Under the Green Desk Lamp…
When it was announced that Amazon had purchased the film rights to Tolkien’s world, most dedicated lovers of Middle Earth felt a twinge of apprehension. Fans of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy hold the story and content as some of the highest achievements in film-making. To lovers of the original books and extended writings of Professor Tolkien, the world is close to sacrosanct.
Could a faceless, cruel force like Amazon ever hope to capture the key themes and core feeling of Tolkien’s works, or would fans be forced to endure a blasphemous caricature of their beloved heroes, diminishing and disrespecting the brand?
Looking back, I think it was a bit of both. Here, it must necessarily be said that this review will feature spoilers not only from the Rings of Power series and the Peter Jackson films, but also from the entire catalogue of Tolkien’s works.
The first tremor of concern came with the details of just what Amazon held the rights to, and what story they were hoping to tell. Speculations abounded—some claimed it would simply be a remake of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Others claimed it would be a backstory for Aragorn.
Finally, it was revealed that the show would cover the events of the Second Age—the rise of Sauron, the making of the rings, and the fall of Númenor. This was encouraging news to many. That period had never been represented on film before, and certainly the content was captivating. The story, however, was not very fleshed out , and even in the Akallabêth—a subsection of The Silmarillion which covers the Second Age of Arda—it tends to be a bit high-level, and not necessarily suited to the screen.
What was worse, it turned out that Amazon didn’t have the rights to The Silmarillion, nor Unfinished Tales. They had no more rights than Peter Jackson had—specifically, to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.
This meant most of the narrative would need to be gleaned from brief references or listings of years found in the Appendices.
Much would need to be invented outright.
This was of grave concern. Representing a beloved world in a new medium was a serious challenge, but to insert what amounted to fan fiction into the universe risked a clash with the source material that could lead to losing the core themes.
To some extent, this is what happened.
That is not to say that The Rings of Power failed entirely. In fact, there was a great deal to enjoy, and more than enough reason to be optimistic for future seasons, so long as the ardent fan can keep their expectations in check.
The music was consistently fantastic, and while many of the storylines were well into the fan fiction zone, they often worked surprisingly well, with the Harfoots being an especially charming bit of world-building, even if their ultimate story feels unnecessary.
While the version of Galadriel (and Sauron for that matter, but more on that later) clashed with impressions held by most fans, they tended to work within the story the show was telling. Where the conflict existed, there were usually decent reasons, and we’ll get into more on that soon.
Elrond, Durin IV, and his wife Disa were especially enjoyable, and their scenes tended to steal every episode they appeared in. In fact, it’s worth giving special mention to everything done with the Dwarves and their realm of Khazad-dûm. Not since John Rhys-Davies portrayal of Gimli in the Jackson films has the Dwarven world felt so alive, and this portrayal was a much better fit to Tolkien’s vision than what was shown in the recent Hobbit films.
This attention to characterization does much to build the sense of the world at large. Of course, this can’t be done without building the actual world the characters inhabit. While several of the set pieces seemed a bit small and sparsely populated, this was likely due to filming during the pandemic, and may improve in coming seasons. The artistic direction and design of most locations was fantastic though. Númenor, Khazad-dûm, and Lindon were especially wonderful.
Here, we must again compare the Rings of Power against the two standards—Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, and the source material of J.R.R. Tolkien.
The artistic direction in Rings of Power worked best when it managed to resonate with both fans of the film and books—creating a kind of consistent tone for the universe. This was likely due to the influence of the incomparable John Howe, and was especially noticeable in the broad vista shots of Númenor and Khazad-dûm, which were absolutely breath-taking, and worth the ticket price alone.
In other places, the tone felt less like an homage to Tolkien’s own works, and more like a cover of Jackson’s. Constant call-backs (or call-forwards?) to things that were in the movie but not necessarily in the books reminded us that the primary audience for this show was the movie crowd, and the distinction between canon and entertainment was one they were happy to cross over where they thought it would attract more viewers.
Now to be fair, we have already pointed out that Amazon didn’t have the rights to a lot of Tolkien’s works, and shared only that which Jackson had access to. This did limit them, and while it has been expressed that they worked closely with the Tolkien estate to keep close to the source material, one can’t help but speculate what might have been possible had they simply been granted full access to the source material.
This is where some of the show’s weak spots begin to appear. Often, Amazon seems to have felt compelled to explain things that were better left vague, or to create uncertainty where it wasn’t needed. The worst offender of the former was the ridiculous decision to give Mithril a backstory. While aiming to raise the stakes and give context to viewers, it failed, in my opinion, at both. The fading of the Elves was already an established theme for Jackson fans, and could have been better explained for new viewers. It took an ethereal concept like the nature and magic of the Elves, and attempted to pin a scientific explanation onto it. Essentially, it was the Rings of Powers version of midi-chlorians.
That’s all to say nothing of the damage it does to the canon. While the writers do dull the effect slightly by admitting the backstory may be apocryphal, the idea of a Silmaril sitting on top of the misty mountains is beyond silly. It’s insulting.
Of the other misstep—creating needless uncertainty—there were many examples. In the source material, the identity of Sauron was never a mystery, at least not to the reader. We were aware of who he was, and enthralled with the way he used foibles and doubts—as well as pride—to play everyone against one another and eventually bring down the greatest nation the world had yet known.
Rings of Power instead decided to focus on a ‘mystery box’ approach, keeping us guessing till the very end just who was really Sauron. This cheapened the impact of his deeds, and presents some serious problems going forward. Further, it resulted in a lot of storylines—such as that of the Stranger—feeling inserted only to add to the mystery, and we are now left to question if they were ever really relevant at all.
At last, we come to the man himself. There’s an ironic twist, because while Sauron was the titular character of The Lord of the Rings novels, he never actually appeared in them directly. In Jackson’s films, he was represented by a giant eye, but didn’t play a much more active role, as was fitting.
In the years covered (and condensed) by the Rings of Power though, Sauron was a very active and very physically present player. And he did a LOT.
The brief stretches we see of Sauron (Halbrand) travelling through Númenor—especially his interest in the blacksmith shop—and Eregion were hardly representative of the incredibly cunning and devious deeds he did in both, but it’s unclear if we’ll see him return.
In the show, the three rings of the Elves have already been made, but that leaves us with sixteen left unmade, which Sauron should be involved with. Given the ending of the season, it’s difficult to imagine how he can saunter back into Eregion to get that work done.
Now, it could work to have him brought back to Númenor. According to canon, he was brought as a prisoner to Númenor, and they knew full well who he was. It was not due to deception, but rather playing on the pride and fears of men that he was able to sow his discord there.
This remains a possibility on the show, but the work has not yet been laid to show that fall from grace. While it has been made clear that the Númenorians mistrust the Elves, little is done to establish why, and that’s a grave omission.
Aside from the pride of men, the key tool that Sauron used in their seduction was mortality, and their jealousy that Elves got to live forever in the Undying Lands. One of the key themes of the Akallabêth is that there are limitations to men, and it is wiser to accept them than to fight against our nature. Although true of several things, this is especially true of death. The Númenorians were already longer lived than the ‘low men’, and eventually they used this as justification to dominate and exploit them. They sought ever longer lives, and held onto their station well-beyond the waning of their abilities.
This slow corruption is an essential theme of the Akallabêth. In the book, we witness how the Númenorians chased after power, and that ‘if they were not increased in happiness, yet they grew more strong, and their rich men ever richer.’ We are told directly of their ‘desire to escape from death and the ending of delight’.
These are rich and powerful themes. In the show however, they’ve done little to explore these essential differences between Elves and men—a show fan could be excused for thinking the only difference was their ears. The ban of the Valar on men sailing to the Undying Lands has not been mentioned, and the stakes are unclear.
It was the Númenorians desire for more that Sauron was eventually able to turn against them, leading to their downfall. Future seasons will have to work hard to build these traits in men.
None of this is to say that I don’t have high hopes for the future of the series. What worked, worked very well, and I am eager to see more.
I look forward to the introduction of Isildur’s brother Anárion, and hope that his role can help flesh out some of the themes above, and distinguish between the Faithful and the King’s Men. Further, the war of the Elves and Sauron in Eregion, and everything that follows could make for one hell of a spectacle with the budget available to Amazon.
If Amazon can work to better build on some of these key themes, and show Sauron’s true malice at work, the show could really begin to shine. They’ll need to resist cheap temptations like mystery boxes and dumbing down complex ideas, and trust instead to the power of the source material they spent so much money on acquiring.
If not, greed may well give way to foolishness, and where once there was hope for a beautiful and enduring piece of art, they will be left only with the washed-out ruins of their own avarice.
Let’s hope that those faithful to the material will prevail. The ride would certainly be worth it in the end.
-Brad OH Inc.