“The Rings of Power” Has No Respect for the Scope of Tolkien’s Legendarium
Much has already been said about the first season of Amazonʼs The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. You can find pretty much any sort of review you like online—from the mildly critical and generally optimistic to the absolutely excoriating. (I can’t say I’ve seen any review that is unequivocally positive, though.)
I won’t claim to offer any particularly unique perspective here, but I figured I might as well share a short review, focusing on what I see as the foundational mistake of the show’s creators—the disrespect for the scope and depth of Tolkien’s legendarium, and the timeline of Middle Earth’s Second Age.
Note: There are NO specific plot spoilers in this review, if you haven’t watched the show yet.
As my wife and I watched the eight episodes in the season, I told myself I should reserve full judgment and not get too carried away with sharing my opinions on The Rings of Power until the season was over. That was a good call.
My feelings went on a bit of a roller coaster from episode to episode, until I was so fed up after watching Episode 7 (“The Eye”) that I was about ready to condemn the show entirely. Fortunately, the season finale Episode 8, “Alloyed,” did salvage things enough that I am willing to give Season 2 a chance, whenever it comes out.
In general, I’m willing to give Season 2 a shot because Season 1 was just entertaining enough to tolerate, and gave me just enough enjoyable Middle Earth-related experiences, that I would want to seek those out again.
However, I do think that there was a critical, likely fatal mistake made in the very premise and setting of the show—an unbelievable, downright disrespectful compression of time and events that disregards the power of Tolkien’s extended, mythic history.
Season 1 of The Rings of Power gave us three, four, or five storylines to follow, depending on how you count them, all or most of which are connected to huge events in the history of the Second Age of Middle Earth.
Needless to say, all of these events are supposed to be separated by hundreds, if not thousands of years. The Second Age was over 3,000 years long, and many of its most important events are being strung together as if they happened simultaneously. Imagine a show that combines the stories of Ramesses the Great, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon and pretends they all happened at once. It could be exciting, (maybe they’d all meet in Egypt!), and some people might not care about the history being so hopelessly skewed, but the story would be ridiculous nonetheless.
Of course, I would not criticize The Rings of Power for failing to follow Tolkien’s timeline with perfect precision. New adaptations should absolutely be given some latitude and artistic license. I fully believe that most or all the major events of the Second Age could have been included within a show set to be five seasons long. Time certainly could have been compressed to some extent, and centuries could have been skipped over in a way that the audience would have understood and appreciated. It would have made a ton of sense for different seasons to focus on different characters and events from the Second Age. There would be plenty of continuity as the same major elf characters (Galadriel, Elrond, Gil-Galad, etc.) would be present in every season throughout the Second Age, even as the other characters (men, dwarves, etc.) would change from season to season, given their mortal lifespans.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.
Instead, the show writers and creators seemingly decided to tie together all of the major events and characters of the Second Age into a show that will likely appear to take place over only a few years’ time. Indeed, the first season seems to last just a few weeks or months.
Years ago, I wrote on my old blog about how Tolkien’s writing qualifies as “epic.” (I won’t link to the post, since I plan to take that blog offline sometime soon.) Tolkien constructed a legendarium that is massive in scope and ambition, from the geographic size of the world, to the depth of its history and mythology, to the intricacy of the languages he invented for it. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are all the more wondrous and fantastic because of how they fit in as relatively small (but very important) stories in that enormous universe.
The Lord of the Rings builds its plot out gradually, starting with a story focused only on the hobbits in the Shire. Only eventually does the story get to the point where the characters we’ve learned to love are separated and we need to follow two or three storylines at once. The Hobbit, meanwhile, is an extremely straightforward story, (“There and Back Again!”), but when Peter Jackson adapted it into a film trilogy, those movies lost some of their luster as Jackson tried to add and do too much at once. When Bilbo Baggins—you know, the “hobbit” in the title—seemed to lose his place as the main character in the films, some of Tolkien’s magic was lost. Focusing on the story of just one or a few individuals at a time is what gives the big world of Middle Earth its sense of perspective.
The Rings of Power fails to follow the model that Tolkien’s books and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings made so successful. It fails to respect the scope and detail of Tolkien’s legendarium. By trying to be everything, everywhere, all at once with its multiple storylines and huge cast of characters, The Rings of Power fails to give any character or storyline the care, attention, and development they deserve. By tying together so many characters and events across space and time, the show makes Tolkien’s Middle Earth seem pathetically small—unrecognizable, even.
I won’t rattle off a whole list of problematic plot points from The Rings of Power, but if a character can seemingly swim across an entire ocean with ease, or an army can fast-travel hundreds of miles in a day or two, our sense of scale and wonder is destroyed. Remember that we Lord of the Rings fans happily read about and watched Frodo and Sam as they walked across much of Middle Earth over the course of three (really six) books, and over nine hours of film (over eleven in the extended editions). It’s that scale that helps make the story so marvelous and epic.
I can’t say for certain why the creators of The Rings of Power believed it was prudent or even possible to tie together so many characters and storylines so quickly, and to compress the timeline of the Second Age so drastically. I suspect that they were afraid they wouldn’t attract as big of an audience if they didn’t give viewers elves AND dwarves AND men AND a wizard AND orcs AND hobbit-like creatures. Or, put another way, they thought they needed multiple Aragorn-like characters, a Legolas-like character, a Gimli-like character, Frodo and Sam-like characters, and so on for viewers to watch all at the same time.
I don’t think anything could have been further from the truth. The showrunners could have taken one or two major characters and events to craft an immersive, dedicated storyline over the course of each of the show’s seasons. A large audience would have deeply appreciated the care that could have been put into developing just one or two storylines at a time, fully developing new characters we were unfamiliar with, or giving us deeper perspectives on the past experiences of characters we only knew from the Third Age. Instead, what seems to have been a kitchen-sink approach driven by fear leaves us with a mass of undeveloped chracters inhabiting a small and parochial world. That’s not epic at all.
I can’t say I have high hopes for the coming seasons of The Rings of Power, given how the show has misinterpreted and skewed Tolkienian storytelling so horribly. However, I will still probably give Season 2 a watch, just to see what happens.
And, there’s something else I’ve been thinking about that makes me very hopeful: In just ten years, The Hobbit should enter the public domain, and The Lord of the Rings not so many years later (depending on the country). For those of us who are young enough, I think we can look forward to a time in the not-so-distant future when many more writers and artists will be able to adapt Tolkien’s work in a variety of ways. Many of them, I’m sure, will do a far better job than Amazon of understanding and respecting the depth of detail and mythic history that make Middle Earth so magical.
Please leave a comment below with your thoughts!