Before I rant too much, I have to address this. Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is a polarizing series, but the most toxic online debates have been about the casting of women and people of color. Now, I could go on about J.R.R. Tolkien’s views on race and gender, and why I believe he was more inclusive than people realize, but that would need to be a separate discussion. I think the actors in RoP were fantastic: my issues are entirely with the series’ writing. Besides, LotR is all about people of different races (fantasy races, but still) coming together to vanquish evil. If you’re cool with elves making out with humans, it shouldn’t matter if they have different skin tones, ‘kay?
OK, rant over, time for the real rant. How did Amazon spend a billion dollars on this series, and still not hire a decent writing team?
The Lore of the Rings
Rings of Power is ostensibly based on The Silmarillion: an epic that covers the thousands of years of history and mythology surrounding Middle-Earth, from the creation of the universe under Eru Illuvatar to the dark lord Sauron’s forging of the titular Rings. The book is not a “prequel” or one traditional story; it’s more like the tapestry of Greek myths that form the backdrop to The Iliad and Odyssey. Although it can be a rough read at times, as Tolkien died before he got the chance to finish it, it’s still the most comprehensive guide to the intricate lore of his world.
Amazon bought LotR in 2017 after years of legal shenanigans, but even the biggest company in the world couldn’t get the rights to The Silmarillion. So how could Bezos and friends get a streaming hit to compete with Netflix and HBO? Well, Tolkien wrote a couple pages of backstory in the appendices to Return of the King. So Amazon used this as their source material, and hired “script doctors” JD Payne and Patrick McKay to craft five season’s worth of original characters and storylines to fill in the gaps. It’s like how Warner Bros. turned Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them from a 50-page pamphlet into a three-movie slog starring Eddie Redmayne. At least they had J.K. Rowling to write the script — which means it was all her fault! (I’m sorry, I’m still mad about the… you know…)
I know that’s a lot of backstory, but I think it helps explain why book fans have issues with Rings of Power’s writing. When I say the story makes no sense, it’s because the writers made shit up. When I say the characters are superfluous, it’s because they weren’t even in the story originally. And when I complain about the show’s dialogue, exposition, or pacing, I’m lamenting all the details it leaves out — because Amazon was legally prohibited from including them. In short, Rings of Power might be entertaining as late-night TV, but it fails as a proper Lord of the Rings adaptation.
Of Elves and Men
The story begins at the dawn of the Second Age: the original Dark Lord, Morgoth, is defeated, but his right-hand-man Sauron is still in hiding. While many elves retreat to their ancestral home Valinor (heaven, basically), a few stay in Middle-Earth to unite the people against a common foe. Galadriel, the queen of the High Elves (played here by Morfydd Clark, and by Cate Blanchett in the Jackson films), sails to the powerful island kingdom of Numenor. And the wise diplomat Elrond (played here by Robert Aramayo, and by Hugo Weaving in the movies) goes to the dwarven kingdom of Khazad-dûm to forge an alliance between the two ancient competing races. Of course, there’s a lot more going on, but these two were prominent in the original text and are the closest thing to “main characters” in this series.
Of all the Elves and Men (and Women) from Tolkien’s lore, I was most excited to see Galadriel portrayed on screen. She steals the show in her one scene in LotR, but in previous eras she was a Viking-esque shieldmaiden, and the strongest Elf in Middle-Earth after the death of her brother Feanor. People often criticize LotR for lacking female representation, but Galadriel’s arc in The Silmarillion is badass enough to prove them wrong.
This makes her portrayal in Rings of Power sting even more; they were so close, but still missed the mark. Morfydd Clark does her best with what she’s given, but the way her character is written is the opposite of empowering. I guess people couldn’t handle such a stoic, unflappable warrior queen as the female lead, so they have Galadriel fuck things up at every possible opportunity. When she arrives in Numenor, she acts like she owns the place. When she fights the orcs, she threatens to commit genocide on their race and makes them look more sympathetic! The story does not give us any reason to care about Galadriel, and her inconsistent personality makes her less relatable than in the books. How is it that the old white dude from the 1940’s wrote better female characters than this billion-dollar series in 2022?!
This leaves Elrond as the most interesting character of the bunch, though he is still sorely underdeveloped compared to the books. I loved Hugo Weaving’s portrayal in the Jackson films, but I was also excited to see his younger, hungrier self. This Elrond is cunning and ambitious, but loyal to his friends and his ideals. His goal is to mend the broken alliance between the Elves and Dwarves, and he has the most wholesome bromance with the Dwarven Prince, Durin. They delve deep into the mines of Khazad-dûm to find the mithril, a mystical ore stronger than steel. But anyone who remembers Fellowship will know there is a dark secret lurking just beneath their feet…
All this stuff is great: it fits with the established lore while adding key details, and the Dwarves give some much-needed levity to a story that is dark overall. Even the more minor players, such as the ambitious queen regent Miriel and the slimy demagogue Pharazon, have dynamic and complex character arcs that are quite faithful to Tolkien. Unfortunately, none of this matters, because the story constantly shoves these interesting characters aside to make room for all the other nonsense that has nothing to do with anything.
All The Other Nonsense
Everything I’ve mentioned only covers about 30% of the show’s runtime. The rest is filled with original characters and storylines that go nowhere and raise more questions than answers. A Wood-Elf named Arondir tries to protect his human family from an Orcish invasion. An Orc/Elf hybrid called Adar tries to rebel against Sauron. The dashing, ambitious Halbrand rescues Galadriel and ingratiates himself in Numenorean politics. And a group of nomadic hobbits, led by clear stand-ins for Frodo and Sam, meets a mysterious old man who is totally not Gandalf, I swear… okay he’s probably Gandalf but the show hasn’t explicitly told us yet…
I know I’m biased as a book nerd, but all of these storylines should have been cut from the show. There’s already a version of this story without them! As intriguing as some of these characters may be, and as talented as their actors are, they all spend eight+ hours of television making much ado about nothing. None of them have a satisfying payoff, and they only make the show more bloated and confusing. I understand why they were included: focus groups like relatable “Everyman” archetypes, and Amazon wanted five seasons worth of material. But since these people all have, like, one personality trait at most, they only bog down the series’ atrocious pacing.
Maybe it’s weird to complain about pacing in a Lord of the Rings adaptation; Tolkien loved to stop the plot to describe a mountain for like eight paragraphs. But pacing is not just about speed; structure matters just as much. Each chapter of the books focuses on a specific character and place, so readers never get lost on the long journey to Mordor. The movies play with the order of certain events, but they successfully condense the epic into three distinct films with their own three-act structures. By contrast, The Rings of Power’s is all over the place, filled with the most tiresome excesses of modern American TV.
The worst of these show’s frustrating insistence on a “mystery box” style of storytelling. The original stories didn’t concern themselves with this: you always knew who the good and bad guys were, and that was enough to tell an epic story. But because this is a primetime drama in 2022, every episode of RoP has to build up to some sort of dramatic twist or reveal, only to abandon it the next episode. I don’t know where this trope came from (I blame the JJ Abrams show Lost), but it’s fucking exhausting and doesn’t fit here at all. Any time a scene starts to develop, they drop a line like “What is THAT?!” and then cut to something else. The show is terrified of losing your attention for even a second, and never gives itself space to grow because of it.
The central thread of this season (I guess) is about finding the identity of Sauron. Before he was a giant freaky eye, the Dark Lord was a shapeshifter — in The Silmarillion, he can even become a werewolf or a vampire. Throughout the Second Age, he dons a human disguise to ingratiate himself with the royal court of Numenor. But here’s the key: the reader always knows who Sauron is, even if the characters do not. That wouldn’t fly with Payne and McKay, so they spend the entire first season trying to make us guess which of their 9000 original characters is the real Big Bad. Really, who cares? We know almost nothing about these people to begin with!
And at the risk of giving away the ending… after all the red herrings, it turns out the real Sauron is exactly who I thought he was the moment he showed up onscreen. If they wanted to be clever, the least they could do is stick the landing, right?
I love Lord of the Rings and all of Tolkien’s works, and I tried as hard as I could to watch this with an open mind. I don’t mind if an adaptation changes minor details (like that Elrond is called a “politician” or that there are now two Dwarves named Durin), as long as it stays true to the spirit of the original. But as much as this series tries to be a proper LotR prequel, it misses what makes these stories special in the first place. Rings of Power looks gorgeous, but its writers seem to care more about catering to a contemporary mainstream American TV audience than honoring Tolkien’s timeless themes.
If you made it all the way to the end – first off, thanks! More importantly, though, if there’s one positive thing this trainwreck of a show has done, it’s that it got people talking about how beautiful Middle-Earth is at its best. In my opinion, the best version of these stories, with the most authentic representations of its characters, will always be the books. If you’ve never read them, start with The Hobbit: it may be for kids, but it still holds up! Then take the deep dive into Lord of the Rings and, finally, The Silmarillion. These are dense reads, but they’re not as difficult (or god forbid, boring) as you may think. And they will give you a deeper appreciation of Tolkien’s mastery of language, mythology, and history, which made these stories literary classics.
And if there is one more thing I need to bitch about in RoP… FEMALE DWARVES HAVE BEARDS!!! Come on, Gimli even said this in The Two Towers movie. 0/10 literally unwatchable