For as long as I can remember, Tolkien’s stories of Middle-Earth have been a big part of my life. Both his books, and the films adapted from his books, completely captured my heart and imagination. When Amazon announced their intention to develop a new television show set in Middle-Earth, my expectations for it were sky-high.
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (RoP) is an eight-part series streaming on Amazon Prime Video. It is set in the Second Age of Tolkien’s world, far before the events of Lord of the Rings, and it follows a diverse cast of characters. Fair warning, I will discuss a few light spoilers for all those who haven’t seen it yet.
Every technical aspect of RoP is masterfully done. The musical score, composed by Bear McCreary, is just about as good as Howard Shore’s score for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It gives Middle Earth a bit of a different sound than the one we knew before, but each leitmotif is memorable and compelling. When I heard the theme for the dwarven fortress beneath the mountain, I was ready to grab a pickaxe and start smashing rocks myself. If you enjoy listening to film scores, I’d highly recommend giving it a listen.
Not only is the music top notch, but the cinematography is also incredible. There is an abundance of epic visual spectacle, as well as smaller, more intimate, and beautiful moments. There isn’t a scene or episode that fails to deliver in this way. The show adds to this beauty by skillfully blending CG elements with practical effects. Much of the show was shot in New Zealand, and it uses CGI to enhance these real locations.
On the acting front, Robert Aramayo shines as Elrond. Charlie Vickers is excellent as Halbrand, and Ismael Cruz Córdova brings a steady, quiet strength to Arondir. Morfydd Clark is also a brilliant actress, though I wish she were given more to work with in her role as Galadriel.
Fighting a Culture War
Apart from the technical aspects of this production, there are truly moments where the writing and storytelling resembles something of Tolkien’s work. Here and there, there comes dialogue, a character moment, or a point in a plotline that feels like it came from Tolkien’s own pen. A small conversation between Galadriel and a young boy truly grasps the philosophy, and Catholicism, of Tolkien. Unfortunately, these moments are too few.
Though I don’t consider RoP worth fighting a culture war over, there are certainly areas in which the show is dragged down by the influence of modern ideas, namely the way it implements gender inclusivity. I understand and believe that representation is important, but the creators of RoP went about it with very little thought or care.
At one point in the latter half of the season, the Númenorians send an army to Middle-Earth to confront a growing threat of orcs. You don’t have to look too closely at this army to see that many of them are small, quite regular looking women. I understand that this is a fantasy world, but even a world of make-believe must at some point adhere to universal realities, or else it risks asking the audience to suspend too much of their disbelief. I found it hard to accept that a woman of typical stature and strength could fight a bloodthirsty orc, or that the military leaders of Númenor expected them to.
That’s not to say that women shouldn’t be written with strength and courage. There are many examples of strong female characters in Tolkien’s work, some of whom are even proficient in hand-to-hand combat like Eowyn or Galadriel. When women take to the battlefield regularly as they do in RoP, it undermines exceptional characters like Eowyn and Galadriel. It undermines Tolkien’s work itself. These decisions result from a misunderstanding of what true female empowerment and strength look like. Giving a female character male traits does not make them empowered; it only tells the audience that you believe that a woman must be more like a man for her to be strong and have worth as a person.
HBO’s House of the Dragon (HotD) is a good example of how RoP should have approached this issue. The female characters in HotD are very empowered, but that does not make them warriors. They face hardships and struggles, not on the battlefield, but in their everyday lives as mothers, wives, queens, and princesses in a misogynistic society. Much like Eowyn does in LotR, they show strength and virtue that speaks to the struggles of women in our world. They are much more relatable and compelling for a female audience.
The Soul of Middle Earth
Besides the gender politics, RoP too often feels like an imitation of Tolkien, rather than an adaptation. The writers did their best to replicate the poetry of the original texts, and sometimes they succeeded, but the dialogue frequently felt lacking. Furthermore, many character decisions made little sense. The Southlanders abandoned an easily defensible tower fortress for an unwalled village with little to no fortifications, for instance. Everybody knows walls are better than no walls. That’s medieval(-ish) warfare 101.
Early in the season, Galadriel jumps from a ship far out at sea and starts to swim back to shore. I understand it was an emotional decision made in a matter of moments, but she’s Galadriel, not Aquaman. What did she expect to do? Swim all the way back to Middle Earth? It was writing decisions like this that took me out of the show and made me question the narrative.
Although I genuinely enjoyed much of RoP, it failed to move me in the same way as Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. There were moments when I felt something, but none of those moments compared to the countless ones I experienced (and still do experience) while watching the Peter Jackson films. The courage wasn’t as strong, the friendships not as pure, the darkness not as dark, and the light not as bright.
Rings of Power is not a bad television show by any means. There are so many things to appreciate about it, but perhaps the soul of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth was missing. There is still hope. Season 2 is already in production, and I look forward to seeing if the showrunners can find that spirit.