Published September 14, 2022
Another week, another disappointing episode of “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.” Amazon hasn’t treated a Catholic writer this badly since it banned Ryan T. Anderson’s book “When Harry Became Sally.”
Still, even as it warps J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium, Amazon’s show does us the favor of illustrating the problems with the entertainment industry. In this case, the fundamental failure is that the showrunners don’t want to tell Tolkien’s stories; they want to tell their own stories with the big budget and name recognition that being a Tolkien adaptation gives them. But the more they alter Tolkien’s lore to accommodate their own preferences, the more they create difficulties that sabotage the show.
Perhaps the most prominent example is the show’s continued denigration of Galadriel. In this latest episode, she is stuck on the island kingdom of Numenor, whose inhabitants have turned against the elves. There are moments that hint at her status as a great and ancient elven ruler, but then the hot-headed, foolish character the show has established her as returns.
The presumptive goal here, as Jack Butler argues, is to set up character growth — an angry and impulsive warrior develops into the wise elven queen we know from “The Lord of the Rings.” But this is incoherent.
Galadriel has already been through the wars of the Elder Days, which she helped start — she was the only woman of the Noldor to speak during the debate that launched their futile war against Morgoth. The writers cannot convincingly invoke Galadriel’s high stature and thousands of years of life in Middle-Earth only to then have her behave like a dim-witted and ill-bred adolescent.
Nonetheless, they have to try to have it both ways because they chose to make Galadriel the main character in the show, even though she was not a leading character in the Second Age as Tolkien wrote it. The writers wanted a strong female lead in the current Hollywood fashion, so they gave Galadriel a sword, a military command, and a standard-issue Hollywood character arc. Therefore they keep writing themselves into corners.
It is true that filming anything of Tolkien’s is a challenge, and the Second Age, which is the most summarized era of Middle-Earth’s history, might be the most difficult part of the legendarium to adapt. But the showrunners keep crippling their own efforts. They are piling change after change on Tolkien’s lore because they lack his moral imagination and therefore don’t really understand, or even like, his stories. But they are not good at making their changes coherent, let alone appealing to Tolkien’s fans.
The showrunners, who are supposed to be presenting a different world to us, are consistently unable to get out of their own heads and the presuppositions of their own circle. For example, they have touted the show’s racial diversity, but they went about it in the dumbest possible way.
If they wished, they could have made the whole tribe of proto-hobbits brown-skinned and it would have fit with Tolkien’s lore, which describes the Harfoots as “browner of skin” than other hobbits. But instead, the show chose to have the Harfoots look like so much of Hollywood — white with one token black guy.
The show’s haphazard approach to following the lore leads to ridiculous moments. John Daniel Davidson has detailed some of the show’s major deviations from Tolkien’s tales, but the follies just keep coming. For example, in this latest episode Galadriel discovers Sauron’s contingency plan for Morgoth’s defeat, which laughably asks viewers to believe that orcs are able to puzzle out crude cartographical clues that stump the wise among elves and men.
This silliness would have been avoided if the writers had stuck to Tolkien’s work. Morgoth is Middle-Earth’s version of Satan, and he was conquered because the Valar intervened after he had defeated the elven kingdoms.
There is no contingency planning against that sort of angelic intervention, which is why Sauron sued for mercy and even repented of his wickedness for a time. Holding to the original story, in which Sauron broke his parole out of shame and then fell back into evil, would have been more coherent than pretending that Sauron had a secret plan for this all along.
Sticking to the original story would also have heightened the sense of tragedy in the Second Age. After Morgoth’s ruin, elves, men, and even Sauron had a chance to reject evil, all in their own ways failed. Sauron returned to his wickedness and became a dark lord in Morgoth’s place, Numenor rebelled against the Valar, and some of the elves allowed themselves to be taken in by Sauron. In the end, even the victory of the Last Alliance was squandered, as the Ring was not destroyed.
The history of the Second Age is a tale of civilizational downfall, and the choices of the showrunners seem particularly ill-suited to telling it. For instance, the decision to radically compress the timeline precludes showing how Numenor was corrupted — the viewers instead arrive on the scene with its moral decline well-advanced.
This thematic failure is exacerbated by the writers’ determination to make their characters the center of everything. Good writers know that characters sometimes need to simply observe, rather than instigate. Otherwise, storytelling through a character turns into making that character the mover of everything. The latter seems to be precisely what they are doing with Galadriel in Numenor, where she is poised to play an implausibly outsized role in the internal affairs of the kingdom.
This sloppy writing leads to dramatic personal clashes taking the place of larger civilizational storylines. Consequently, the characters almost inevitably become dumber and louder, so we’ll probably see a throne room showdown with Galadriel acting like an angry adolescent. Again.
This may be standard Hollywood fare, but people love Tolkien’s books because they are different from, and better than, the usual dreck on offer from the entertainment industry. Thus, pretty scenery is not going to save a Tolkien adaptation whose writers are replacing his stories with mediocre Hollywood tropes.
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.