Amazon’s new Tolkien adaptation looks fair and feels foul. The first two episodes of the billion-dollar “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” are a visual spectacle, but the story, dialogue, and themes are like a slow-moving, slightly elevated Marvel superhero film in a fantasy setting. Which is to say that the show might be barely tolerable if its roots in Tolkien’s beloved stories could be ignored.
But the show is a terrible adaptation of Tolkien. It is not just that screenwriters abandon much of Tolkien’s carefully constructed lore, but that they have no feel for the world he created and the moral vision that animated it. There are visually stunning moments — though also a few that fall short of the expectations set by the show’s almost unlimited budget — but there is nothing to inspire the moral imagination. There is no real awe or wonder at, or even admiration for, the heroes whose tales are being (presumably) woven together for us.
There are plenty of characters. There is Galadriel, hunting orcs and Sauron, whom she’s sure is still out there. There is an adventurous proto-hobbit lass who finds and cares for a mysterious stranger. There is an elf sentinel and a human healer and her son and the list goes on and viewers have little reason to care about any of these characters and what they are doing.
This is in part because other than the names and landscapes, almost none of this show feels like it belongs in Middle-Earth. For example, in one plotline, the elven smith Celebrimbor wants to quickly build a powerful forge, so Elrond (a woefully miscast Robert Aramayo) goes to Moria to ask for help from the dwarves. He is turned away at the door, but gains access by challenging his old friend Prince Durin to a rock-breaking contest. He loses, learns that Durin is angry because Elrond missed his wedding to a strong black dwarven woman who then helps reconcile them over dinner—and is this Tolkien or a sitcom?
The problem is not that the showrunners randomly threw in a few dark-skinned characters, but that everyone involved was so busy congratulating themselves on adding more “diversity” to Middle-Earth that they didn’t bother to make a good show.
Some liberties might be taken with the source material while remaining true to the spirit of Tolkien’s work. They might even smooth out aspects of the legendarium that are difficult to film. But the folks at Amazon do not respect Tolkien or his work, and so their deviations from his work are leading them into a morass of plot and character difficulties.
For instance, the showrunners have tried to force Galadriel into current Hollywood ideals of a strong female lead, which has actually demeaned her. Tolkien’s Galadriel was a great elven ruler, not a mid-level military officer who could be ordered around by Gil-Galad. Amazon demotes her to Galadriel: Battle-Elf, vengeful leader of scouting parties — and miscast Morfydd Clark, who might have made a good elven queen, but is a lousy action heroine. This is Galadriel through the lens of the many Hollywood bros of the Joss Whedon mold who believe that nothing is more empowering than another 110-pound woman winning hand-to-hand combat.
Kung-fu Galadriel gave the writers an easy way to create early action and drama, but it reduces the character in the long run. By slavishly adhering to current fashions, the showrunners have diminished their female lead, for it is now impossible for them to present her as a natural peer of Gil-Galad and the other elven lords of Middle-Earth.
This is typical of the stunted imaginations that populate today’s entertainment industry, run by people who insert themselves and their obsessions into every story, rather than creating art that broadens horizons and draws people out of their immediate experience. Of course they’re going to make a mess of Tolkien. Even Peter Jackson’s good-but-not-great “Lord of the Rings” films (the less said about “The Hobbit” trilogy, the better) routinely made characters less noble than in the books.
Amazon’s showrunners are poised to do worse, as they seemingly lack the moral understanding to apprehend the tragedy of the Second Age, in which good allowed evil to return. Those with little virtue of their own will not understand how the great might fall, or how the good might be tempted.