With the release of the first major Tolkien adaptation since 2014, many wonder how the show will find itself in a different world from the one of Peter Jackson’s trilogies.
When in 2017 Amazon announced it was making a show about The Lord of the Rings and sparing no expense, making it the biggest-budget TV series at an eye-watering $1 billion over five seasons, many fans were rejoicing. After all, this was at the time of Game of Thrones season 7, one of the most popular and influential shows in history, at maximum hype capacity, building up to its grand finale. HBO even took two years to make season 8 instead of the usual one, to ensure the biggest, the baddest, the best conclusion to the show. When it finally released, reality was not too kind to the last season of Game of Thrones, nor to its fanbase, nor even to its legacy – it strikes you to remember how much we talked about it, how many good-natured jokes we made before the last season, and how little we even mention it after that. Like a collective hangover walk of shame. (Shame? Shame!)
And there is good reason to be fearful that ‘The Rings of Power’ might share the same fate. There are many opinions on why that might be, and while some are wilder than the others, there is a good chance the show might not end up being the instant classic it wants to be.
Tolkien’s work is truly the root of the fantasy genre as we know it. Any time the word ‘elf’ is mentioned, chances are the images conjured by your mind are of tall, ethereal, nearly immortal, infinitely wise, and infinitely prideful people. The same level of instant recognition is shared by orcs, and even dragons, which were much more niche and folklore in Europe a century ago. Tolkien was not the first author to write fantasy, of course, even the fairy tales we tell our children before bed are technically fantasy stories. But Tolkien wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings so lovingly and so masterfully that he influenced the minds and lives of millions of people, one of them being George Lucas, when he was creating his space opera, Star Wars.
Tolkien created a timeless piece of work, with its themes finding their way to the heart of any person of any nation at any period of history. Naturally, there is always room for interpretation. But how much interpretation is too much? While altering the timeline of the Second Age and casting black actors to play dwarfs and elves is nothing bad in itself, will the series be a loving homage to the books or a deliberate reflection of 2022 America? The comment section of the show’s Super Bowl trailer on YouTube was quickly filled with the same alleged quote by Tolkien, “Evil is not capable of creating anything new, it can only distort and destroy what has been invented or made by the forces of good,” in several languages. This quote isn’t found in any of the books, but is most likely paraphrased or double-translated from a passage in ‘The Return of the King’, “The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own.” That does not inspire confidence.
What comes after a good book? Right, a mediocre film adaptation. There were many attempts in transitioning Tolkien’s book into film or animation, but since the 1950s, many of them drowned in various legal and creative struggles, which included turning feature-length projects into short films, intellectual rights resales, and general under-the-public-radar performance. The only exception was Peter Jackson’s trilogy, which for many is the only adaptation of the books they know. And here lies the possible reason why ‘The Rings of Power’ might end up in the forgettables basket, rather than up there with the Jackson masterpieces. Before making his LotR trilogy, Jackson used to write, film, and act in extremely low-budget horror projects, so he knew how to use practical effects, capture audiences, and tell a story with tight resources. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all. That experience led the New Zealander to create one of the most influential film trilogies of all time, using ‘only’ US$280 million across three films.
This is where ‘The Rings of Power’ stands out. When Game of Thrones and, more recently, The Witcher started relatively modestly, with 60-80 million for their first seasons, the Amazon-backed project is boasting a healthy 460 million. Adding to this unprecedented amount of money, the show has been cleared for five seasons even before shooting began. With these kinds of coffers, the creative team may, ironically, cut some corners in their character development and storytelling, and throw money at CGI people instead, making grandiose scenes just for the sake of grandeur, all the while providing the viewer with regular shock twists to keep their attention. Even Peter Jackson began to rely more heavily on CGI in the ‘The Return of the King’, and even more so in The Hobbit trilogy, which may have contributed to the ‘slump’ in quality that viewers noted in the second and third Hobbit films.
In general, the anticipation for ‘The Rings of Power’ is quite high – people are making Spotify playlists, analyzing the characters shown on posters and in trailers (poor costume design and quality are popular concerns), which makes it even more worrisome that people might be let down by the end result. Some expect it to be ‘Jackson’s trilogy meets Game of Thrones’, while others are eager for something new in the franchise. But given everything that is going on in the world, where style and agenda pandering often triumph over substance, the show’s creators may have a bulletproof safety net for themselves. If ‘The Rings of Power’ flops, you can always point fingers at any number of common enemies – racism, white supremacy, or uncultured masses in general.
Whatever happens, it is undeniable that ‘The Rings of Power’ will leave a huge mark on the cultural landscape. It is too big and too meaningful not to do so. There will always be people looking for chinks in the armor, or praising something to the Moon just because a certain actor was cast. The only thing that we can do is watch the show when it comes out, make up our own opinions about it, and not give into peer pressure. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.