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Tolkien Blues

I’ve been watching The Rings of Power on Amazon, and I’m afraid it’s done nothing to shake my firm belief that Tolkien is unfilmable. The stuff of Middle-earth can be put on screen - the battles, the cities, the monsters - but the budget required to do so means the resulting film or show has to be a mass-market, all-action fantasy, in which all the quieter, odder, and more profound aspects of Tolkien’s work are sidelined or left out entirely.

But at least the Lord of the Rings films were made by people who knew and loved the books. The Rings of Power has clearly been designed and art-directed by people who know their stuff - the layers of detail in the sets and costumes of the Númenor sequences alone are quite extraordinary. But the storylines which have been invented to try and breathe some Lord of the Rings-ish life into the rather dry history of the ‘Second Age’ as told in the book’s appendices seldom rise above the level of bog-standard sword and sorcery. You might as well be watching The Wheel of Time (and you really don’t want to do that).

The best thing in the series is a tribe of nomadic proto-Hobbits, the Harfoots, who find an unexpected item in the Baggins area in the form of a beardy amnesiac who arrives by meteorite one night. The Harfoots live a hard life, plagued by duff faux-Oirish accents, awful widdly-diddly background music, and a screenplay which bizarrely chooses to paint them as ruthless Social Darwinists. (Their custom of simply abandoning any Harfoot who can’t keep up with their travels sits very oddly with their frequent claims to be all about looking out for each other. I presume the Hobbits who will eventually found the Shire are all the rubbish ones they leave behind, like the Golgafrinchan B-Ark people in Hitch Hiker’s Guide.) Still, their small size and ingenious camouflage techniques are fun, and the multi-ethnic casting works to suggest this band has met and mingled with others from different parts of Middle-earth, hinting at a whole range of halfling groups offscreen - a nice, if probably inadvertent bit of world-building. Sometimes, as lead-Harfoot Norri befriends the towering, bearded stranger, the spirit of the real Middle-earth shines through for a moment or two. 

If the story had focused on the Harfoots, and expanded from there, using them as The Lord of the Rings uses the Hobbits, there might have been some hope for it. But The Rings of Power is one of those restless shows which keeps skipping between a lot of different groups of characters in different locations, like a variety act keeping a load of plates spinning. One one plate we have the Elves, who, in a bold departure from the look established in the LOTR films, all resemble minor Conservative MPs. The only exception is Galadriel (sorry, ‘Galadrrriel’ - they really lean into that annoying rolling-R thing from the movies), although I suppose you could argue that even she is a bit like a young Margaret Thatcher; stern, blonde, driven, and constantly annoyed by her wet, male colleagues, who refuse to believe her when she tells them that Sauron is still about and up to no good as usual. 

On another plate are the Dwarves of Khazad Dûm, a jolly lot, who have just discovered mithril, (The show gives an explanation of Mithril’s origins which feels a bit crap and which I think it has just made up, but I’m no expert on Tolkien’s non-LOTR work.). King Durin and his queen are fun, and their dwarves kingdom is well-imagined - it’s a pity they don’t have more to do.

Galadrrrriel, meanwhile, ends up in the sea-girt human kingdom of Númenorrrrr, which looks like Alexandria redesigned by Alma-Tadema and Burne-Jones. There she meets brooding nautical type Elendil and his drippy teenage kids, Isuldur and a girl whose name I didn’t catch, and who is so pointless as a character I can’t be bothered to look it up. The sets and costumes here are magnificent, but the dialogue stinks like an old fish and the tone gets very landfill-YA, with Isuldur getting bumped off his sail-training course and arguing with his mates, while his sister starts on a sort of fast-track apprenticeship programme with the ‘Guild of Stone-Carvers’. 

But Isuldur and his tedious chums are somehow not the drippiest teens in the show, for there is yet another plate in motion. In a weirdly unconvincing village in ‘the Southlands’ lives a lad called Theo and his mother Bronwyn, who are hearing orcy noises under their floorboards…Wait - Theo? Bronwyn? These are not names from Middle-earth. And come to think of, ‘the Southlands’ doesn’t sound very Tolkien-y either - surely it must have several other names, in different Elvish languages? 

But apparently not - the linguistic richness of the books, which helps to give Middle-earth so much more texture than the flimsy renaissance fayre stylings of your average fantasy world, seems to hold little interest for the creators of this show. The scale is missing too - in the early episodes we keep seeing maps, but there’s very little sense of a world that people have to travel across. (Peter Jackson showed us very few maps in his movies, but there was far more feel for places and the distances between them). When Elrond goes to visit Khazad-Dûm. he just seems to appear outside the front door. Has he walked? Did he ride? Maybe he teleported. I have no idea, and nor, I reckon, do the writers. When the Númenoreans land on the shores of Middle-earth and ride to help the beleaguered Southlanders, the journey from the coast seems to be accomplished almost instantly, in a single full-tilt cavalry charge. This lack of coherent geography or timescale makes the various different storylines feel even less connected than they already are.

Worst of all, it’s grindingly dull. There is always something about to happen, but when it finally does we are instantly whisked away to see something else about to happen somewhere else. It’s as if the writers know they have too many characters and not enough story and hope that if they keep hurrying us from place to place, we won’t notice. There are dreary slabs of exposition, and the show is forever reaching for emotional moments it’s done nothing to earn - when Norri parts from her family at the end, the Harfoots spend about two minutes weeping and hugging each other while the soupy music insists we ought to FEEL something. . 

To be fair, in the final few episodes some of the laboriously set-up plot lines do start to pay off. The orcs are fun, there’s an evil elf who is good value for money, and the sets and outfits are mostly worth watching even if the actors mostly aren’t (it’s not their fault - no actor could do much with this material). But despite all the expensive-looking battles and volcanic eruptions, about half way through each episode I found myself fighting to stay awake.

I gather Tolkien once said he wanted his stories to become a mythology which other people could use to tell stories of their own, but I reckon he was imagining those people would be fellow writers and artists, not vast American shopping-and-entertainment combines. But here we are, and here is The Rings of Power: Middle-earth is just another franchise now, and those of us who think Tolkien deserves better will just have to switch it off, or resign ourselves to watching the long defeat.


Tim Knight said…
Firstly, "an unexpected object in the Baggins area" is the funniest thing I've read on the Internet today, so thank you for that. Secondly, I agree wholeheartedly with your commentary on this show. To be honest, until I read your article, it had totally escaped my mind that I'd religiously watched each episode as it arrived... in the hope that something would happen. There must be better things that all this money could have been spent on.
philip reeve said…
It was strange, I found I was looking forward to watching it each week, and then half way through - zzzz.
Linus Gilbert said…
It is tragic. I got to work with them when they were in NZ, and found the sets to be of such attention to detail and beuty, but the acting side of things... the storyline is lacking. Character arch/development and world building is a shambles. And if you really think about it, even the multiracial Elves, Dwarves, and Half-foots. A community that is of some age, everyone starts to look the same due to inbreeding. It feels un established even though there is already a few thousand years of history in Middle earth? Oh well... end of rant... better luck for next season I suppose...
philip reeve said…
Hi Linus - I didn’t realise you’d worked on this! Yes, it’s a sad mess, And yes, maybe it will pull itself together…
steelchaffinch said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
steelchaffinch said…
Totally agree with your review here and I had the exact same thought that all the elves looking like minor Tory MPs.

Also, the world just feels so small the whole time with the Numenorians travelling across Middle Earth in 3 minutes being particularly egregious. Similarly, a very minor quibble, Numenor going to war seemed to consistent of about 50 people on three rather small boats. It was hardly Hells Deep or Pelanor Fields.
philip reeve said…
Are the three ships a reference to one of the poems in LOTR - ‘three ships and three stars and one white tree’?

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