Amazon’s “Rings of Power” is not J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.” It’s not Tolkien’s “Hobbit.” It’s not even Tolkien’s “Silmarillion.” These will, naturally, be the standards by which fans of the greatest author the fantasy genre has ever known will measure the series. And by those standards, some are already deeming it a failure.
There are proto-Hobbits (the migratory Harfoot people) where, according to Tolkien’s timeline, no Hobbits should be. Galadriel has been downgraded to a garden-variety warrior queen, de-mythologizing the ethereal feminine power she previously wielded. And the dialogue manages the weird trick of wedging modern American vernacular into otherwise self-consciously stiff folklorian speech.
But for those who are able to separate the show from the high bar Peter Jackson set with his original trilogy and the inestimably higher bar of Tolkien’s novels, the first two episodes of “Rings of Power” represent a win for those who’ve been longing to see more truth and beauty in popular entertainment.
To illustrate just what a victory the show marks on the small screen, consider what Jeff Bezos reportedly said he wanted from his streaming service’s blockbuster fantasy series: another “Game of Thrones.” When news broke that “Rings of Power” was looking to hire “intimacy coaches” and actors who would be willing to do nude scenes, it seemed like his producers were going to deliver on that request.
Whether it was the horrified mass outcry from Tolkienites or simply that good judgement mercifully prevailed, audiences have been spared such a travesty. The series is as far from the pornographic and bloodthirsty spectacle that was the HBO hit’s hallmark as mud-wrestling is from ballet.
Every scene of “Rings of Power” offers some immersive vision of loveliness, some personality flourish that, if not directly drawn from Tolkien’s work, feels stylistically a piece of it. The underground waterfalls within the halls of Khazad-dûm, the infectious friendship between the elf-politician Elrond and the dwarf-king Durin IV — all of it delivers on the promise of a fully realized mythical world with not a sex or torture scene in sight. Co-writer Patrick McKay promises there won’t be any going forward either, telling Vanity Fair that his aim was “to make a show for everyone, for kids who are 11, 12, and 13.”
McKay went to say, “This is material that is sometimes scary — and sometimes very intense, sometimes quite political, sometimes quite sophisticated — but it’s also heartwarming and life-affirming and optimistic. It’s about friendship and it’s about brotherhood and underdogs overcoming great darkness.”
In other words, he seems to get what draws people to Middle Earth, and it’s not Game of Thrones-style cynicism.
It’s not just the show’s visuals and relative wholesomeness that honor the spirit if not the exact letter of Tolkien’s imagination either. There is also a transcendent morality in the beginnings of this multi-layered story.
Some have been justly bothered by brief lines like “speak your truth” that exemplify a post-modern worldview. But I’m inclined to chalk those up to thoughtless boilerplate, a crime of ignorance rather than indoctrination. Relativism is the air Hollywood breathes, and they know not always what they do when they pen such drivel. The broader arc of the storyline so far alludes to singular truth, even creator-ordered truth, as when Galadriel speaks of “a power greater than fate,” or when her brother counsels her to keep her eyes fixed on the light to guide her. One of the most powerful moments in the first episode comes when a ship is sailing to Valinor, and as the clouds break open to reveal a great illumination, the elves spontaneously break into a sort of worshipful hymn. Someone on this production has some notion of the true purpose of Heaven.
All of this could, of course, change, but so far the series shows enough commitment to the ethical foundation of the source material than I’m inclined to interpret its missteps charitably until it offers clear reason not to.
As for those take umbrage at any creative license being employed to invent new stories within Tolkien’s world, I would point to words the Inkling himself wrote to a friend in 1951:
I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many others only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.
Could “Rings of Power” break our hearts in the long run? Of course, and my pessimistic side puts the odds of it at better than even. But if we dismiss even good faith (if imperfect) efforts from Hollywood to give those of us who believe in transcendent virtues what we want — pop-culture that honors whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, then we’ll have only ourselves to blame if they stop trying.