Why “The Rings of Power” is great fantasy worth watching – a long but reasonable rant (be warned, a wall of text coming, defending it from the wildlings):
Clout is a weak argument //
But – no clout could be even worse. Opinion should be an opinion, not truth or holy scripture – but in our world where platform capitalism calls every one of us to express our thoughts no matter how petty they are, putting forth an argument becomes a lost art. The average poster thinks to express dislike in a tweet is the apex of philosophical depth, no more needs to be said, and writing a blog post, oh, so 90s. We don’t have time for that, we don’t have time to read either. We are quick and witty and need no complexity. Good and short is the most difficult thing, any writer will tell you. People on the interwebs think it’s enough to write “something” to be entitled to truth, insight or having a right to dismiss all others. It becomes social media feeding navel-gazing contests. Let’s produce less fluff and get back to the old Roman art form of Rhetorics, holding a coherent speech, not just a shout out for the laughs. Until here I might have lost already 50% of the most impatient ones.
But, does my opinion count? Not really, after all it’s just a story forged and enacted for entertainment. But, does yours count? Also not, because who gives a damn about our whimsical likes or dislikes of something – in the entertainment business? The producers, the cast, the social media platforms, the old Roman Senate? Your fellow audience member? Maybe little parts of the friend bubble, one may not reach more without platform help or (professional and costly) endorsement. The question is: can you coherently analyse a piece of storytelling and put your opinion in context and into sharpened words, make arguments which are beyond personal taste? To put it short, can you talk, or write…not just babble about your expectations and your feelings in half a paragraph? Moreover – is this babble based on any education or experience which separates “your wheat of opinion from the chaff”? In the age of eerie opinion wars and a society split apart through fake news, gaslighting, review-bombing, bought influence and trolls everything becomes a resonance of the political, and technology its mediator. The media may mostly play along. So what can we make of The Rings of Power recently dropped by Amazon, which Tolkien never wrote? Is it any good? I say yes.
First Blood //
The first superficial analysis of the criticisms may yield that TRoP is not failing in itself, but failing the expectations of the audience. We can ask of course, who the audience is, or where their expectations stem from. Are they particularly right wing or homophobic, do they already fight against diversity or strong female characters? Or are they from the left spectrum and get bored by the wokeness they live every day and see no need for this to get reflected in a fantasy world? What is the truth they claim the product “The Rings of Power” does not match. Most of the time, I guess, it will burn down to – their own high expectations, often not even including a good read of the source material…that means, Tolkien’s books.
When an avalanche of review bombing and unfavourable hate gets hurled at Amazon’s The Rings of Power, I got suspicious. Most of the repetitive slant felt more like a political campaign than a review of a fantasy saga. So, shaking my head I dare to firmly disagree here: I think it’s good fantasy, actually very good fantasy, I would almost call a historical milestone. If you will, I could pitch my own emotional “taste vs. expectation” 50 cents: The high production value content is good bordering on very good with excellent moments and firm roots like Mithril running through that 300 Million EUR mountain. I like almost all of it, until the last third of the last episode – so, haters, I am fully in favour of the slow paced behemoth, and I have a ton of reasons for that. Now, let’s put the shields in the ground for it.
Pulling rank //
As for throwing in personal qualifications for making this talk, I am working myself in media art, 3D production and fiction, and gave internationally workshops in storyworld building and interactive storytelling. Even when I have never worked for such a high production value series, I am not your average viewer or reviewer. In addition, as an artist I also tend to look at details, harmonies, subtleties and strengths of a conceptual and visual work, which may evade the layman’s eye. I have not THE truth, as my view is still subjective, but I dare a strong opinion because of “work in that field” – which still does not mean that I do not need to be matching your taste to be “right”. Before I put my opinion out giving a judgement about the whole, not just a part, I listened and I read – and of course I have read the source material. If you don‘t trust my arguments or my taste, then this text can only be hopefully a coherent attempt to show you other perspectives, or I am preaching to the choir. The “pulling rank” title is clickbait, there are no real ranks and a lot of people may be way more qualified than me to have a professional opinion. Regardless, I have high hopes that you read all of it, if you made it that far.
High hopes for high fantasy //
The high hopes in the project TRoP may be as big as the money spent. It’s like in stock market where no one spent money but still own a lot of financial instruments, the personal expectations are being claimed as if fans of LoTR got gifted some Options and now they wanna bring home all the gains. Actually, this project does not have to do justice to the irresistible imagination of Tolkien, it has to satisfy the insatiable hunger of binge watching fans who see themselves as guardians of his legacy. Minds who do not write anything close to what Tolkien imagined, but crying out for high energy fodder, because they their own imagination may lay bare. Thus any disappointed voices sound like cultural watch dogs of traditional values of Middle Earth who do become so rigid and grunt so loudly to preserve the conservative canon that the beauty and valour of a a new narration is lost. It may exercise the core genre but in a different pace and without the clutter of the novels, and that may evade the the watch dog’s vigilant eye. It‘s high fantasy, maybe simple, but skilfully exercised – and beautifully rendered.
Ride the Lighting //
The lighting is, is…is “wrong” some say, but why? Where is your reference, where is a bad example where this matches? Middle Earth does not exist, so we talk about believability or cinematic references. As bad as “Spacehunter – Adventures in the forbidden Zone”, or “Krull”, which was actually not that bad (both from 1983) – watch these 80s gems and talk to me about bad lighting. Star Trek The Original Series outdoor scenes on planets had a notoriously bad and unrealistic studio lighting – is it like this in TRofP? Nope, its technically masterfully executed, for what money can buy now, and actually a lot better than or on par with Jackson’s trilogy, which already looks a bit dated after 20 years. (see e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uXMAgwcP7e8). Let’s say, most of the time – as Jackson had years to prepare and movie sets in New Zealand, and it´s after all, cinema, not made for the screens at home. Second Tolkien´s world is an imagined world (you better believe that) and in my view the professional lighting is most of the time gorgeous no match for any cheap British TV production, let alone the horribly lit Dr. Who – just no comparison. To call it looking like the badly lit „Hollyoaks“ sitcom can be called a slur, a blind man‘s reference, and a mean one… (for a sample see e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gM6cCWtGTNk).
Sets, props, costumes //
Let’s compare it to the charming series The Mandalorian by Disney, maybe the best Star Wars after the two stories, Solo and Rogue One, which were doing a good job, IMHO (also here I am intentionally getting into a minefield of strong controversies). Like Mando was significantly expanding the original Star Wars lore in a good way again for streaming, the heavy use of the Volume and backlit LED screen system technique allowed for shooting in environments already lit well realistically – in real time. This was not just slimming the post-production and cgi budget, but also allowed for innovative editing on spot (see e.g. https://blog.filmsupply.com/articles/5-takeaways-from-editing-the-mandalorian/ ). But also meant that you could simulating any environment, which does not need to get built as a set. In the end, maybe in 3D, but not being actually out there. And then came along TRoP (and Andor) to remind us that an anamorphic lens and amazing location scouting is really hard to beat no matter what technology you invent. The sets look fantastic, rich, detailed and fully rendered. From Lindon, the capital of the High Elves, Númenor, an Island Kingdom of Men, Eregion, Realm of the Elven-Smiths to the wilderlands of Rhovanion, all looks like big time set building and high class cgi. And lets not forget the gorgeous rendering of the dwarve’s realm, Khazad-Dûm…only it’s closeness to Babylon 5`s homeworld of the Shadows, Z’ha’dum, spooked me a bit. The props are fitting, weapons included, the sword hilt of Sauron a very good McGuffin and a simple well made dagger playing a major role. Where are the problems? I read people criticising the costumes, but honestly, I was warned and did not get distracted once by cheap fabric or painted underwear – and I was spying for it. It might be there, but overall no big mistakes on the costume front, IMHO. Yes, and I am rooting for the white vampire Orcs who have belief and can talk, being ruled by a strange master filling the power vacuum. Their costumes are on spot, most of the armour well made and befitting, only the Númenor armour a bit corny, for my taste – but the whole island has a bit of a preposterous, daft aura, which they need to overcome in the story.
Acting – less is more //
First, fantasy accents are meaningless, so the whole language discussion may be just a dead end.
Second, the critique that Galadriel is equal to bad acting is hogwash and completely unfounded. You may not like her, her face, her actions, but she is acting the character very well, no flaws. Portraying a strong woman itself is not a flaw – only for Incels and men with serious issues with the other gender. Morfydd‘s Galadriel has style, stern determination and something most people in our corrupt times may have lost or forgotten about: a backbone. She is dependable and unrelenting, highly focused and driven – not an inch from the path in 8 episodes. What is so bad about somebody who is not giving up, being vigilant, searching if the ugly head from the past is raking. And she is right – her „failure“ or bad action shall be her perseverance? Why? Because everybody else would, including the audience? Her undeterred tenacity, her perseverance (Ihre unbeirrte Hartnäckigkeit, ihre Beharrlichkeit) is „bad acting“? – because she oozed that in every scene, and was visibly torn by it in her development, as it showed its dark sides and she got aware of that. She is young, a warrior and not yet an “elder stateswoman” – who wants to act better than Kate Blanchett? She needs to be a different, fierce base, where this character can develop from. I ask you, shall the Elf better be a Trumpist crook, to make the masses happy? An apprentice, who follows a corrupt rich white man, is that better? She was clearly badass, yet emotionally vulnerable, but reliable and steadfast, yet impulsive – a fine line she danced with strong, if not joyful determination. Was she feminin – yes, a bit, too, but first a general worthy like the best male ones, who also might have difficulties to stop ordering people around, in their private life.
The dwarves act marvellously, the couple dynamics at play a very joyful to watch and wife/husband is laid out in shades as much as old friendship/enmity, superior/rogue or father/son dynamics, all this offers tension to play with and the cast plays well – very well with it.
Let’s not forget the melancholic, strange leader of the Orcs, a real surprise and a sleazy new height of evil AND empathy, preparing the grounds for, well, the people, he adopted. Yes, Orcs are people, too, get comfortable with it – just slaying them en mass may not cut it, maybe if you are a 12 year old with a wooden sword, it does. It was new to see a backstory to the Orcs and that they are seeking a homeland where to live, like all the other races. That gave the villains a human ring (pun intended), they make choices, and so do the good ones, too. This was way more black and white in the LotR.
The Harfoots (Tolkien`s idea of a common ancestry comprising 3 tribes and ending with the general Hobbits a 1000 years later) are adorable and act like in a fever dream of Shakespearean heights, Midsummer Night on Middle Earth. All of this material in TRoP has a feverish aspect to it, which I quite enjoyed. It heightened the sense of fantasy, not diminished it. There is no “real” Middle Earth, so again, the makers at Amazon help us dream it up. To soften a traditional society of stranger-shunning weird folk takes some vision, and curiosity is one of the key ingredients. To become international and trust dangerous new giants who fall onto your lap would be too much for most of the locally dwelling humans nowadays in an “enlightened” rich society, so this fantasy shows you how far courage can bring you…
Ismael Cruz Córdova as Arondir I would judge the better Elf, not because he is black, but his brooding serenity befits the character and feels superior to the all too funny and almost slapstick Legolas. His romance and tension is palpable and reflects the problem of interracial couples being still harassed, even after Shatner´s kiss with Lt. Uhura in 1968 groundbreaking episode “Plato’s Stepchildren” (season 3, episode 10 of Star Trek – The Original Series). The episode is often—incorrectly—cited as the first example of an interracial kiss on television, but with all the hatred going on in a divided world lit up by racism and populism, and interracial couple still is a strong choice and necessary, unfortunately also in 2022.
Directing & script – the coming of chaos //
There is not ONE director like in LotR, there are three. So, no Peter Jackson coherence to be expected, and the material is invented by 7+ writers and. I guess an extensive writer’s room in which story arcs, plots and scenes can get discussed and forged. There is a silence, a normality to establish before any conflict may come to disturb it, otherwise there is no disturbance felt. This takes a lot longer our usual “call to adventure” D&D posse in search for quests is willing to endure. It may sound boring to render peace, but it is utterly necessary for giving the quest of Galadriel weight and to fathom the destruction and doom foreshadowed by Sauron and we know will, in time become Mordor. The chaos to come has to have an established playing field it can undermine, otherwise we just have war, armies marching onto each other and riders galloping left and right to be there in time. We already had that. Its is the pretense, the pretentious assumption that there is no threat which is so precise and threatening. That a way of living is in danger, even though no cataclysm has happened in hundreds of years. Still, it will happen, and we know it. The slow and almost stealthy unfolding is the big strength of TRoP, not its weakness. We need that, because we know what’s coming. Action and chaos waits, it lurks, it shows in portends, but not in full battle array. I find this very satisfying and much more real than a clear target. Direction and writing both reflect a state of disbelief, not unlike our own attitude after 70+ years of peace in the heart of Europe – we just did not belief that someone will pull off a war at our doorstep – until February 2022. There you go, all the high brow non-believers who voted to dismantle armies and dwell in the feeling we won the Cold War got thrown back into it, with no remorse. TRoP came out with an eerie timing and the chaos we have, climate crisis and inflation, pandemic and all very much sound like a fever dream Sauron is having in Mordor, unleashing his forces upon us, counting on us being divided and weak. If you wanna see dreadful fantasy writing , watch “Wheels of Time” (quite OKish, but way below the level of TRoP), or the well meant “The Witcher” series with the chaos of timelines and confused big arcs, or the last seasons of GoT ,…what a shame. Shall we painfully remind ourselves what became of the Mother of Dragons? TRoP is definitely not badly written at all, in comparison – no cringing there. But, is it better than the first five seasons of Game of Thrones with witty writing and cult dialogues, awesome conflicts and deaths, creating a cultural phenomenon? Nope, but they are also not making big mistakes, IMHO. Maybe the reveal who the big two characters are, Sauron and Gandalf really are, that was a bit dragged out too much, I admit…and wrapping it up in one episode. I go with DenofGeek in the criticism of unanswered lingering questions: “What exactly is going on with Ëarien and the palantír? Who were the Dweller, the Ascetic, and the Nomad? Are they related to Khamûl the Easterling, a Man who will eventually become that first Black Rider who sniffs for the hobbits in the Shire? Where has Isildur got to? (He’s with that horse Elendil was obsessed with, isn’t he?) And what’s up with the Balrog now awake in Khazad-dûm?” (https://www.denofgeek.com/tv/lord-of-the-rings-of-power-episode-8-review/)
Values – better some than none //
What pleased me in TRoP, was that violence was not gratuitous or extreme. It was not depicted for gore value but when it was necessary, staying overall family friendly. A fantasy series which is underlining the right values, unlike other series which are only about power, brutality and betrayal – or slaying the next, obviously dull minded, evil monster like St. George, not asking the fair maid if the old dragon may be her friend. Middle Earth feels like a not very much veiled metaphor for the contemporary United States right now, a deeply divided society which at the core does not trust each other. The US, or even Europe as the realm of detached High Elves find a match and mirror in a fantasy series where allies are only kept together by singular cosmopolitan figures pulling personal favours and the rest is torn apart by centrifugal forces which cook up because old wounds do not heal. Like in the Western world today, bare hate gets exposed and and staying in the past is an obstacle too great to overcome to really face a common foe together, without a lot of bickering and back-stabbing. In TRoP we follow as an audience how to keep it together, not how secession and running from solidarity works, so yes, that is a very needed injection of values which almost feel lost in the real world, planet Earth.
The last third of the end – of a beginning? //
The final episode of the first season felt a bit rushed, and still, a lot of time was spent to say farewell to a courageous Harfoot who goes on an adventure, almost alone. That is fine, but all the strands do not come together smoothly – and providing no cliffhanger, more a “complicated set-up with clear next steps”. Is that great, no, a bit underwhelming. The last third felt unnecessarily rushed and sketchy. The chant about the rhyme tells a lot about the rings we have seen only very shortly and in a small number. No conflicts widen, no surprise detail of a surviving cast member or his horse (twinkle) opening a door and stirring interest. We established a solid understanding of the chess board and the pieces, but no moves were made, yet. Let’s see if the second season lives up to the promise to infuse this set with life – and death.
Truthful, authentic Tolkien? //
If truthfulness to the source material is a benchmark, or a solid writing published by the master himself, I argue: Jean Luc Picard would be no Star Trek, Deep Space 9 apocryphal, Cpt. Janeway a mistake and Discovery sound heresy (well in parts it was, but we forgive Michael Burnham after delivering a much better 2nd season and also the thirds is not so bad at all. I still insist, Naomi Nagata from the Expanse is the better Michael Burnham after all, beltalowdas!). Picard in his last instalment of 2 seasons, alone and in pension seems rather hopeless and forced, actually, without being able to blame Roddenberry. So one might think the conservative avid Tolkien reader deems Peter Jackson’s take on the material THE canon? Well, like others I find Fellowship of the Ring outstanding – measuring up in every way possible. Then Jackson maxed out the Legolas factor – surfing the stairs in TT, surfing the Oliphaunt in RoTK. That alone moved the project out of magical Tolkien into sub – Marvel/DC comics territory. Hopeless, sorry. Canon, big, history, but hopelessly cheesy in parts – and clearly more and more for children. And now TRoP does it all wrong? It‘s a fantasy drama, stupid. Not reality, goddammit.
So, nothing is „as it should be“ or should be held accountable for not living up to personal imagination, D&D quests while playing Middle Earth or larp The Hobbit notwithstanding. When you are twelve and all you want is hunting monsters, a gloomy grown up series about a war to come may of course make you nervous. If you want truthful Tolkien, read the books, or write fan-fiction which does a better job than the professionals hired for a lot of money doing it day-in, day-out. Every once and a while, a K. Rowling may be born out of that – but look where it got her (…not being hailed anymore to be truthful, nor authentic, I am afraid) 😉
Kudos for wading through this rather long rant, dear reader.
So long and thanks for all the daggers not welded together into a throne or a sofa, or a chaise lounge…being a blacksmith is definitely the most dangerous trade in any fantasy world.