The first episode for Rings of Power may have been one of the more surprising first episodes of a TV show I’ve seen.
Not because of any shocking plot twist within the episode itself. But because of how low my expectations were going into the show. A bad marketing campaign made me quite worried that the show was just being used as a cash cow with little intent to meaningfully adapt Tolkien’s world. And the fact that the screenwriters’ only prior experience had been as uncredited writers for Star Trek Beyond didn’t give me much trust either.
But then the first episode intrigued me. It was slow. But Tolkien didn’t often write fast-paced fiction, and I was quite open for a slow-burn approach. The showrunners seemed to have a deep passion for Tolkien. Middle-Earth looked stunning. And by the end of the second episode, I at least liked Elrond/Durin & Arondir/Brownyn’s plot lines. And my dismal hopes turned into rather rosy expectations.
With slow shows, however, you can’t really measure how good they are until you see the ending they’re building toward. So aside from a few side tweets here and there on Twitter, I intentionally avoided saying much about the show until I could see it in its entirety.
Now that I’ve seen the ending, though, while I didn’t hate the show, I can’t help but feel that the showrunners made a colossal mistake.
Let’s Talk About What It Means to Adapt Tolkien
I have some pretty strong opinions on how well the show did in adapting Tolkien. But we need to talk about what good adaptations look like (in my opinion), because I’m not judging the lore fidelity of Rings of Power by the standards many online commenters seem to have judged the story by.
I’ve read both Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion several times apiece. But as a viewer, I don’t think it really matters if the show gets all the details right. I just care if it’s (a) telling a good story that (b) is generally consistent with the Tolkien legendarium. I understand that lore consistency matters a lot to many die-hard Tolkien geeks. And if I were that invested in the finer details of the Tolkien mythos, I might care more about this. But the fact is: TV is not a good medium for a centuries-spanning epic. And so I was on board for shortening the events of the Second Age from hundreds of years to just a few. And while the screenwriters took creative liberties, there’s enough in Tolkien to actually make a case for what they did with both Galadriel and Sauron. It’s not a huge deal to me if this is First Age Galadriel instead of Second Age Galadriel as long as the story works well.
It’s also relevant to point out that Tolkien wasn’t completely tied to the fine details of his mythos either! He re-wrote the Hobbit after publication to retcon the way he dealt with the Ring (and make it fit Lord of the Rings). And over the course of his life, he changed a number of aspects of the legendarium–including Galadriel’s character. There’s a reason most of his work was published posthumously–he had a hard time settling on the exact details. Middle-Earth was a work-in-progress for Tolkien, not a finished vision. And the “finished vision” we see now is largely because of Christopher Tolkien.
So I really don’t think it makes sense to treat adaptations of the larger Middle Earth story as if they’re adaptations of a polished, finished book. They weren’t, and there were a lot of consistencies and holes Christopher had to fill to present the unified books we see today. In my opinion, that should lead us to give Rings of Power more grace when it deviates from the original work.
Unfortunately, however, even by my lenient standards, Rings of Power fell flat for me as an adaptation. Because not only does it miss a vital point of Tolkien’s mythos, but it does so in a way that inherently makes it a worse story.
My #1 Issue with The Rings of Power
Before I get into my criticism, let me start off by saying a few things I enjoyed. Elrond & Durin’s friendship was one of the highlights of the show for me. The settings looked incredible. Adar was a fascinating villain who raised a lot of thematic questions about the moral metaphysics of the orcs that even Tolkien began to question later in his life. And I found Galadriel interesting as a flawed protagonist (yes, the show does clearly portray her unlikable features as character flaws).
There was a lot I could have better enjoyed if the show had managed to stick the ending.
The funny thing is that the last episode in some ways was my favorite one. Things happened! Sauron was unveiled–and the conversation between him and Galadriel that foreshadows Galadriel’s later speech to Frodo was arguably the best scene in the show. Rings of Power finally had the focus and momentum that I’d been waiting for throughout the slow leadup.
But the crafting of the elven rings made me realize the show’s missing potential. Because a mark of good storytelling is that everything should be necessary for setting up a great ending. And seeing the ending and vision the screenwriters were gunning for made me realize how lacking the setup was.
Here’s the central problem: Rings of Power should have been written as the first stages of a classical tragedy.
Tolkien understood this when he wrote the Silmarillion. The elves are undone by their fatal flaw of wanting to linger in Middle Earth. As he wrote to a prospective publisher for the Silmarillion, “they wanted the peace and bliss and perfect memory of ‘the West’ and yet to remain on ordinary earth where their prestige as the highest people was greater than at the bottom of the hierarchy of Valinor.” Tolkien described them as undergoing a “second fall” in the Silmarillion. And their crafting of the Rings–as a way to stave off this decay and preserve their place in Middle Earth–was a key part of that.
If Season 1 was designed to tell the story of the crafting of these Rings, that opens up so many fascinating storylines. A look into why an otherwise-noble race falls. A look into how a master manipulator (Sauron) could corrupt them by hiding amongst them for years while convincing them to craft these rings (yes, this is what happens in the Silmarillion). We would feel all the longing of the elves to stay in Middle Earth. And we could look on the final forging of the Rings with a horrified understanding of how deeply they had fallen–with foreboding of what would happen next.
Instead, Sauron just shows up for a day, makes a few suggestions about using an alloy or using less extreme techniques, and leaves. And that’s after most of a season where he was just dragged around from place to place (you have to squint to see any of the manipulation he had in Tolkien’s work).
Some may wonder if I’m nitpicking here. After all–didn’t I point out earlier that for a work like Tolkien, complete lore consistency shouldn’t matter as much, and what matters most is if this is a good story?
The problem, however, isn’t that it changed some details. I could be on board with changing the 90 years Sauron is with the elves in the Silmarillion to even just a few months. The problem is that the show’s deviations from Tolkien prevented it from properly setting up the ending.
How I Would Rewrite The Rings of Power
To explain why I think the show’s ending failed, I think it would be helpful to paint an alternative picture for what the show could have looked like. Not because I claim to know the secret to writing a fantastic Tolkien adaptation–or because this is necessarily the version of the show I would write if I were put at the helm. But because I think more consistency to Tolkien’s vision could have better set up the ending the screenwriters wanted to depict.
Imagine how much better the show would have been if we cut the extraneous elements like the Brandyfoots–or even Arondir and Brownyn (while I liked them, they aren’t essential to the first season)–and just focused on the elves: Galadriel, Elrond, and Celebrimbor. The show focuses more on why the elves are so desperate to stay in Middle-Earth (this never is completely clear in Rings of Power). And it does so through the differing motives of these three elves.
We see how Elrond can’t bear the idea of leaving Durin & Disa forever and going back to Valinar. We see how Galadriel’s desperation to do whatever it takes to stay in Middle Earth and defeat Sauron (something that was shown in Rings of Power). But we also see how that obsession leads her to long for more and more powerful weapons (something that was not set up originally). Celebrimbor’s lust for ambition and power is unveiled and we’re brought to understand why someone like him (as representative of the elves as a whole) is so intent on staying the highest race in society. The first season could have focused on all of them together in Eregion (with perhaps a few outside excursions) while their various flaws lead them to conspire together to forge the elven rings.
And during all of this, we see Sauron lurking about in disguise while he craftily encourages them all in these destructive directions. I can’t help but wonder how much this first season was ruined by the desire to keep Sauron’s identity a “surprise.” While there was something I did like to the surprise, the showrunners forgot how powerful “anticipation” can be as an alternative to the overdone “mystery box” mechanic. We should be intrigued by the show not because we don’t know who Sauron is, but out of the anticipation of knowing who he is and wondering what he’s going to do next.
This was one of the few things the Star Wars prequels “got.” It didn’t try to play a game of shells to hide Anakin’s identity. It was open about that–and then let our anticipation for how he would become Darth Vader drive the story forward. The first two prequels still weren’t great–but it wasn’t for this reason, and Revenge of the Sith highlights just how good stories like this can be. This sort of route would have made the last episode of Rings of Power so much more interesting because we’ve seen Sauron manipulating across all eight episodes (and you probably couldn’t do that well without people already figuring out who he was). Sauron is so much less interesting as a villain when his manipulation is reduced to a few throwaway smelting suggestions and one short scene with Galadriel!
Certain LotR buffs may still fume at the way my proposed vision still deviates from Tolkien. But if the showrunners had done something like this, we would have at least felt more of the agony we should have felt in episode 8. Instead, while we do get a few hints toward the character arcs I’m sketching out above, we’re told these things about the characters more than we’re shown them. And so we don’t feel the weight of the tragedy like we could have if the season had focused on the Rings instead of starting half a dozen disconnected storylines that don’t really fit together.
That’s why the show’s deviation bothers me so much. Not because it deviated. But because its deviations undercut the ending it was hoping to achieve. As-is, I found Rings of Power to have many good moments–but a disjointed overall story that fundamentally lacked focus or a unified vision. And that in turn, caused the potentially great moments in the climax to fall flat–at least for this viewer.
Wishing for More
Readers may disagree with my assessment, and that’s fine. I don’t think viewers are “less of a Tolkien fan” if they enjoyed this adaptation. There were truly good parts to this first season, and I’m glad that other viewers enjoyed the series more than I did. I don’t wish a bad viewing experience on others!
But as I reflect on the first season of Rings of Power, I can’t help be filled by disappointment. Not because this was a horrible show. Or because the show intentionally trampled on Tolkien (it’s clear to me that they did seek to honor his vision, even if I think they failed to hit the mark.) But because it was mediocre. In many ways, the show felt to me like a very rough first draft. It had some good ideas and some great moments. But it needed more work and polishing to tie all these pieces together into a glorious climax.
On the upside, this show did remind me why I enjoyed Silmarillion so much and inspire me to give both it and Lord of the Rings a re-read sometime soon. And so whether this show excited you or disappointed you, perhaps it can motivate more of us to go back to Tolkien’s original masterpiece and the successful tragedy that has already been told about the forging of the Rings of Power.