The Rings of Power: Review | An Elven Tale Humanized

The Rings of Power has now been released. It's flawed, but not without merit. Here is our review.

Rings of Power Review
Is The Rings of Power worth watching? | © Amazon

I want to be transparent with you, and so allow me to begin by explaining my own history with Tolkien and the perspective I approached the show from.

I inherited our family's battered copy of The Hobbit at a young age, and I was completely besotted with it. Tolkien's work, more than any other, has been formative for me, and it's shaped my conception of how fantasy should be written. I cannot describe myself as an expert, but I have read the legendarium, with the exception of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Bilbo's Last Song. In short, I was naturally inclined to like the show. And this review is targeted at those who have at least some passing familiarity with Middle Earth.

Before we begin the review proper, I would also like to provide a brief verdict for those who simply don't have the time (or can't be bothered) to read on.

The Rings of Power is not particularly well written or paced, and the showrunners inexperience betrays them quite often. But, they had an incredibly difficult task, and if you can accept that the show is still in its infancy, and that certain elements of the story had to be adapted for a TV format, then you can get a really enjoyable experience out of it. Certainly, it's better than the Hobbit, even if it doesn't reach the heights of the trilogy.

In Defense of the Showrunners

Before we begin dissecting the show's uglier flaws, and by way of introduction, I want to begin by explaining how difficult the task of making The Rings of Power was. This was a far harder undertaking than Peter Jackson faced, and it was never realistically going to be able to please everyone.

You might be tempted to argue that it had a record-breaking budget, and therefore no excuses. But conveying the world of Middle Earth with great prop work and expensive CGI wasn't the difficult part, in fact, it's something the show does very well; I really did feel like I was in Tolkien's world. The difficulty in making the show was with the rights and the audience.

Numenor
Shots like this do a lot for the show, but I want to see far larger armies in later seasons. | © Amazon

The show was tasked with pleasing "Tolkien fans" and bringing in a new audience. But Tolkien fans are not a homogenous group. There are those who have watched the trilogy and those who can speak Sindarin. The former group needs a huge amount explained to them to understand the Second-Age, and the latter group already have a pre-conceived notion of how it should be portrayed. And that's not to mention the new audience, for whom the show must have been incredibly confusing. Asking the show to tell a story that would please all those audiences was never realistic.

And in regard to the rights, it's a more complicated situation than many claimed. The show could not use the Silmarillion. That text alone gives us so much detail on the history of Middle-Earth. Instead, they were limited to using only the appendix to The Return of the King. It's a large appendix, but the section that details the events of the Second-Age is (at least in my edition, Harper Collins 2005) only a couple of pages long.

So, in summary, the fairly inexperienced showrunners were asked to create a show that would please wildly different audiences, using only two pages of source material. I think we should always be mindful of that when critiquing this show, and it's why I became increasingly forgiving as I watched the first season.

Does The Rings of Power Respect the Source Material?

The Rings of Power had to transform hundreds of years of history into an episodic story that would work for TV. And much of that history, at least from the appendix, is only described like this:

750: Eregion founded by the Noldor.

To fill in the gaps they wholly invented a number of characters and storylines. This simply had to be done, and luckily, many of those characters and storylines feel in keeping with the grain of Tolkien. The issue is less with these invented characters, who are some of the strongest in the show, and more with existing ones.

Adar
This is Adar, an invented character, and maybe the most compelling in the whole show. | © Amazon

The main problem, at least to those who are familiar with the lore of the Second-Age, is that they've had to convert what is essentially an elven history into a human story. Because we as the audience need characters to latch on to, they've contracted thousands of years of history into the space of a single human lifetime. And they've had to make the elven characters, who are really the protagonists, far more human, so that we can empathize and connect with them more easily.

Galadriel is a great case in point. The actress is fantastic and well cast, and I loved Galadriel's action sequences (which is believable, given how Tolkien describes her as athletic, even for elves). But they've made her character far more rash and immature than I ever imagined her being in Tolkien's work.

Galadriel Riding
This scene was hard to watch. | © Amazon

In the texts, Galadriel's power comes from wisdom and beauty, and by the Second-Age she is effectively a queen with a husband and a daughter. Whereas, in The Rings of Power she's more of a warrior princess figure, who's husband has been killed off to allow for the possibility of romantic love interests. The most egregious example of Galadriel's characterization is her decision to not return to Valinor. In the show she decides not to go because she instinctually feels it's not her time. But in the texts, as many of you will know, the reason that she won't go is critically important, and it's a topic Tolkien wrote on more substantially than perhaps any other. Gil-Galad and Elrond also fall victim to this humanizing of the source material.

Elrond and Gil-Galad
This is Elrond "the politician", and his apparently misguided king Gil-Galad... | © Amazon

Because events have to be shortened, and the plot moved ever forward, we also miss out on some stories that I would love to have seen. Sauron becoming Annatar and slowly deceiving the various groups of elves, for instance. This could have worked fantastically well in the show, but instead we got a cheap "whodunnit" trick, and the rings are forged at the tail-end of a single episode.

As you might be able to tell, I would rather they stuck closer to the source material. I understand why they chose to deviate from it in general, but I feel they went too far. That said, if you can accept it as a piece of high-budget fan-faction then you will get an enjoyable experience out of the show.


Is The Rings of Power Well Made?

All issues of the source material aside, how good is The Rings of Power as a show? Does it have good dialogue, good pace, and is the acting impressive? It's certainly a cut above most TV, and deserves to be spoken of alongside the big HBO offerings, but its nowhere near as masterfully done as a show like True Detective.

The GoT spinoff, House of the Dragon, was being broadcast at the same time as The Rings of Power, and it was a helpful reference point through which I could reflect on the quality of the show. The House of the Dragon clearly came from Game of Thrones pedigree, with its fantastic dialogue, superb acting, and thrilling moments of drama. I don't love the world of HoT, or the casting of Matt Smith, but it is a technically well-made show.

By comparison, The Rings of Power can look amateur. The dialogue is not strong, and many scenes feel completely unnatural. I didn't, for instance, believe in the Harfoots, who jump wildly between being cutesy, flower-in-the-hair pastoral creatures, and ruthless nomads. Nor did I believe that Galadriel would suspect Halbrand of being Sauron and just sulk in the corner while they forged the rings. I think she would have immediately flung the table over and demanded they stop. And in many other instances, it feels like they were having to hurry the plot along rather than allowing it to flow.

Harfoots
I wonder what they're laughing about? Probably remembering a loved one who was stung to death by bees. | © Amazon

But that does not tell the whole story. While there were issues like those mentioned above, It would be unfair of me to ignore the moments of greatness. Their depiction of Sauron as more than just a lidless eye was brave, and while I would have preferred him to take the form of Annatar, Halbrand was well-performed. And as I said earlier, the invented characters were far better than I expected. Adar and Arondir may actually have been my favorite characters from the entire show.

Rings of Power Review: Final Verdict

Given how difficult the task was, and how terrible this show could have been, I think Tolkien fans should be satisfied with The Rings of Power. It isn't perfectly written or produced, and it deviates from the source material more than it needed to. But you will feel like you're in Middle Earth, and the show's very strong ending does a lot to make up for it's earlier weaknesses.

The Rings of Power has been well introduced, and as the showrunners continue to master their craft, I can only see it improving. If we have to be reductive, 7.8/10. But how much you enjoy it will also be determined by how much you can forgive its deviations from Tolkien.

A Final Note on Wokeness

There are probably quite a few readers who want me to touch on the issue of wokeness. They were probably emboldened when I mentioned that I was familiar with the source material. But it was just a non-issue for me.

Tolkien does mention dark-skinned Hobbits, and a dark-skinned Dwarf is perfectly believable to me. Similarly, Galadriel being athletic and strong is absolutely fine, and in keeping with the texts:
[Galadriel] was then of Amazon disposition and bound up her hair as a crown when taking part in athletic feats.
- Tolkien Letter 348

The show does not feel like it’s trying to ram a leftist ideology down your throat. Far from it. In fact, it’s slavishly classist.

The Harfoot travelers have Irish accents, while the elves speak in perfect RP. And the villagers of the Southlands (who nobly emerge as their own protectors) accept “King Halbrand” without question. That kind of stuff makes me want to take a shower. But sadly, it’s just as much a part of Tolkien’s world as black hobbits.

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