Published September 6, 2022
Amazon’s new Tolkien adaptation looks fair and feels foul. The first two episodes of the billion-dollar “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” are a visual spectacle, but the story, dialogue, and themes are like a slow-moving, slightly elevated Marvel superhero film in a fantasy setting. Which is to say that the show might be barely tolerable if its roots in Tolkien’s beloved stories could be ignored.
But the show is a terrible adaptation of Tolkien. It is not just that screenwriters abandon much of Tolkien’s carefully constructed lore, but that they have no feel for the world he created and the moral vision that animated it. There are visually stunning moments — though also a few that fall short of the expectations set by the show’s almost unlimited budget — but there is nothing to inspire the moral imagination. There is no real awe or wonder at, or even admiration for, the heroes whose tales are being (presumably) woven together for us.
There are plenty of characters. There is Galadriel, hunting orcs and Sauron, whom she’s sure is still out there. There is an adventurous proto-hobbit lass who finds and cares for a mysterious stranger. There is an elf sentinel and a human healer and her son and the list goes on and viewers have little reason to care about any of these characters and what they are doing.
This is in part because other than the names and landscapes, almost none of this show feels like it belongs in Middle-Earth. For example, in one plotline, the elven smith Celebrimbor wants to quickly build a powerful forge, so Elrond (a woefully miscast Robert Aramayo) goes to Moria to ask for help from the dwarves. He is turned away at the door, but gains access by challenging his old friend Prince Durin to a rock-breaking contest. He loses, learns that Durin is angry because Elrond missed his wedding to a strong black dwarven woman who then helps reconcile them over dinner—and is this Tolkien or a sitcom?
The problem is not that the showrunners randomly threw in a few dark-skinned characters, but that everyone involved was so busy congratulating themselves on adding more “diversity” to Middle-Earth that they didn’t bother to make a good show.
Some liberties might be taken with the source material while remaining true to the spirit of Tolkien’s work. They might even smooth out aspects of the legendarium that are difficult to film. But the folks at Amazon do not respect Tolkien or his work, and so their deviations from his work are leading them into a morass of plot and character difficulties.
For instance, the showrunners have tried to force Galadriel into current Hollywood ideals of a strong female lead, which has actually demeaned her. Tolkien’s Galadriel was a great elven ruler, not a mid-level military officer who could be ordered around by Gil-Galad. Amazon demotes her to Galadriel: Battle-Elf, vengeful leader of scouting parties — and miscast Morfydd Clark, who might have made a good elven queen, but is a lousy action heroine. This is Galadriel through the lens of the many Hollywood bros of the Joss Whedon mold who believe that nothing is more empowering than another 110-pound woman winning hand-to-hand combat.
Kung-fu Galadriel gave the writers an easy way to create early action and drama, but it reduces the character in the long run. By slavishly adhering to current fashions, the showrunners have diminished their female lead, for it is now impossible for them to present her as a natural peer of Gil-Galad and the other elven lords of Middle-Earth.
This is typical of the stunted imaginations that populate today’s entertainment industry, run by people who insert themselves and their obsessions into every story, rather than creating art that broadens horizons and draws people out of their immediate experience. Of course they’re going to make a mess of Tolkien. Even Peter Jackson’s good-but-not-great “Lord of the Rings” films (the less said about “The Hobbit” trilogy, the better) routinely made characters less noble than in the books.
Amazon’s showrunners are poised to do worse, as they seemingly lack the moral understanding to apprehend the tragedy of the Second Age, in which good allowed evil to return. Those with little virtue of their own will not understand how the great might fall, or how the good might be tempted.
Ironically, the flaws of the elves and men of the Second Age are mirrored in the culture and industries (tech and entertainment) that created this show. An Amazon show that was true to Tolkien’s themes would be an implicit critique of the ideology and actions of those funding it.
The Second Age was a tragedy because, in their eagerness for knowledge, the elves of Eregion trusted Sauron’s professions of repentance and friendship. Meanwhile, and worse still, the men of Numenor fell into evil because they loved this world more than they trusted God. Their consequent fear of death was the source of their downfall, in which God Himself intervened against them.
And God may be the root of the problem with Amazon’s show. The God of Tolkien’s lore is, of course, based on the God Tolkien really worshiped. Tolkien disliked and did not write allegories (e.g. “The Chronicles of Narnia” by his friend C.S. Lewis) but the influence of Tolkien’s Christianity is unavoidable in any adaptation of the Second Age. It is no longer, as in “The Lord of the Rings,” subtext; it is just text. And it is at odds with the spirit of our age, and the ethos of Amazon, which wanted a big-name fantasy series, not a tragic tale of man’s sinful rebellion against God.
Tolkien was not didactic, but his moral imagination was deeply Christian. It infused his work with meaning that cannot be discarded without vitiating his creation. Thus, Amazon has done to Tolkien what Ungoliant did to the Trees.
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 focused on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Alasdair MacIntyre and Russell Kirk. He is currently working on a study of J.R.R. Tolkien’s anti-rationalism. 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.