Published October 19, 2022
Amazon’s “Rings of Power” could have been good, even great. Unfortunately, the show squandered its potential by adding a multitude of silly plot devices and petty personal conflicts to J.R.R. Tolkien’s story, at the expense of developing the plot and the characters.
Ultimately, the showrunners didn’t trust the source material or the audience. Despite Amazon spending a fortune for the rights to this part of Tolkien’s legendarium, the people selected to make the show decided that Tolkien’s story just wasn’t that good and that audiences wouldn’t be interested in it. Thus, scenes that evoked the wonder and excitement of reading Tolkien tended to be quickly followed by something more reminiscent of Marvel films, such as an origin story for Mount Doom.
No wonder that even Tolkien fans who wanted to like the show are offering disappointed reviews, or damning it with faint praise by grading it on a curve as glorified fan-fiction. Even if the showrunners try to change their approach for the remaining seasons, they may not have the ability to pull it off, especially because they are stuck with the disastrous choices they made in the first season.
The chief calamity was the decision to build the first season around Galadriel as an unstable vengeance-seeking action hero. This is another example of how Hollywood, for all of its talk about presenting strong female leads, rarely knows how to portray them as women. Thus, Galadriel spends half the show looking as unfeminine as possible in plate armor, which is especially unconvincing on the petite Morfydd Clark.
There are indications that the show might be ready to move beyond this. Unfortunately, this is more than just a problem of portraying character growth; too much of the plot and development of other characters are implicated in Galadriel’s character for the writers to easily move on — they even made her (inadvertently but directly) responsible for Sauron’s return and rise as the new Dark Lord.
Relatedly, the revelation of who and where Sauron was and what he was up to was the sort of pull-off-the-mask moment that seems clever in today’s Marvel-saturated cinematic culture, but which just becomes dumber each time the viewer thinks about it.
But at least the Sauron reveal had a point, unlike the proto-hobbit storyline, which was only there because the showrunners were determined to have hobbits in their Tolkien show. In fairness, the lack of relatable hobbit gardeners is a challenge in filming the Second Age. After all, elves are, by nature, somewhat alien to us, and even the men of Numenor are at a remove from us. However, because they do not interact with the rest of the story, the Harfoots do not help draw us into Middle-Earth in the way the hobbits of Tolkien’s books did.
Two Complex Questions
This failure to execute on what should have been the relatable aspects of the show bodes ill for the writers’ ambitions. They seem to be trying to address two complex and interesting questions in Tolkien, but it is doubtful they will stick the landing.
The first subject is whether orcs are redeemable. Tolkien himself did not provide a definitive answer, though he suggested that this was beyond the capacity of men or elves to achieve. In the books, orcs are shown as having wills that are enslaved by the dark lords. Thus, when Sauron was defeated and the ring destroyed, it was only the men in his service who retained enough free will to choose how to respond, whether to fight, flee, or surrender. Whether orcs could have genuine free will, and therefore be anything other than evil monsters, is an unresolved point that “Rings of Power” seemed poised to address, only to move on with no more than hints that orcs might at least have the capacity to be moral toward each other. This reticence may be for the best, as the show is unlikely to provide a satisfactory answer if it pursues the matter further.
The second big question is how Sauron became the terrifying and totally evil dark lord we encounter in “The Lord of the Rings.” We are told that he was not always so but are given few details, though the fall of Saruman may provide some illuminating parallels. Tolkien did elucidate elsewhere, explaining that Sauron surrendered after Morgoth’s defeat but was ashamed and afraid of the unknown punishment that awaited him. He therefore fled rather than appearing again before the Valar for judgment. Then, presuming the Valar had permanently left Middle-Earth, he fell back into evil.
This could have been an interesting part of the plot, but the showrunners’ choices — to compress the entire timeline of thousands of years, and to make Galadriel, angsty warrior princess, the main character — ruin it. The potential is apparent in a great line the writers gave Sauron, that he did not see a difference between ruling Middle-Earth and healing it. This desire for domination is the root of his evil, but showing how it corrupted him beyond redemption needed to be subtly drawn out, not rushed by the hectoring of an unwitting Galadriel.
Unfortunately, the people in charge of “Rings of Power” wanted the usual blockbuster gimmicks rather than trusting Tolkien’s work. What they did not realize is that good stories don’t rely on twists and cliffhangers to hold their audience’s interest. They retain their charm even when we know what’s coming; we are still entranced by the characters and the plot, even after reading or watching or hearing the story many times.
A Better Alternative Was Possible
“The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” are among these tales, and though Tolkien never developed the Second Age of Middle-Earth in such detail, it too had this potential. It is not hard to sketch an alternative to what Amazon has done.
The showrunners should have accepted that the narrative extends beyond a single human life. However, this could have been made into a strength, emphasizing how the sorrows of elves and men were manipulated by Sauron for evil. For the immortal elves, the fleeting nature of everything and everyone else in Middle-Earth drove them to seek power in order to preserve what they loved. For men, mortality and the uncertainty of what lies after death are a source of fear that drove the people of Numenor to attempt to seize immortality. The character of Elrond in particular could have been used to great effect as he interacted with the descendants of his brother Elros, who chose mortality as the ruler of Numenor.
It would not, of course, have been necessary to show the entire 3,000-plus years of the Second Age. Dividing the story in half, and accepting that human characters from the first portion would not be present in the second would have been a workable compromise that still allowed enough time for the civilizational developments of the Second Age to make sense.
The first half could have covered the re-emergence of Sauron, the forging of the rings, and the first war of the ring, which concluded with Sauron repulsed but not defeated. The second half could have covered the Numenorean invasion of Middle-Earth, the captivity of Sauron, the fall of Numenor, and the Last Alliance. The gap between these portions of the story is necessary to explain how Numenor went from a benevolent kingdom of elf-friends to an empire so great that Sauron surrendered to it without a fight, but so corrupt that he was quickly able to persuade it to rebel against the Valar themselves.
Galadriel could have remained a central figure in this adaptation, without the juvenile drama and unconvincing action sequences Amazon burdened her with. Sauron could still have been a more complex and seductive figure than the dark lord of later years. He could appear as something like an angel of light, corrupted by the belief that, as the greatest being in Middle-Earth, he ought to dominate it for its own good.
The structure for a great story was in place, and skilled writers could have fleshed it out with a multitude of moving and dramatic moments that would have been true to Tolkien’s vision. For example, Sauron wasn’t the only one with deeds to repent of — how might he have used the guilt of the Kinslayings to manipulate some of the elves as he sought to gain their trust?
Instead, we got the usual screenwriting cliches dressed up in leftover costumes from Peter Jackson’s films. If there is any hope of salvaging the remaining seasons, Amazon’s minions need to realize that their job is to bring Tolkien’s work to the screen, not to bring Hollywood tropes to Tolkien’s work.
Nathanael Blake, Ph.D. is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His primary research interests are American political theory, Christian political thought, and the intersection of natural law and philosophical hermeneutics. His published scholarship has included work on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Alasdair MacIntyre, Russell Kirk and J.R.R. Tolkien. He is currently working on a study of Kierkegaard and labor. As a cultural observer and commentator, he is also fascinated at how our secularizing culture develops substitutes for the loss of religious symbols, meaning and order.