Middle Ages. The Hobbits, who are more or less are stand-ins for us, speak modern English. All while going on quests and adventures, facing peril and fighting major battles. By comparison, the TV show sounds like mediocre FanFic.
Compare these two speeches:
SAM: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened?
But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t. Because they were holding on to something.
FRODO: What are we holding on to, Sam?
SAM: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.
Finrod: Do you know why a ship floats and a stone cannot? Because the stone sees only downward. The darkness of the water is vast and irresistible. The ship feels the darkness, as well, striving moment by moment to master her and pull her under. But the ship has a secret. For, unlike the stone, her gaze is not downward but up. Fixed upon the light that guides her, whispering of grander things than darkness ever knew.
What the what? So water displacement is not a thing in the prequels? Boats float because of light and darkness? That is worse than lack of talent. That's lack of talent trying way, way too hard. And it was in the very first scene of the series.
Worse, the main character, who is taken directly from the original, is objectively bland and tedious. Galadriel is a queen of the elves. An etheral, mysterious being of unimaginable wisdom who can see into the future as well as souls. Rings of Power turn young Galadriel into a generic warrior princess. A one-dimensional Janey One-Note with a perpetual sneer on her face who spits out every line of dialogue like a 12 year old Draco Malfoy. ("Shut up, POTTER!") That is, when she's not kicking all the ass of a snow troll while all the men around her at getting their lunch handed to them in an early scene that does nothing but establish she's a superhero who can jump over things and swing a sword bigger than she is.
The rest is just lazy storytelling. The main not-Hobbits are clearly meant to be a female Frodo and a female Sam. Characters going places to find a thing that they need to do the thing that will get them to the other place with the next thing. And like the disastrous final season that ruined Game of Thrones, they show up thousands of miles from where they were in the span of one scene. There's not journey. There's no quest. It's just medium grade network television.
Tolkien hated allegory. But his novels were inspired by his time serving in World War I. Death. Destruction. Heroism. Sacrifice. You can see direct connections between the way he describes Mordor and the battlefields he fought on. His Dead Marshes and the water filled bomb craters littered with corpses. The flying Nazgul and German pilots bringing terror from the skies. The Dark Lord's weapons of war and the tanks that rolled over the trenches. He wrote like a man who had survived great tragedies and triumphs.
Rings of Power is made by people who write like they've watched a lot of TV. So have I. But I won't be watching any more of this dreck. I tried. Amazon failed. Now if you'll excuse me, I'll be putting on my extended director's cut DVD of Fellowship of the Ring for the 100th time.