It has been a week since season 1 of The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power ended, and I have a confession to make. I miss it. I feel mildly shocked that I miss it, given how uneven, to put it mildly, the season was. I certainly don’t miss its inept pacing, its terrible dialogue, its over-reliance on gratuitous mystery boxes in lieu of a plot, nor its fan fiction approach to adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s works.
What I do miss is the weekly feeling of anticipation on a Thursday night, knowing that the next morning, at 9am, a new episode is going to drop. I miss being able to spend an hour every week in Middle-earth, with characters I have grown to like, and even plot lines I have long loathed.
It’s that pre-streaming and pre-bingeing buzz of waiting a week for a TV show to air a new episode. Until I started watching The Rings Of Power, it hadn’t occurred to me that this weekly wait was something I had missed. But watching the show as a Tolkien fan was an incredibly difficult experience. This is primarily because the show chose to replace Tolkien’s immersive storytelling approach with one consisting purely of surface glitz. I will try to explain how this was so.
Tolkien’s created universe (the author himself called it “sub-creation”) looms large over epic fantasy, and it can be safely said that every fantasy writer owes a debt to him. What is often lost in this common analysis, however, is that Tolkien’s Middle-earth is also unique. His stories began with the creation of imaginary languages. The languages that Tolkien, a linguist specialising in Old English, created for the Elves, and to a lesser extent the Dwarves, are rigorous things that shape the lived cultural reality of his characters. Moreover, his detailed, if anachronistic, visualisation of his world’s geography gave Middle-earth depth and meaning. In terms of his influence, his literary inheritors—ranging from Ursula K. Le Guin to George R.R. Martin to N.K. Jemisin—have built equally vital worlds while working within or against the paradigms that Tolkien set.
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If the creation of language is one defining feature, the other thing that Tolkien was a master of was the elegiac tone. His books, including The Lord Of The Rings, are not really about the victory of good over evil but what the Elf Galadriel calls “(fighting) the long defeat”. Forces of good (and we are talking in absolutes here) may win against those of evil but evil is a persistent thing in a universe where making the ethically correct choice is always hard.
The path to evil (and it’s always a path littered with choices) is easier because it feeds the ego. It is what drives the will to empire, the will to subjugate nature and people, and the quest for immortality. All that the ethical hero really has, in Tolkien, is not a magical sword, but hope and cussedness. It’s this epic sweep of ethics and choices that moves most Tolkien fans, leaving aside the racist ones, who, frankly, never really need a reason to be racist.
All this is a long-winded way of saying that Amazon showrunners Patrick McKay and J.D. Payne, despite being supposed fans themselves, don’t really show it in the show. Which is fine, if their adaptation of Tolkien’s stories of the Second Age of Middle-earth was meant purely for general viewers. But they have both been at pains to point out that this is for the fans. If it is, it’s not for fans of the books but perhaps those of Peter Jackson’s classic movie trilogy? But even that isn’t really the case. In fact, I wonder who The Rings Of Power considers its core audience.
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It is certainly not for those who watch the likes of Game Of Thrones or The Witcher. Those shows offer the kind of grit-gore-sex concoctions no Tolkien adaptation could ever hope to match. Nor is it for the audience that made Stranger Things a hit. For fans of Tolkien’s books, all that the show offers is case for “cautious optimism”—as the chair of the Tolkien Society, Shaun Gunner, puts it.
All adaptation is an exercise in omission but the decisions that The Rings Of Power has made—turning Galadriel into a vengeful “Elf warrior”, or condensing andstretching out the timeline simultaneously—are strange even for an adaptation. The show creates new lore to supplant Tolkien’s, and it’s so laughably inept and hollow that it comes across as bad fan fiction. Season 2 may well see a course correction but the first season has often come across as an original—and substandard—fantasy story that uses well-known characters from a different work.
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In the first season, the show has tried to grapple with serious concepts, from inter-species strife and misunderstandings (between Elves and Men, or Elves and Dwarves) to craft Tolkien-worthy musings on mortality and ethical dilemmas. But it has done so in an incredibly ham-fisted manner, with the added ignominy of a syrupy score saturating nearly every moment. Characters in the show tend to speak in cod-Tolkien prose, where they come off sounding less like their book counterparts (I’m looking at you, Galadriel) and more like Yoda.
The showrunners can’t stop themselves from using ridiculous Hollywood action tropes—a magical key that unlocks a dam that detonates a dormant volcano, really? Or when it tries to be current with the rise of xenophobic nationalism by having a rabble of Men in the mighty island realm of Númenor gripe about immortal Elves taking their jobs. I mean, seriously? The showrunners are novices—this is their first-ever show—and this becomes painfully obvious in their narrative choices.
But that isn’t even the show’s worst trait. That prize goes to its over-reliance on contrived mysteries to substitute for plot or character development. Who is Sauron? Who is The Stranger? Is Halbrand Sauron? Is the The Stranger Gandalf? This is tiresome. Game Of Thrones at least had a plot—for the first five seasons—to supplement popular mysteries like “Who is Jon Snow’s mother?”. The only reason why this even remotely works in The Rings Of Power is because Charlie Vickers (Sauron/Halbrand) and Daniel Weyman (The Stranger) are excellent actors.
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Lacking storytelling nous, The Rings Of Power instead creates wholly original characters and forces its audiences to play silly guessing games. The Hollywood Reporter’s recent interview with McKay and Payne is clear that the showrunners love this. “…having an audience suspect this person or that person could be Sauron is drawing them into that thing where the shadow is overcoming all of us and making us suspicious of each other,” says Payne. As former assistants and acolytes of J.J. Abrams, their fondness for mystery reveals is understandable. But The Rings Of Power is not Lost.
Let’s face it, the first season of the most expensive TV show ever made did not match Prime Video’s expectations. The financial numbers will be out by and by but in terms of getting a slice of the pop culture pie, HBO Max’s House Of The Dragon, a prequel to Game Of Thrones, is clearly ahead in audience engagement. The Rings Of Power has done decently, but for a show that will reportedly cost $1 billion, or around ₹8,300 crore (once season 5 finishes), that’s probably not good enough.
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The same Hollywood Reporter story notes how Amazon executives are nervously following the performance of House Of The Dragon. It quoted an anonymous insider as saying, “It was never about the critics, it’s all about the consumers…when they saw that Dragon grew in its second episode and brought in 20 million viewers, they were shitting their pants.” If such are the considerations behind the making of the show, I don’t have high hopes for subsequent seasons. But I will watch nonetheless.
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