I first encountered The Lord of the Rings during the loneliest year of my childhood. My family had moved, my friends had been left behind, and I was lonely. The one friend I did make that year was an avid fan of the books and pleaded with me to read them. I did so and quickly got swept up into a world that transported me far beyond my problems. That was the first, though certainly not the last, time I read my way through the series.
And though I’m not one of those super-fans who knows every fact of this fictional world (or, like an uncle of mine, who has gone to the trouble of learning Elvish), I do appreciate the books and the films that were generally faithful to them. And it’s probably for that reason that I have been dreading the long-awaited series. I have been dreading it because, as much as I love what Tolkien created, I have long feared that this series would make a mockery of it. This is, after all, 2022. And the series is made, after all, by Amazon. That’s not an encouraging combination.
Before I settled in to watch episode one of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, I tried to corral my skeptical thoughts and consider this: What could make the series utterly fail in my mind? I already know it’s not truly Tolkien’s story, but rather bits and pieces of material that exists peripherally to The Lord of the Rings (i.e. the “legendarium”). I already know that while it’s generally set in the world he created, only some of what it describes ever entered his mind and flowed through his pen. I already know it means to emphasize themes that are important in 2022 but that were of little importance to Tolkien the better part of a century earlier. So what could make it completely fail? I decided this: it would fail if it was set in a different moral universe than Tolkien’s books. I could tolerate some made-up creatures and some re-imagined characters, but I couldn’t tolerate a wholly different morality.
Part of the beauty and attraction of The Lord of the Rings is that it is set in a universe in which the mythology, lands, and races are fantasy, but in which the morality rings with familiarity. It is a universe that delights us with its imaginative differences and yet challenges us with its moral similarities. Any Christian, and indeed, anyone familiar with the modern Western world, will recognize that Tolkien’s understanding of morality was shaped by Scripture. We see this in many ways, but perhaps none so clearly as in the One Ring—in its ability to control those who own it and then to drive them to destruction. You can’t see the obsessiveness of Gollum and the weakening of Frodo without thinking about a Christian conception of sin. Beyond that, what is abhorrent in our world tends to be abhorrent in his and what is beautiful here is beautiful there. Tolkien’s world is not straightforwardly Christian anymore than Lewis’s Narnia—but it is generally framed around a similar and easily-recognizable morality.
My fear with The Rings of Power is that it will borrow characters, settings, and situations that Tolkien described, but set them within a very different moral order. Particularly, my fear is that it will set them in a world that borrows the (im)morality of the post-modern post-Christian morass we’ve entered into in the Western world. This is a world in which the mighty and influential are deliberately seeking out any traces of the Christian faith and its morality and then deliberately disrupting or destroying them. If this is broadly true across society, it’s especially true in Hollywood. In this way it’s hard for me to imagine that what Tolkien considered a virtue will still be considered a virtue and that what he considered a vice will still be considered a vice. In fact, I rather suspect the opposite—that the creators will replace his morality with their own. And, to me, that would be the undoing of the whole thing—it would be treasonous. Near-blasphemous.
After two episodes, I think the jury is still out. I expect there are lots of Tolkien purists and conservative commentators expressing disgust at just about every character and every interaction, but I think it’s fair to say we still haven’t received definitive proof about the show’s morality. Hints, certainly, not not proof. That said, I expect the next couple of episodes will bring greater clarity.
Before I go further, let me offer a few bullet-point observations (that probably contain a few minor spoilers).
- The greater racial diversity of the characters obviously isn’t consistent with Tolkien’s imagination, but could be the kind of adaptation to the modern world that he would sanction. After all, I don’t think it contradicts his vision for his world (even though it was set in the context of Northern European mythology). That said, we have yet to see whether the show’s creators have merely increased diversity or whether they have also imported some form of power dynamics between the races. That will make a big difference. And then, of course, we will have to see whether they import “sexual diversity” or “gender diversity” as well. I find it almost impossible to imagine that they won’t.
- There was a kind of “wow factor,” a kind of delight, in the opening scenes of The Fellowship of the Ring that seems lacking in The Rings of Power. But perhaps that’s inevitable since Peter Jackson already gave us a faithful and beautiful portrayal of Middle Earth that this new series can do little more than hope to match. Who could forget their first glimpse at Jackson’s Hobbiton and Jackson’s Frodo and Jackson’s Gandalf all converging at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring? That was a magical moment for which The Rings of Power has no answer.
- People have been lauding the show’s visual effects, but I found them lacking in vitality and believability. It seems obvious to me how much of each episode was filmed under artificial lights and in front of green screens. I don’t find the lighting compelling and I find many of the sound effects distracting. But maybe that’s just me.
- Here’s something new for authors to aspire to: to have people willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to gain the rights to the mere footnotes and appendices of their work. Well done J.R.R.!
- I think the reimagining of Galadriel achieves the opposite effect the writers presumably desired—it makes her a weaker character rather than a stronger one. Why? Because instead of succeeding as a woman (as she does so well in the books and films) she now seems to need to succeed on the terms of a man. In order to be “strong,” she has to be physically strong—stronger and bolder and fiercer even than the men around her. It is my understanding that Tolkien’s vision for female elves may have included them being warriors, but I expect he would still have wanted them to ultimately succeed on female terms rather than male ones. So far it seems like in this show the women will act like men and the men will act like children.
- Also, if New Galadriel really is going to be the central character, it’s hard to imagine her having enough charisma to carry the role. I find her character quite uninteresting and her acting quite uninspired—perhaps because she is given so little of substance to work with. But just compare her to the brilliant, haunting, dignified (not to mention feminine) portrayal by Cate Blanchett, and there’s just no comparison at all!
As I wait to learn whether the moral universe will be Tolkien’s or something new, my foremost concern so far is that the show is just not very interesting or engaging. Not yet, anyway. Go back and watch the first hour or two of The Fellowship of the Ring and see how much more it draws you into the story than the first two episodes of The Ring of Power. It’s difficult to not care after seeing the danger sweeping down upon this idyllic little world of the hobbits. It’s masterfully done and substantially superior to the series. I understand that the writers have to introduce lots of characters, settings, and plot lines that will eventually prove epic in scope, but based on the first two episodes, The Rings of Power seems to be trying to do too much too quickly.
I will give it another couple of episodes, but unfortunately to this point, The Rings of Power is just a bunch of characters I don’t care about doing things I don’t care about in places I don’t care about for reasons I don’t care about. To be honest, I am only watching it because I very much want it to succeed—I want it to entertain and delight me. But I am not holding out a lot of hope.