Television

In Defense of the Ignorant Viewer

Don’t read The Lord of the Rings before watching The Rings of Power. It’s fine!

On the left, the covers of nine (nine!) different Tolkien Lord of the Rings books, from the original LOTR trilogy of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers and The Return of the King to The Silmarillion to The Fall of Numenor, Beren and Luthien, The Fall of Gondolin, and the Children of Nurin. On the right, Morfydd Clark, her hair long and blonde, her body covered in a suit of armor, in The Rings of Power.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Amazon. 

Every one of the millions of J.R.R. Tolkien fans across the world can likely recall that one moment when they began their fantastical literary journey to Middle-earth. Some might have plucked a well-loved copy of The Fellowship of the Ring from a dusty bookshelf. Some might have had The Lord of the Rings read to them before bed, passed on from generation to generation. Some might even have picked up the books in anticipation of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations. Perhaps some are just now picking them up as they await the debut of Amazon Prime Video’s long-awaited, very expensive new series The Rings of Power. My journey started in eighth grade with The Hobbit. That’s where it ended, too.

Advertisement

I haven’t read a word of Tolkien’s original trilogy, and I likewise have never cracked open The Silmarillion. I have no special hatred or aversion to them. That I missed out on that experience as a kid is simply a fact of my life. But that doesn’t mean I’m not a fan. Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 rotoscope-animated The Lord of the Rings was one of only two VHS tapes on the TV cart that got rolled out on rainy recess days when I was in grade school, and it made a huge impression on my adolescent mind. When Peter Jackson’s epic three-part adaptation arrived in the early 2000s, I saw all of them multiple times in the theater, and many more times since with my partner, a fan who carried around a red, leather-bound volume of the trilogy in her Barbie and the Rockers backpack as early as second grade. My fandom, in other words, is based almost entirely on adaptations of Tolkien’s novels rather than the novels themselves. And I’m here to tell you that it’s OK.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

As Amazon launches its billion-dollar series on Thursday, potential viewers will be buffeted by listicles about what they need to know, explainers about which parts of Tolkien’s canon they ought to consume or return to in advance, and hilarious, lawyerly rundowns of what specific texts Jeff Bezos is and isn’t legally allowed to adapt in this series. My advice today is this: If you haven’t read the books yet, if you haven’t scanned through The Silmarillion or fished through the appendices, you don’t have to. The Rings of Power is a TV show, and a pretty fun one. No prerequisites; just show up on the first day of class, and you’ll be fine.

Advertisement

It’s no secret that a great deal of contemporary blockbuster media is rooted in the adaptation of popular books and comics. Marvel and DC’s cinematic universes are exclusively adaptive, and the Harry Potter people just keep making Harry Potter movies undeterred by the rising and falling fortunes of the various people involved. For the prestige TV crowd, there’s been The Underground Railroad, based on Colson Whitehead’s novel, Station Eleven, based on Emily St. John Mandel’s, My Brilliant Friend, based on Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, and, of course, the multiple installments of the Sally Rooney-verse. The past few weeks alone have seen a widely-reviled new Netflix Jane Austen adaptation as well as long-awaited screen transfers of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman and George R.R. Martin’s Fire and Blood (the basis for HBO’s The House of the Dragon). Fans of these works are rightly invested in their success. A screen adaptation that really seems to capture the element that makes you love your favorite book can be a miraculous thing. And fans can buoy such adaptations in repayment for their dutiful service.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

But fans, as we know, can also pillory adaptations for their infidelity. The normie version of this response is simply disappointment. Radical corners of some fandoms police the adaptation of their holy texts with rigorous, sometimes bigoted, attention to detail. And these kinds of defenses lead to bad kinds of reading. Early defenders of Game of Thrones, for instance, often stood up for the show’s holes by referencing characterizations that only the books provided. It’s unfair to criticize the show’s thin, exploitative portrait of Dany because, if you read the books, you know that she’s actually so much more complex than that. For lots of viewers, adaptations not only can, but can only exist in relation to their sources.

Advertisement

Despite being an English professor in my day job, I’ve found myself infrequently invested in these page-to-screen imbroglios. I enjoy occupying the literary fan’s viewing position from time to time, but that’s only one way to appreciate an adaptation. In fact, more often than not, I’m frustrated by that kind of experience, as if my own prior visualization of a novel becomes an unwelcome guest at my watch party, distracting me, smothering me, interrupting the spell. Let people enjoy things, I shouted at Henry James, when he showed up to ruin my viewing of Mike Flanagan’s fun—not particularly faithful—Halloween adaptation of James’ ghost stories. In that same spirit, I was relieved when Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen immediately and dramatically swerved away from its source. Plenty of fans were mad about it; I was happy I could watch a television show in peace.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

There’s something freeing, in this way, about watching an adaptation—visibly groaning under the weight of expectation—and being able to say, “Hey buddy, I get it. You’re a TV series, not a book—I like you just the way you are.” These films and series are certainly indebted to their source material, but they cannot survive by sharing a nervous system and a heart with a book on a shelf. To have the kind of magical, immersive experience of a book that turns you into a superfan who’d be willing to fight people on the internet about it is vanishingly rare. To ask a film or TV adaptation to produce that exact same feeling for you again but in a different medium under completely different circumstances is a pretty tall order.

Advertisement
Advertisement

The Rings of Power is an interesting case study for this phenomenon, in part because its relationship to Tolkien’s original source material is fraught from the get-go. When Jeff Bezos shelled out all the gold in his mines for the rights to Tolkien’s novels, he only bought The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and not, strangely, The Silmarillion, the encyclopedic, posthumously released text that contains most of the as-yet un-adapted tales of Middle-earth, not to mention much of the history of the so-called Second Age during which the show takes place. For this reason, Amazon’s series is very careful to note that it is only based on things inferred within Tolkien’s trilogy and its prequel, as well as on events sketched out in its appendices. It adapts around the edges of The Lord of the Rings, constructing a narrative indebted to, but not wholly contained within them. So, to some degree, even if you wanted to read the book first, it’s a little unclear what that would mean.

Advertisement
Advertisement

I’m not bragging about all of this reading I haven’t done. It’s hardly a virtue. But the moment these works are adapted, those translations become something on their own. They might demonstrate this by wildly diverging from the original stories or even eschewing those stories wholesale. But even the most fastidious adaptations lay claim to this difference, too. Those faces on the screen are not transpositions, they’re interpretations. The work of adaptation is not simple. It’s often a labor of love and duty, but it’s also a labor that requires you to know when to depart.

I don’t know whether The Rings of Power is a “good” adaptation of whatever it’s an adaptation of. I can see the ways in which it adapts not just the books but Jackson’s films, and I can also see the ways in which it’s adapting, say, HBO’s adaptation of Game of Thrones. What else I can see, though, is that it’s a show working very hard to build a world that viewers will want to hang around in. My advice to you is to let it do that.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Nothing I’ve seen in the first couple episodes of this series screened for critics has left my jaw on the floor—perhaps I missed something Tolkien readers would have caught—but I also see a show patiently figuring out how to turn a bunch of Tolkien para-texts, not into a novel, not into a movie, but into a TV show. Already there are boffo cliff-hangers, a bit of an isolated two-hander plotline, and even a kind of vaguely defined case-of-the-week structure to some of the Elven political plots. Some of the best television series in recent years—I’m thinking particularly of Watchmen and Station Eleven—have succeeded in part by unsentimentally contending that what works in a piece of literary art might not work the same way on TV. To stay true to the spirit of the story, if not every letter of it, the story has to be destroyed a little bit, and rebuilt in a new medium. I’m hopeful The Rings of Power might untether itself in this way.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

All that said, my eldest daughter is getting about the age where we think she herself might potentially be interested in Tolkien’s saga. My partner’s still got that red-leather tome sitting on our bookshelf, and she’s starting to wonder when the right time might be to hoist it upstairs and start reading it to her daughter, who, if all goes well, can start lugging it around in her own bookbag. There might be some burden in hauling around all those pages, but I still might listen in, and give the books a try for their own sake. I’ve heard good things.

Advertisement