As of this writing, Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is three episodes into its first season, almost halfway through. While I will have a much fuller review on Pop Medieval in a few weeks, many people are asking me right now, “Should I watch it? Is it any good?”
I really wanted to like this series and get annoyed by fans who decide they’re going to love or hate something before seeing it. I was skeptical of Jackson’s LotR adaptation, but when I saw Fellowship, I wasn’t just please, I was blown away. When The Hobbit films came around, I was optimistic because of the earlier films, and found them disappointingly bad. So I had a totally open mind about this series. So, is it any good?
In short, no. It’s bad. Very, very bad so far.
Let’s talk about the two different criteria for judging the series: As an adaptation of Tolkien, and as a series qua series. There will be spoilers ahead.
As a Tolkien Adaptation
I’m in no way a purist on this matter. Significantly, Amazon did not have the rights to The Silmarillion, and with both The Hobbit and LotR already in the can, all that remained are bits and pieces from appendices, notes, Unfinished Tales, and the like. It would have been very difficult to construct a coherent story from what remains, so this was always going to read more like Tolkien fan fiction than an adaptation.
From my perspective, that’s not a bad thing. True, it means that much of the series would not be canon, but that creates opportunities. We could imagine a series that fills in the lacunae in Middle-Earth’s history while still leaving enough Easter eggs to please the hardcore fandom.
As for the Easter eggs, the series is doing that quite well. Nearly every single statue, tapestry, or work of art in the background references something in The Silmarillion that Amazon cannot show in fullness on the screen. Some character names are so obscure that I have to look them up to see if they are original characters or some minor figure from a Tolkien appendix. If you want to play “Where’s Waldo” with Tolkien lore, on that front RoP succeeds.
Beyond that, however, in almost every way the series fails as a Tolkien adaptation. Take, for example, the main protagonist thus far, Galadriel. Obviously, over the millennia of her life, her character should develop in the fullness of time. Could Galadriel have been a cocksure Marysue warrior devoid of any wisdom or basic prudence in the Second Age? I think it is fair to say that, while not probable, it is plausible. People grow.
But “barely plausible” is hardly the mark of a successful adaptation. That bar is more appropriate for legal questions of intellectual property rather than aesthetic questions of artistic adaptation, and on this front, RoP fails utterly.
Tolkien’s work is filled with heroes, of course, but those heroes are marked by humility and sacrifice. His good characters know the limits of their abilities, and indeed generally underestimate themselves, whereas his evil characters are beset by hubris.
The Rings of Power turns Tolkien’s morality on its head, so much so that I struggle to answer the question, “Why shouldn’t we want Sauron to win?” The so-called “free peoples of Middle-Earth” here consistently oppress one another, and have done so for centuries. In a time without “evil,” the nomadic Harfoot hobbits have to stay hidden and on the move, and their fear of the big people is totally justified when we see the way that the other characters treat one another. Characters in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion also treat one another poorly, but there is always price to pay.
Evil in The Rings of Power is not a morality, it’s just a team, no better nor worse than good. The morality of the series is that of Morgoth, not of Tolkien.
As a Series
Let us, however, discard the notion that this is a Tolkien adaptation. Is it good as a series? Again, no.
First a few nice things about it: The establishing shots of each new location are beautiful, and will no doubt be the wallpaper on every nerd’s computer monitor for years to come. Khazad-dûm was particularly gratifying as we saw the emptiness from LotR filled in a way that will no doubt give form to the sense of loss at seeing that great hall swarming with orcs.
The dwarves also get the only good writing in the series thus far. Durin IV’s hurt feelings at being neglected by Elrond for decades was a humane way of depicting that rift, and the interplay between Durin IV and Disa was both well-written and well-acted. If the entire series were only about that couple and their family, I would watch it eagerly every week (despite the fact that Disa’s sideburns are weak).
Sadly, little else is worth praising.
The characters are flat and uninteresting. Even if we ignore the non-Tolkienian nature of Galadriel as a Mary Sue, she’s still, well, a Mary Sue. I was 1:36 into the show before the first time I had to stop. In less than two minutes a storyline about young Galadriel was so mawkish and stupid that I literally stopped to complain to my friends. I found the first episode so unwatchable that it took me over two hours of stopping and starting to get through it. If I were not professionally obligated, I would have stopped watching altogether after the first 10 minutes.
As for the other plotlines, I literally had to look up the name of Arondir (he’s the protagonist in the other storyline) to write this review. I never bothered to learn his name. The character of Nori is … fine. I don’t ever stop watching when we have the Harfoot storyline, but I would never choose to watch the show for that.
I have seen some reviewers praising the effects, and if this were made on a much smaller budget, they might have been acceptable, but with a billion dollar price tag for eight episodes, this falls flat. For over $100 million for each one hour episode, this should look like a theatrical release film, and instead it looks like a pretty good made-for-TV movie. The moment it leaves practical effects it begins to look cheap and stupid. The elf combat sequences don’t have the unrealism of Legolas shield-surfing (the dumbest moment from the LotR series) – they have the unrealism of Bollywood. When the orcs unleash a warg, it looks like CGI from over two decades ago.
Most damningly, the series doesn’t maintain any internal logic. It is stated explicitly that elves do not enter into relationships with humans (except for two tragic cases), yet both Arondir (had to look it up again) and Galadriel have romantic tension with humans. Galadriel jumps into the sea literally feet away from Valinor, and then just begins to swim back across the entire ocean – it makes one wonder why the elves even bother with boats. Elrond and Celebrimbor walk hundreds of miles to Khazad-dûm without any supplies or even a canteen of water, and only in the last thirty seconds of what must have been a journey of weeks does Celebrimbor get around to asking why they’re even making the journey. Then, as soon as they get there, Elrond says he’s going in alone, and Celebrimbor just turns around presumably to walk back alone. When asked where a cow was grazing, a character tells us in a place that’s later revealed to be a day’s walk away. That’s one amazingly fast-traveling cow. For a show that uses maps for establishing shots, they seem to have little interest in what’s actually on those maps.
Writers, we’re already accepting a world with snow trolls and dragons and magic – don’t abuse your viewers’ intelligence once they’ve accepted those terms.
In short, it’s a boring, stupid, shoddy series lacking in moral clarity. You do not have long life like the Numenorians, so don’t waste your days watching this. Since I’m professionally burdened with this, I’ll let you know if it suddenly gets worthwhile.
Disclosure: I have a close relative who works for Amazon. He is not, however, connected in any way with this series or their streaming service.