The Rings of Power, Season One: Flawed, yet Faithful to the Spirit of Tolkien’s Mythos

Amazon’s Tolkien adaptation is not without issues, but its heart (and sense of ambition) is in the right place.

If you venture into some dark corners of the internet, you’ll come across some alarming news. Specifically, that The Rings of Power, Amazon’s billion-dollar adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy tales, isn’t just bad or underwhelming: it is, in fact, the worst TV series of all time, and for all sorts of reasons: it’s too woke, too boring, too portentous, too poorly written and acted, and so on.

Of course, any adaptation of Tolkien is going to come with higher than high expectations because, well, this is Tolkien we’re talking about. And Peter Jackson set the bar even higher with his beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy back in the early ’00s. Stephanie Zacharek was on to something when she closed her review of The Fellowship of the Ring thusly (emphasis mine):

The Fellowship of the Ring throws down a daunting challenge to filmmakers everywhere, and even more so to the studios that back them. Audiences deserve the greatest you have in you. If you’ve made money off giving them anything less, it was just dumb luck. From now on, they’ll know they have a right to magic.

I’d like to think that all of us, even the loudest and most obnoxious trolls, look to Tolkien for that magic, and hope that it will also manifest itself in any adaptations. But alas, we live in a day and age characterized by “reckless hate,” where any amount of disappointment must be turned into a long rant filled with toxic nitpicking that can go viral (and subsequently turn a tidy little sum in advertising dollars).

The following contains spoilers for The Rings of Power. Consider yourself warned.

I have my own nitpicky quibbles with The Rings of Power, most of which stem from the series’ attempts to juggle four storylines across a vast, mythical world, and keep them balanced and cohesive — narratively, chronologically, and geographically.

Given the scope of Tolkien’s Middle-earth and the number of characters involved (some of whom are original to Amazon’s series), some temporal and geographic compression is a necessary evil. However, Middle-earth is a vast place — according to Amazon’s own interactive map of Middle-earth, the Elven capital of Lindon is approximately 1,500 miles from the Southlands while the island of Númenor is approximately 1,700 miles from Lindon — and the series’ editing and timelines make it seem much smaller than it is.

There’s never a sense of journey, with the notable exception of the Harfoot migration; everything is made to feel like a hop, skip, and jump away from each other (e.g., when Galadriel sets out to swim from Valinor back to Middle-earth), an issue that could have been addressed with a few lines of dialog or intermediate scenes. As it stands, when storylines do converge (e.g., when the Númenóreans arrive at the village of Tirharad in just the nick of time), it feels like random happenstance rather than something purposeful and dramatic.

Also, the series’ attempt to shoehorn in Tolkien-isms in order to feel more Tolkien-esque gets ham-handed at times. I might’ve groaned a little when one character told another to always follow their nose, especially since that single line raises some thorny questions about just how fast and loose the series’ producers are playing with certain characters. Likewise, Bronwyn’s encouragement to her son Theo that “this shadow is but a small and passing thing” is basically lifted from The Return of the King. I can definitely see how some fans might appreciate such callouts, but they struck me as forced and corny, like bad fan-fiction.

All that being said, let’s focus now on the good… and there’s a lot more worth celebrating than the haters want you to believe.

First and most obviously, The Rings of Power looks absolutely fantastic. And well it should, given the budget that Amazon has thrown at it. While there’s plenty of impressive computer effects, there are also a lot of impressive practical work, as well, from the sets and costumes to the use of simple and clever things like forced perspective. Númenor’s Mediterranean-inspired aesthetic looks suitably ancient and exotic; meanwhile, the Harfoots’ camps, wagons, and groves have a home-y, earth-y charm that speaks to long, beloved traditions. I was especially fascinated by the Dwarven kingdom of Khazad-dûm, which is a bustling subterranean metropolis filled with magnificent stonework. (One detail I thought really clever? The use of mirrors to direct sunlight onto its underground fields.)

I know I just critiqued the series’ usage of Tolkien-ish lines to be Tolkien-ish, but one thing that did feel Tolkien-ish to me was the series’ portentous tone. Every third conversation seemed to include an overwrought line or two about good and evil, sacrifice, honor, and/or loyalty:

  • “We thought the war, at last, was ended. We thought our joys would be unending. We thought our light would never dim.”
  • “We stay true to each other. No matter how the path winds, or how steep it gets, we face it, with our hearts even bigger than our feet.”
  • “It darkens the heart, to call dark deeds good.’ It gives place for evil to thrive inside us.”
  • “Evil does not sleep, it waits. And in the moment of our complacency, it blinds us.”
  • “Hope is never mere, even when it is meager. When all other senses sleep, the eye of hope is first to awaken, last to shut.”

Over the top and melodramatic? Absolutely. Sometimes too highfalutin’ for the acting used to deliver them? Without a doubt. But while they might’ve been a bit too on-the-nose at times, they felt more in-line with the spirit of Tolkien’s writings (which, let’s face it, can get pretty long-winded and portentous) than the aforementioned Tolkien-isms.

On a related note, I really appreciated the series’ religiosity. Once thing I feared would be a downplaying of the Valar and Valinor despite being set during the Second Age of Middle-earth, when such things had more presence in the world. But I had no reason to be; the series is practically filled with acknowledgment, if not worship, of Middle-earth’s great powers.

Nowhere is this better seen than in this fantastic line by Galadriel: “Ours was no chance meeting. Not fate, nor destiny, nor any other words Men use to speak of the forces they lack the conviction to name. Ours was the work of something greater.” (This Twitter thread does a good job of exploring the evidence and implications of divine intervention in The Rings of Power.) Considering that Tolkien’s legendarium is inseparable from his Christian faith, such lines were a delight to hear.

Another criticism often leveled at the season concerned the acting, and specifically Morfydd Clark’s portrayal of Galadriel as a proud and fiery warrior as opposed to Cate Blanchett’s ethereal queen in Peter Jackson’s movies. I suspect, however, that Galadriel’s evolution and growth from warrior to queen will be one of the series’ major storylines. As such, Clark’s hotheaded and “immature” version of Galadriel works for me, and as a result, she delivers the series’ most impassioned performance. (On a side note, the scene of her riding in slow motion across the beaches of Númenor was one of the season’s most beautiful moments.)

Arondir also drew a lot of ire, due mainly (and unfortunately) to the color of actor Ismael Cruz Córdova’s skin. Córdova was clearly trying to emphasize the otherworldly nature of Elves with his restrained, even pained performance, but the results of that approach were mixed. (He fared much better in his various action scenes, though.) Unfortunately, I never really bought into his relationship with the human healer Bronwyn; it was missing that tragic, bittersweet element that defines Human/Elf relationships in Tolkien’s writings, something I hope will be ramped up in subsequent seasons if those two remain central characters.

As for my favorite characters, that would have to be the dynamic duo of Elrond and Durin. The push and pull of their friendship, which is deep and abiding but also tested by the twin realities of Elven immortality and Dwarven politics, added some much-needed heart and levity to the series. Meanwhile, Durin’s wife Disa had some surprising layers of her own; she could be equal parts warm, charming, and devious. I have a feeling that she’ll be taking a Lady Macbeth-ish turn in future episodes, and I can’t wait to see it.

So yes, The Rings of Power is flawed, but its heart (and sense of ambition) is, without a doubt, in the right place. There are, of course, countless different storylines that the series could’ve explored; Erik Kain, who really hated the show (he calls it an “arrogant betrayal”), posits an interesting one based on the character of Celebrimbor, the Elven smith who forged the Rings of Power. But for all its flaws, I see a lot of fidelity to the spirit and tone of Tolkien’s works, if not the letter — something David French explains in this excellent Twitter thread.

Obviously, there’s still a lot that needs to play out: the Stranger’s identity and his adventures with Nori in Rhûn; Galadriel’s evolution; the fate of Adar and his Uruks, the downfall of both Khazad-dûm and Númenor; the Changing of the World; and of course, the forging of the Rings of Power, including the One Ring. (More nerdy nitpicking: The three Elven rings were forged last in Tolkien’s writings, which explains why they weren’t sullied by Sauron’s influence, whereas they’re the first rings we see in the series. That seems like a pretty big departure, so how will the series handle it?)

When I reflect back on The Rings of Power’s first season, I am both relieved that it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been (I’m looking at you, Wheel of Time) and thankful that we’re getting more Tolkien in the pop culture zeitgeist that’s done this well. Put simply, the first season of The Rings of Power has laid a very solid foundation for what’s to come next. And needless to say, I can’t wait for season two (which has already begun filming).

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