Amazon Prime’s The Rings of Power: A Show to Ruin Them All
Based on the writings of JRR Tolkien, rings of power began its first season on Amazon Prime in September.
The release of the fantasy series The Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power, the most expensive television series in history, was unveiled with great fanfare. Now, one rather wishes that, like the One Ring that brought so much doom in the books, it had never been created in the first place.
The series sets out to explore the second age of Middle-earth, the fantasy world written by JRR Tolkien (1892-1973) inhabited by men, elves, dwarves and small humanoids known as Hobbits. There are several storylines that revolve around the forging of magic rings, the rise and fall of the kingdom of Numenor, and the last alliance of elves and men.
This reviewer was lucky enough to be a teenage witness to the popular The Lord of the Rings film trilogy (2001-2003) directed by Peter Jackson, which recounts the events of Tolkien’s Third Age of Middle-earth and the destruction of the cursed One Ring. I say teenage because it was derided by Tolkien’s late son, Christopher, at the time as “an action movie for 15-25 year olds”. That this was also an “evisceration of the book” became apparent later on in the reading, but there was much to forgive.
Fast forward 20 years and rings of power it’s also action, a literary evisceration… but no age group seems inclined to defend it this time. On the contrary, many people are truly upset and outraged. Not only is it incredibly boring, but it suffers from sophomore writing, one-dimensional characters, and contrived plot points.
As of this writing, a top review site reveals an audience score of 38%, with professional reviewers giving it 84%. A veritable cottage industry has sprung up on the free video-sharing website YouTube, with content creators “hating to watch” or laughing at the show.
Amazon felt compelled to remove thousands of negative reviews on its Amazon Prime streaming platform, as well as issue an official statement opposing the “relentless racism” directed at its comrades of color. The suggestion that the complaints are essentially racist is belied by the fact that Dragon Houseanother racially diverse fantasy series released at the same time on HBO, received no such backlash.
The series undoubtedly touched a nerve, which says more about the current state of cinema and society than anything Tolkien is responsible for. The fact that it was produced by the company owned by Jeff Bezos, the second richest person in the world, generates schadenfreude from some, but for most there is a feeling of disappointment and frustration.
Young people and those who remember the Jackson trilogy are now navigating a world much more charged with instability and anxiety. World leaders are on a nuclear tightrope, there are historic levels of social inequality, precarious work, and more. Art and especially cinema are undoubtedly considered a lifeline.
Tolkien wrote sophisticated fantasy literature filled with poems, songs, thousands of years of history, and even entire languages. His writing, however, was not without limits and steeped in elegies to the past. Growing up in England at the beginning of the 20th century, the experience of the two world wars weighed heavily on him and he leaned towards the Luddite conceptions that bloody conflicts were caused by the industrialization of society rather than by the contradictions explosions of capitalism. Either way, the sensitivity and sophistication of his work is entirely absent from Rings of Power.
Tolkien’s elves, written as ethereal, dignified beings endowed with the burden of immortality, are instead portrayed as superficial, individualistic, and heartless.
The main character of the series is the elf Galadriel, who rather than being wise and shrewd as portrayed in the books, has been reduced to an action hero pursuing the Dark Lord Sauron. Although she is thousands of years old, she is unempathetic, irritable and in dire need of socialization.
Elrond is rewritten as a captivating careerist and loyal bureaucrat, who plots at the behest of his king to dissuade his friend Galadriel from any pursuit of Sauron and his remaining orcs. “It’s hard to see what’s right when friendship and duty come together,” he told the king.
He succeeds, however, and his duplicity is rewarded with a promotion to executive assistant to Celebrimbor, who must build a forge, “mightier than ever”, with the somewhat limiting caveat of completing it before spring. In order to meet the deadline, Elrond proceeds to coax a distant friend, the dwarf prince Durin, into a building contract.
The elven soldier, Arondir, is assigned to an elven military occupation on the land of men, which has been in place for a thousand years. “The blood of Morgoth still darkens their veins,” remarks a superior contemptuously.
The human villagers look downtrodden, unhealthy, and decidedly unhappy. “One day our true king will return,” threatens one, “and he will bring us out from under your pointed boots.”
We’re supposed to invest in Arondir as he pursues taboo love with one of the villagers, Bronwyn. “You are the only kindness I have known in all my days on this earth,” he whispers. After all we’ve seen, we’re inclined to believe it.
Not even the lovable hobbits are safe, who seem cutesy and the most sinister of them all. They are meant to “have each other” and “no one is left behind”, until they apparently need to migrate, in which case all bets are off, especially for people with disabilities.
The unhealthy obsession with upper-middle-class identity politics pervades the entire work. We feel that, despite the story, we are meant to be impressed by the number of main female characters, dark elves, dwarves and hobbits.
“We are multicultural”, one of the Hobbit actors Sir Lenny Henry remarked in a BBC interview, “we are a tribe, not a race, so we are black, Asian and brown, even Maori” . types within it. No one knows how any island tribe accomplished such a feat, but we’re not expected to overthink anything.
In a way, you could say this is the best TV series money can buy under the current circumstances. Considered the most expensive in history, its cost projections exceed $1 billion ($462 million for the first season alone). The rights were sold by Tolkien’s estate for $250 million before any script was written.
Following the success of game of thrones, the highly competitive and international streaming video industry is on the hunt for the next epic franchise. Bezos’ Amazon Prime, with 200 million members, is looking to overturn Netflix’s lead of 220 million. Disney+ follows closely with 152 million. HBO Dragon House is the prequel to game of thronesthough its membership base is 76.8 million.
rings of power is Amazon’s flagship product in this regard, and it’s too big to sink. What better way to avoid such a fate than to appeal to the lowest common denominator? This partly explains its dumbed down and homogenized character, familiar to other recent franchises such as star wars and the wheel of timewhich are all considered in the language of companies as an “IP” (Intellectual Product) of value.
While one can easily turn away from watching all five seasons, one gets the awful feeling that major movie studios have on the whole reached new standards of profitability, in which artistically meaningful, thought-provoking, or even educational work ends up by wither and die, no matter the source material.
Behind much of the show’s criticism is a healthy sense of protest against this mind-numbing state of affairs, as well as the cynical use of identity politics that serves to legitimize it or distract from it.
rings of power may attract more Prime memberships and help Bezos’ “steering wheel strategy” of hooking consumers to his commerce websites, but that’s all there is to it, and maybe all what he was supposed to do in the first place.