Firstly, thank you to Jack and Tom for letting me host this review here.
People have asked about my opinions of this show, so I thought I would spend the time to properly articulate my thoughts. There is a lot to like, and a lot to dislike.
***SPOILER WARNING*** for everything under ‘The Likes’. Everything under there will spoil the first two episodes of the show, and will reference events from the Silmarillion, the appendices, and other Tolkien sources – events that will likely appear in the show. The books have been out for a long time, but if you don’t want to know some of the broad strokes of the likely plot of Rings of Power, don’t read past that point.
Will you watch the rest of the show? Yes, probably at least the rest of this season.
Did you like it? Not sure yet
Okay, but did you like it or not? I guess
You seem reticent. I am. I really wanted to like it. But, it’s only been two episodes, and I already don’t like a lot of what this show has gone for. However, there is a lot of good stuff.
Can you sum up what you liked and didn’t like? I like, actually I *really* like, nearly everything that they’ve added brand-new. I dislike nearly everything that has been adapted. It’s a frustrating show that has a lot of potential, but seems to have squandered a lot of that potential already.
Tell me more. Okay
I have never considered myself a purist when it comes to adaptation. With stories, I think that one of the most exciting things is that they evolve and change with each retelling. This is especially true of myths, and Tolkien described that his own ambition was to create a ‘mythology for Britain’ – a mythology that we didn’t have, as it had been pushed aside by Normans, and the Saxons before them.
An adaptation of Tolkien’s work, then, should have an easy time, right? As myths change to suit the world in which they are being told, so too should a work that was conceived of over a hundred years ago, be retold today in a way that is relevant to our time. An enduring story is one that is worth retelling.
With all of that said, the first two episodes of the Amazon’s adaptation of the appendices of The Lord of the Rings haven’t quite drawn me in yet, and for me, much of this is to do with the changes they have made. I should note here, not the additions – these are mostly fine or great (so far). But, the changes that have been made range from baffling but trifling, to nonsensical and undercutting some of the main themes, style, and characters that so many have grown to love – and worse, many of the changes squander the opportunities that could be presented by sticking closer to the source material, as the story weaves itself in knots trying to get over a problem, when the answer is right there in the books.
To get something else out of the way before I continue – if it got to the stage where I didn’t want to watch the show, it would not be because it is a bad show. But I’m watching this show because I want to watch an adaptation of Tolkien’s world. If the show doesn’t give me that, then I simply won’t want to watch it, and that will be disappointing enough that it would make me irritated at the showrunners, as if they have offended me personally.
And one more thing to get out of the way, of course, is to point out that any adaptation of this nature will naturally draw comparison to Peter Jackson’s trilogy, a 9- or 12- hour attempt to retell the story of the Lord of the Rings in a way that was relevant to the audience of the early 2000’s. This itself was an adaptation that made some pretty hefty changes to keep to its runtime, and to help audiences connect with its characters and world, and while it mostly does a good job, there was some pretty egregious stuff in there too. I will be comparing to Jackson’s trilogy, as it helped cement to many people they way Tolkien should look – mostly through his almost exclusive use of Ted Nasmith’s illustrations of how he perceived Tolkien’s world.
But back to The Rings of Power. It’s fine. And I don’t mean that with the implication that it’s ‘only okay’. So far, we have a decent, modern fantasy story, with some backstory taken from Tolkien.
*** SPOILERS FROM HERE***
First, the objectively good. I don’t think it’s beyond doubt that the show looks pretty fantastic. I have heard tell that it blows House of the Dragon (another natural comparison, and an intentional one by the creators, it seems), out of the water. I haven’t seen HBO’s latest entry to the fantasy TV genre, but in truth, some of the more fantastical elements in Rings of Power came across to me as quite fake-looking in their prettiness. This may be down to my fairly-large-but-old TV, but a show made for television rather than cinema shouldn’t be relying on its audience having the latest and biggest TV screens (looking at you, The Long Night – though not too pointedly, as there is absolutely no comparison there in which looks better). The vistas are lifelike, though we haven’t yet had the sweeping landscape shots that contributed hugely to the feel of Jackson’s trilogy. Some visual details look off – the entrance to Moria in particular didn’t look real, and this may be in the worldbuilding – the dwarves have to trade, why isn’t there a better-kept road and why isn’t it busy? It’s been hundreds of years since an orc was seen, according to Elrond, so trade should be pretty much back up and running. Perhaps we’ll find out. Lindon, too, didn’t look like it was lived-in in any way. This is the kind of detail that Tolkien spent a lot of time on, but the show doesn’t seem to want to do that.
Sorry, I said the objectively good. The soundtrack belongs in this section too, and though we haven’t had the standout pieces that made Howard Shore’s soundtrack (here’s that pesky comparison again) very special, both the diegetic and non-diegetic music did feel like the Lord of the Rings movies. In particular, the theme for what I presume to be Nùmenor that hinted itself towards the end of episode 2, was both intriguing and fitting.
I also personally liked the Harfoots. This is something that some were nervous of from the trailers, and while they sometimes are on the verge of something that people might find annoying, they are treated with enough seriousness and enough attention to detail that they feel real. For me, I can already see their evolution into the Hobbits of the Shire, in particular their secretiveness and love of the simple things, that defines them more than anything else (apart from their feet, of course, which don’t seem to have developed fully yet).
The sets and the costumes held up better in the show than they did in the promotional images. While sometimes awkward (particularly Bronwyn’s blue dress that doesn’t seem to get dirty or messed up, and stands out from the rest of the clothing worn by the people in this part of Tìr-Harad), they look the part and don’t feel anything as close to out-of-place as I had feared.
I also liked that they dived into the relationships between the races a little more. The scene between Elrond and Durin where Durin reminds Elrond how short others’ lives are compared to an elf’s was great, and sets up in viewers minds one of the chief reasons that Nùmenor will ultimately fall into hubris – which is an exciting prospect.
With a compressed timeline, two Durins in a row is fine, and could even contribute to the dwarves’ arrogance that awakens the Balrog under Khazad-dûm, as clearly, two Durins in a row would signal some sort of golden age for the dwarves. For those that don’t know, Durin was the first dwarf ever created, and lived a very long life. In the dwarvish religion, every dwarf called Durin is a reincarnation of that first Durin (which is why some fans take issue with there being two at once, which is fair), and there are only supposed to be seven reincarnations before the end of time. So, one Durin is significant, but two in a row? There could be some interesting prospects for the story here.
Arondir looks like he will be a standout favourite. He’s motivated, well-characterised, and has an interesting part to play, being part of this entirely new plot in the Southlands. In fact, everything about the Southlands was good. It was the only part of the show that really felt like it had the weight of a long history behind it.
No, the show doesn’t feel like Middle-Earth
And this is what it comes down to. I have seen it said that the show makes you feel like you are back in Middle Earth. I can only assume that the only fantasy that these people seen are the Lord of the Rings movies and the Game of Thrones TV show (and maybe the awful Eragon and The Last Airbender adaptations, sprinkled with some 1900s fantasy like Willow and Dragonheart). If that’s all you have, then I can see why the larger, lighter, and more varied world of The Rings of Power ‘feels like Tolkien’, in that it doesn’t feel like Game of Thrones. But, to someone who consumes a large amount of fantasy, the show doesn’t have any of the weight that Tolkien’s writings, or indeed Jackson’s films, managed to impart on the reader / viewer, and some of the details specifically feel very un-Tolkien.
A prime example of this, for me, is this symbol of Sauron business. We first see this on Finrod’s body during his funeral, and then again when Galadriel and her company are exploring an ancient orcish hiding-hole, presumably somewhere close to Angband. It is a square with three sides, and a triangle in the middle, with another line coming off the triangle and out of the missing side. This could be an abstract image with no meaning other than looking evil, or, more likely, it might be something representing Mordor – the three sides of the shape being the Mountains of Shadow, and the triangle being Orodruin / Mount Doom. I don’t want to get angry about something that hasn’t been revealed yet – but if this is a map of Mordor, why would the symbol appear on Finrod’s (that’s Galadriel’s brother that died, more on him later) body, way back in the First Age? If he had plans to move there that early, it would have been well-known before now that was setting up there. Middle-Earth isn’t all that big, and humans and elves have been exploring it for a long time. If it is a map of Mordor, why don’t all the great loremasters know it, including the ones that Elrond consulted in Lindon? Mount Doom is the only volcano we know of in Middle Earth. I am now speculating, but surely that fact alone would have drawn attention from elsewhere, as a matter of study if nothing else. And why would Sauron put the symbol on that sword??? How can such a large area of the continent be so closely associated with Sauron that the remaining servants of Morgoth know about it, but the elves don’t? And also, if this symbol exists, then Galadriel is objectively right, and Gil-galad should be taking the threat far more seriously. It’s not like he doesn’t know what the symbol means, as it was on Finrod’s dead body! One of the most important elves to have ever existed, and Gil-Galad’s own uncle! And actually, on that, why is he being so patronising with his Aunt? (there are actually two versions of Gil-Galad’s parentage, but that would still change Finrod and Galadriel to cousins-once-removed, and still a generation older than him).
And if the symbol isn’t that… well, it remains to be seen what conclusions can be drawn. But I suspect and fear that it is the map, as that is the type of fantasy that the showrunners seem to be writing. More importantly, I don’t find the hunt for this symbol to be particularly compelling. It’s a very modern trope, it’s one that doesn’t make sense for someone as old, evil, cunning, orderly, and imposing as Sauron to implement, and it’s not the kind of plot device that we ever see in Tolkien’s works. He can still move around the world freely, and can still take and change his physical form, so there’s no real reason for him to enact this sort of plan. It’s too easy to poke holes into, and I don’t like it.
More egregious than this though, in terms of ‘feeling like’ Tolkien, is the lack of languages. Fans of Game of Thrones were able to endure long scenes entirely in Dothraki and in High Valyrian, but this show doesn’t seem to have any faith in its viewers to be able to follow along. Why weren’t Galadriel and her bullies speaking Quenya in the opening scene in Valinor? Why weren’t Galadriel and her company speaking Sindarin? For that matter, why were none of the scenes in Lindon in Sindarin? Even more frustratingly, the languages do appear to exist in this canon, as one of Galadriel’s company announces the presence of the snow troll in Sindarin. Once could argue that during the War of Wrath, the elves got so used to speaking to humans that they now just default to Westron – but this still wouldn’t explain the lack of Elvish at the start, or at least the absence of elvish greetings, or formal events such as Galdriel’s ceremony being conducted in Elvish.
And before you say you think it might be the framing, that scene with the snow troll has two languages in it, implying that they were speaking one language before, and lapsed into another.
And later on, we see Elrond speak of Sigin-tarâg, which is presumably in Dwarvish. Yet the dwarves don’t speak Dwarvish to each other. Less frustrating would have been to take the other fantasy option, which is to not have any languages at all, and just hand-wave that everyone speak some Common language. Neither option would work here though, as the languages are such an integral part of Tolkien’s world – in fact, he came up with the languages first, and only came up with the rest of the story to fit the way his languages would have evolved over time (such as the Sindarin / Quenya split). To ignore this aspect of the world is to really try to not feel like Tolkien.
The show’s biggest sin so far (for me personally)
There is a long list (literally) of other things I didn’t like, but as I’m trying to keep this shorter than the entirety of the Appendices, I will skip to my least favourite change – Galadriel’s trip almost-to-Valinor. For me, this is the worst change that the showrunners have made, and that is because it undercuts the entirety of Galadriel’s character arc.
Galadriel grew up in Valinor, and though she didn’t much like Fëanor, she chose to go with his host to Middle-Earth, with the intention of carving out a realm of her own, to rule as she saw fit, rather than being oppressed (as she and many other saw it) under the Valar. She fell out with Fëanor when he… you know… killed half of her family in the first Kinslaying, but she still went to Middle Earth with the host Fëanor’s brother Fingolfin, all of whom were of a similar mind. For her ambition, she and all Noldor were banned from ever returning to Valinor.
After the War of Wrath and the end of the First Age, many Noldor were allowed to return, but for her pride and arrogance, Galadriel was not invited back. Over time, she became more wise, and less ambitious, and abandoned her dream of ruling a realm. When she was offered the Queenship of Lothlorien, she rejected it, taking instead the title of Lady of Lorien – not a ruler, but a guide. Her banishment was finally lifted when she proved to the Valar (the gods of Tolkien’s world, and the ones who actually decide who goes into Valinor, as opposed to Gil-Galad) that she had conquered her ambition and pride by rejecting the One Ring when it was offered to her by Frodo. The version of Galadriel that turns all blue and says ‘you would have a QUEEEN, NOT DARK, BUT BEAUTIFUL AND TERRIBLE AS THE DAWN, TREACHEROUS AS THE SEA, STRONGER THAN THE FOUNDATIONS OF THE EAAAAAAARTH’ etc etc is the prideful one that thinks that she is worthy of ruling, and shows what she is willing to do to get there. At the end of that speech, she says ‘I pass the test. I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.’ This is the moment where she is allowed back into Valinor. This is the moment when she has the opportunity to have everything she has ever wanted, an opportunity that has never presented itself so freely before, and all she has to do is pluck the ring from Frodo, who is begging her to take this burden off him… and she still manages to say no. Cate Blanchett’s acting really sold that back in 2001, and though the Rings of Power isn’t in canon with Jackson’s films, it is such a powerful moment and it does appear almost verbatim (though less dramatically) in the books. That is what it takes for Galadriel to be allowed into Valinor. Not hunting orcs for 500 years and finding nothing.
That said, the character they’ve created is a compelling one with a solid journey ahead, and, if one didn’t know the lore, she seems like she will learn and become wise, and become the Galadriel of the books. It’s just such a shame that it had to be done at the expense of Tolkien’s own favourite character arc, and, in my opinion, one of the most underappreciated characters in the Tolkien canon – and one of the main reasons I was excited for the show.
Fuck, book Galadriel is so fucking cool. This version’s okay though.
We’re nearly done with the complaints, I promise.
Some of the aesthetic changes are just baffling – namely the beardless female dwarves, and the short-haired elves. I think a lot of people think that the disappointment in these two factors has been overstated, and maybe it has, but it’s still a disappointment, and still takes away from the Tolkien-esque feel. And with a show with so little to adapt from, the feel is the most important thing to get right. While there was little explicit confirmation from Tolkien that the elves had long hair, he often told of how they loved beautiful hair, and much of the hair that he described as beautiful was also described as long. And the whole thing about bearded female dwarves was mostly emphasised in Peter Jackson’s films, but again, it seems that the showrunners have gone with what is easy, rather than what could be actually interesting, and what separates Tolkien’s world from other fantasy stories.
There are missed opportunities as well. Galadriel and her company left from the Gray Havens… which are managed by Cirdan, a very important character in the second age. He helps with the fight against the Witch-King of Angmar, and is granted one of the three elven rings – a ring he gives to Gandalf when Gandalf lands at the Grey Havens a few thousand years later. Yet, there was no sign of Cirdan at all in this version of the show, why not take the time to introduce him here? Cirdan was also the only bearded elf, that we know of, which would have been cool to see.
Okay, shit sandwich, what else do I like….
The map transitions are really cool, and I can forsee a shot when the mystery of the symbol is resolved, and the symbol fades out and an aerial shot of Mordor fades and zooms in. That would be fun.
Nori and Disa are stand-out great (again, continuing with the themes that the best parts of this are the additions, not the adaptations – which means these showrunners would do very well writing an original fantasy show). The actor playing Nori, in particular, played her part excellently, and Disa was immediately likeable and gave the scenes between Elrond and Durin a fantastic energy.
Uhhh… Lindon looked okay, we’ve never seen a full Mallorn forest before. Gil-Galad is objectively well-cast, I think. Oh, but Celebrimbor was so poorly cast… the actor is fine, it just… isn’t Celebrimor. Also, why does Celebrimbor look older than Galadriel? I think Elrond looks older than her too, come to think of it, and she’s so much older than them.
I have nothing to say about meteor man. If it’s Gandalf, as some theorise, I might tune out, as this would indicate that the showrunners really aren’t interested in adapting Tolkien, and it isn’t going to be a show that I’ll be interested in. It might still be a decent fantasy show, but there are other good fantasy stories out there, that won’t constantly remind me of what could have been.
Overall, the show is intriguing, and I really like the idea of the world they’ve built, with the elves being complacent and a little bit racist to humans, and nervous of the existence of orcs, but hopeful enough that they semi-consciously blind themselves to the signs that everything will not be fine forever. That is a great place to start, with a lot of potential. It just seems that that potential has been squandered – which is really the main issue with the show.
In summary, for this Tolkien-nerd: all of the original stuff makes me want to watch the show. The adapted stuff makes me not want to. But I’m excited for Nùmenor next week, particularly Tar-Miriel (though this version of Ar-Pharazon… less so).
It’s kind of fitting to end this review with ‘oh this was good… but this was worse’, so I’ll leave it there.
Oh, and that had better not be a Silmaril in Durin’s treasure-box. Or maybe that could be done well. Who knows.