The Rings of Power, Gratitude, and the Importance of Telling New Stories
The much-heralded billion-dollar The Rings of Power dropped on Amazon Prime last Friday and it’s really quite something. What that something is, exactly, will probably only be fully defined once the series is over or maybe even long after that. Much like Gondor itself, Amazon’s adaptation of Tolkien’s work has been under siege by trolls long before it even came out, most of the backlash centered on its diverse cast including brown-skinned dwarves, harfoots (a kind of hobbit), and *gasp* elves!
Let’s face it: The Rings of Power was never going to please everybody. On the one hand, it’s essentially fan fiction cobbled together from parts of the Silmarillion as well as various appendices and the letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Purists and self-proclaimed Tolkienites turn their noses up at the very idea of introducing new characters and dark-skinned elves, so The Rings of Power’s Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) is not only non-canonical, he’s an affront to their senses.
Let’s face it: The Rings of Power was never going to please everybody.
On the other hand, the exceptionally diverse casting has the racists up in arms, masking their bigotry with Tolkienite snobbery which, to be frank, is sometimes one and the same. Amazon has had to employ a 72-hour delay on user reviews to stem the review bombing from trolls. With both earnest resistance from purists and malicious rejection from racists, The Rings of Power was always doomed to make some people unhappy.
One thing is clear: The Rings of Power is not The Silmarillion. In fact, it isn’t based on any book by J. R. R. Tolkien unlike Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. While The Hobbit is an acquired taste, The Lord of the Rings is arguably the greatest trilogy of all time and three of the best films ever made. Christopher Tolkien hated them. To be fair, J. R. R. Tolkien’s son, who was caretaker and curator of his father’s works until his death in 2020, never watched the films. But he made no secret of his disdain for Jackson and how he “eviscerated” The Lord of the Rings and made into “an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25.”
Well, I was 28 when I saw The Fellowship of the Ring, and I was crying through the entire movie. One of my most treasured possessions is The Annotated Hobbit, a gift from my mother when I was 15, where Tolkien scholar Douglas A. Anderson prefaces the book by explaining Tolkien’s own disdain for criticism and (in his estimation) poor interpretations of his work. He would’ve hated Peter Jackson’s movies, too.
It’s notable that the Tolkien estate itself, arguably peak Tolkienite, is happy with The Rings of Power.
But the films are gateways into Tolkien’s incredible, enduring world the same way Avengers movies introduce Iron-Man and Captain America to audiences who might have never read the comics. The Marvel Cinematic Universe adapts popular storylines from the pages of comic books and reinterprets them for the big screen. Why can’t Middle Earth be treated the same way? Is the argument against dark-skinned elves more valid than the pushback against a black actress playing Neil Gaiman’s Death in Netflix’s Sandman?
The truth of the matter is, a truly faithful adaptation of The Lord of the Rings would’ve had musical numbers and a non-superheroic, albeit skilled, Legolas. The Rings of Power attempts to sidestep the pitfalls of adaptation by venturing into new, uncharted territory and spins an entirely new tale using familiar characters. Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) as a sword-brandishing warrior isn’t strictly in the books, but the appendices and letters don’t rule it out, either. The Harfoots were also described as “browner of skin" so casting POC actors to play the hobbits in Amazon’s series isn’t even a deviation from the text.
But what The Rings of Power bravely does is forge new stories set in a world that Tolkien never finished. He wrote and revised his Legendarium up to his last days and his son published The Silmarillion in 1977, four years after his death. It was poorly received at the time of publication in part because many felt that it wasn’t authorized by Tolkien himself and Christopher, attempting to replicate his father’s tone, wrote entirely new material to bridge gaps in the narrative.
The Rings of Power feels like coming home.
With Christopher Tolkien gone, there presumably will no longer be any more additions to Middle Earth canon. Christopher posthumously published some 24 books of his father’s writings, the last of which, The Fall of Gondolin, was published in 2018. Tolkien was prolific and left a staggeringly expansive but unfinished world that simply begs to be visited, explored, and enjoyed.
It’s notable that the Tolkien estate itself, arguably peak Tolkienite, is happy with The Rings of Power. The same estate that very publicly distanced itself from Jackson’s adaptations reportedly nixed his involvement in the Amazon series. That’s why it was such a pleasant surprise that The Rings of Power is an extremely Peter Jacksonesque foray into Middle Earth that evokes all the luminescence and enchantment of the epic trilogies. Spanish director J. A. Bayona, who helmed the melancholy and fantastic A Monster Calls, directed the first two episodes and it’s glorious.
It takes its time setting up several story threads, which can feel a little slow over two episodes, but it’s breathtaking and beautiful. Viewers are supposed to take it slow, meant to be absorbed in bite-size chunks because there’s just too much. It’s supposed to be sipped and swirled, not guzzled and gulped. It feels like coming home.
The Rings of Power deserves to be seen on the biggest screen available, and anyone watching it on a tiny computer screen or, the Valar forbid, a mobile phone is cheating themselves out of a singular television experience. It’s a return to Middle Earth in a way that’s familiar yet fresh, with favorites like Galadriel and Elrond (Robert Aramayo) forging a new path along with entirely new, made-for-television characters like Arondir and Nori Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh), who looks poised to be this series’ Frodo. It’s all new ground--again, fanfic--that’s done with the blessing of the Tolkien estate.
There’s a wealth of Middle Earth material that can be adapted into films, such as the love story between the mortal man Beren and the elf-maiden Lúthien, literary analogs for Tolkien himself and his wife Edith. But adapting canonical tales has its own Balrogs, and something as deeply personal as Beren and Lúthien is dangerous territory. The argument is moot, anyway, since Amazon only has the rights to the Appendices.
So showrunners JD Payne and Patrick McKay dove deep into the text that Tolkien intended to flesh out Middle Earth and extrapolated a story from the barest of threads. Critics call it a cash grab, but anyone who truly loves Tolkien should be overjoyed that Middle Earth is getting a billion-dollar production. If J. R. R. Tolkien’s finances weren’t tight, he might never have sold the movie rights to pay off a tax bill, and we would have nothing at all. Call it destiny.
Perhaps the only way to watch The Rings of Power is with immense joy and gratitude. It mines the deep lore and considerably detailed world of Tolkien to craft something good and beautiful, much like the Silmarils. It is still Tolkien the same way Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and Tom Holland are all Spider-Man. Warrior Galadriel, beardless female dwarves, dark-skinned elves, Harfoots with an Irish accent, and old men who fall from the sky … it’s all still very Tolkien. When you watch The Rings of Power, there’s a palpable, undeniable love for Middle Earth canon tempered with a cautious effort not to besmirch it.
How lucky are we to live in an age where we see the fantastic worlds we imagined in our youth come to life? How spoiled are we that we get to see fantastic adaptations of our favorite works, The Sandman, House of the Dragon, and now The Rings of Power, within weeks of each other? There is no other reaction but gratitude.