Rings of Power review. Can it really be this bad?
First, let’s get past the accusations from some media organisations that customer disappointment with the series is based on racism. It is not. As anyone will realise who has actually read the reviews, complaints about the inclusion of “persons of colour” form a small part of the overall disgruntlement. They form a small part of mine.
Tolkien’s mythology was specifically based on Northern European myth and legend. Its peoples are white. That’s it. There is nothing racist about this, any more than there is anything racist in the people of Wakanda being black, or the characters in The Tale of Genji being Japanese. Including a few random European shopkeepers in a film version of The Tale of Genji for the sake of inclusiveness would not be brave or creative, it would just be silly. So is including a few random black dwarves, elves and harfoots in a screen version of stories set in Tolkien’s world. It is not a deal-breaker, but it is shallow and annoying to people who love Tolkien, and who care about the integrity of the stories.
While on the subject of silly prejudices, the producers’ prejudices are so much in evidence that they are bulging at the sides and bursting out the bottom. The dwarves are suspicious, stupid, belligerent, grasping, and drink too much. So naturally they are Scottish, or at least, speak with embarrassing attempts at Scottish accents. The Harfoots (more on them later) are naïve, stupid, have no apparent way of living, and wander around aimlessly in dirty clothes with sticks in their hair. So naturally, they are Irish, or at least speak with embarrassing attempts at Irish accents. The elves, however, all sound like they went to Oxford or Cambridge, so naturally they are gorgeous, brainy, produce beautiful art and are probably secret ninja warriors. Because as everyone knows, people who went to university and live in the city are superior in every way to yokels who live in the country and grow carrots and rabbits, and to those grubby, sweaty people who work in mines and factories or other yucky places.
Another minor annoyance, well more like a grinding, groan-inducing face-palming piece of stupidity, is characters holding lanterns right in front of their faces when they are trying to see ahead of them. Has anyone involved in this production ever been camping? Ever used a lantern, or even a candle (apart from the scented kind you put around your bath)? Holding a lantern in front of your face means you can’t see a damn thing except the lantern. If you want to see what is around or ahead of you, you hold the lantern or candle over your head, or beside you, so it is out of your field of vision.
There are other, intermittent bits of silliness. Hunters, to whom speed and stealth are vitally important, roam around the countryside with massive moose antlers on their backs. Massive as in bigger than they are. Why? Sauron, in his guise as Annatar (at least, I think it is he, since it cannot be a wizard – they did not arrive in Middle Earth until the beginning of the Third Age) streaks across the sky in a great flaming fireball which then crashes into a paddock. This is Sauron, master of subtlety and deception, who is about to insinuate himself into Elvish society and is desperate not to draw attention to himself. So why?
These are niggles. There are two bigger problems.
The first is that this is not Tolkien.
It is as if the producers have taken the name, picked a period in Tolkien’s timeline, and then ignored all of Tolkien’s history and philosophy.
Again, just a few examples. There is no record of hobbits of any kind, including Harfoots, in Middle Earth until a thousand years into the Third Age, that is, some 3,000 years after the events in the first episodes of Rings of Power. They are included presumably because the producers thought viewers would find them appealing. Men, on the other hand, were present in Middle Earth from the beginning of the First Age, and were known to Elves from about the year FA 310, that is, about 900 years before the period in which the series is set. Yet no men appear in the series. Perhaps in later episodes. But why mess about with the timeline in this way?
Elrond is told he cannot attend a meeting because it is for Elf-Lords only. But Elrond is an Elf-Lord, and has been since the moment he decided to be counted as elf-kind. This was his right by birth. He is a descendant of Thingol and Melian, grandson of Beren and Luthien, and son of Earendil and Elwing. So why?
The character called Galadriel in Rings of Power bears no resemblance to Tolkien’s Galadriel. To distinguish the two I will call the RoP character Sadriel. Galadriel is an elf of enormous power and strength of character. She led her people into Middle Earth across the grinding ice, a crossing that had previously only been made by the Valar and Ungoliant. Sadriel is more like a cross between Princess Leia and Neo from The Matrix, with the worst qualities of both. She seems to have no regard for the wellbeing of the people she leads. She certainly doesn’t listen to them. In one absurd scene, she jumps from a ship, apparently planning to swim 1,000 miles back from the shores of the Undying Lands, through treacherous and clouded waters.
By about the year 1,000 in the Second Age Galadriel had been married to Celeborn for 1,500 years. But Celeborn is nowhere to be seen, and is not consulted by Sadriel in any of her decision-making or obsessive campaigning.
Then there’s the fact that no one in this series can act. Perhaps that is unfair. There may be some quite competent actors in this schmozzle, but it is impossible to tell, because the script is so wooden, and the lines in places so pretentious, that it would be bordering on impossible for even the best of players to deliver them with conviction. Outstanding amongst these are the snippets of ageless wisdom delivered by the elves. For example: “The wine of victory is sweetest for those in whose bitter trials it was fermented.” Um, what? This is not wisdom. It is the kind of banal motto fourteen year old girls obsessed with unicorns write in their secret diaries.
The root of all this is that the writers and producers seem not to care about Tolkien or his writings at all. It isn’t even clear whether they have read LOTR or The Silmarillion, or any of the other works. If they have, they have not understood them. Tolkien’s work is pregnant with providence and sacramentality. Peter Jackson largely missed this as well, especially in the omission of Tom Bombadil, who represents what we are saved to, which as least as important as what we are saved from, but at least Jackson was mostly faithful to the story.
Most people whose understanding of Lord of the Rings is based on Jackson will never have heard of Glorfindel, will believe that Arwen found the fellowship and led Frodo to Rivendell, that it was she, not Elrond, who called down the river on the Nazgul, and that Saruman was killed at Isengard. Jackson’s agenda is in evidence where the text is changed, but in his film version of LoTR the actors can act, the characters, though sometimes distorted (Frodo was fifty-one years old when he set out with the Ring), are sympathetic, and the story largely holds together.
Rings of Power’s worst fault is simply that it is boring. It is impossible to care for characters who are shallow caricatures, or who are self-obsessed and arrogant. The first and vital step for the writers and producers of any drama is that the audience must feel a connection with the characters. If they don’t, they will not care what happens to them, and they will be bored. An audience will forgive almost anything – bad dialogue, cheesy special effects, even changes to beloved characters – but they will not forgive being bored.
Rings of Power will meet the same fate as Disney’s dire attempts at the Narnia stories. People who love Narnia went to see the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe because of their love for the books. The movie missed most of what was important to Lewis, but as a movie it wasn’t terrible. Prince Caspian spent its first fifteen minutes deliberately alienating the audience from the main characters, and went down from there. Half as many people went to see it. Even fewer to Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
Widespread love for Tolkien meant Rings of Power achieved high viewer numbers for its first two episodes. But it is not Tolkien. It is not even interesting. It will not last.
Yes, it really is that bad.