After J.R.R. Tolkien had a success with his first novel, The Hobbit, his publisher requested a followup. Tolkien sent an early draft of the collection of myths and stories that would eventually be published in 1977, after his death, as The Silmarillion. His publisher rejected this manuscript, understandably, as too obscure and confusing to the common reader. Tolkien’s next effort, The Lord of the Rings, became arguably the most popular novel of all time as well as the basis for three blockbuster movies. Yet The Silmarillion has never found an enthusiastic readership beyond the most committed Tolkien buffs (granted, there are a lot of them). Whatever storytelling muse possessed Tolkien during the writing of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, it mostly deserted him when he was creating the backdrop to those stories, the dense imaginary world that gave the novels their richness and mystery but that always seemed a bit dry and archaic when detailed on the page.
The new Amazon series The Rings of Power is the first attempt to spin fresh dramatic narratives out of the tales in Tolkien’s legendarium, but showrunners Patrick McKay and John D. Payne didn’t even have The Silmarillion or other posthumously-published Tolkien writings to draw from. Instead, since Amazon only owns the TV rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the production is based on the appendices to the latter. These contain extensive notes on the languages of Middle-earth, genealogies, timelines, and some brief summaries of what happened in the centuries before the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which both take place during the Third Age of Middle-earth.
That’s not much to work with, and the dramatic model for The Rings of Power is clearly not either of Tolkien’s novels (or Peter Jackson’s film adaptations) but instead HBO’s Game of Thrones. The first two episodes cut from one place to another in Middle-earth. Here is Galadriel (Morfydd Clark), obsessively pursuing evidence that Sauron (at this point in Middle-earth’s history, a former lieutenant of the previous, defeated Big Bad, Morgoth), is regrouping in hiding. Here are the harfoots, ancestors to The Lord of the Rings’ hobbits and much like them apart from their nomadic lifestyle. Here is a village full of humans blithely scything their grain in classic medieval fashion, unaware that orcs pose an imminent threat. Here’s Elrond, with a new job assisting the most eminent elf craftsman, traveling to the kingdom of the dwarves to ask for their help. That’s just how George R.R. Martin (a diehard Tolkien fan himself) structured the novels in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, jumping among multiple storylines. The format takes a while to warm up to. Just as you become engrossed in one of the narratives, the show switches to something else. But, well-executed, this carousel of delayed gratification can become fairly addictive. Indifferent to the character or plot at hand? Wait a minute.
How closely does The Rings of Power hew to the Tolkien so many of us know and love? Visually, the resemblance is nearly flawless. Before Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring was released in 2001, Tolkien fans mostly worried that cinematic adaptions would look cheesy, however faithful the screenwriters stayed to the books. Now, the situation is reversed. The Rings of Power looks splendid, from the vaguely art-nouveau, autumnal glades of the elves to the towering underground dwarf citadel of Khazad-dûm. As with the Jackson films, The Rings of Power take their visual lead from longtime Tolkien illustrator Alan Lee. In one particularly ravishing sequence, a ship of elves, returning to their paradisal homeland, is greeted by spiraling flocks of white seabirds. The inspiration is a Lee painting, but in motion its lyricism is even more spellbinding.
It’s the screenwriting in The Rings of Power—credited to McKay and Payne—that’s uneven. In lieu of fully-conceived characters, it supplies too many shopworn pop-culture tropes. Galadriel is essentially that maverick police detective who insists that he’s on the trail of a serial killer even as the commissioner removes him from the case and tells him to take some time off. In the second episode, thrown into the company of a human whose hometown was destroyed by orcs, Galadriel informs him, “It would take longer than your lifetime even to speak the names of those they have taken from me.” Romance buffs call this sort of thing “trauma bonding,” but the two seem unlikely to couple up. We just need to know that Galadriel has seem some dark, dark shit, and that ostensibly is what makes her interesting.
Back among the harfoots, Elanor “Nori” Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh) is another stock type: that restive, rebellious kid whose curiosity and hunger for adventure keeps getting her into scrapes. “Haven’t you ever wondered what else is out there,” she yearningly queries her mother. “How far the river flows or how the sparrows learn the new songs they sing? I can’t help but feel there’s wonders in this world, beyond our wandering!” Tolkien’s hobbit protagonists did experience a similar sort of wanderlust, but they didn’t speak lines that sound like they were directly lifted from dozens of other movies. Similarly, when Elrond’s new boss remarks, “True creation requires sacrifice,” he’s so obviously tagging himself as a hubristic artist (or mad scientist) that you can easily predict his character arc from that point onward, even if you aren’t familiar with Middle-earth’s history.
Not every subplot feels so stale. When Elrond shows up at Khazad-dûm, he anticipates a warm welcome from his old friend, Durin (Owain Arthur), but instead the dwarf is angry and challenges him to a test of endurance in front of his cheering comrades. Only after Elrond forfeits does the elf learn the reason for his friend’s ire, a reason rooted in the differences between elves and dwarves that hasn’t even crossed Elrond’s mind. Durin’s wife Disa (Sophia Nomvete—playing the first female dwarf ever to get more than a blink’s worth of screentime in a Tolkien adaptation) insists that Elrond join them for dinner, and the two gradually make up. The scene has a realism, humor, and intimacy that boosts it out of the routine fantasy clichés surrounding it.
Perhaps The Rings of Power, once it settles into its multiple storylines, will have the chance to deepen and its characters will grow richer. (We can only hope that someone else in the writer’s room got a chance to write the dialogue.) The upcoming events the series will depict provide so many opportunities to flesh out figures that, in Tolkien’s tellings, were more like fairy tale characters than actual people, each defined by a single personality trait. But in the meantime, the series is so gorgeous that it seems worth sticking with just for the chance to see the glory of Númenor, the forging of the rings, the invasion of Eriador, and satisfying action scenes like the sea-serpent attack in its second episode.
Few Tolkien fans will be able to resist, but perhaps I won’t be the only one who’ll watch with a bit of mournfulness. So much of the allure of Middle-earth is the intangible aura of its lost past, the sensation of history both present (it happened right here) and utterly beyond reach (it can never happen again). Will Middle-earth lose some of its magic when these mysteries are made visible, however ravishingly so? Maybe, but Tolkien himself wrote in an elegiac mode, in a mood tinged by, as the late literary critic Northrop Frye once put it, “sunset and the fall of the leaf.” “The world has changed,” Galadriel says in the opening lines of Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring, and it is always changing, so a little melancholy seems in order.