The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is commercialism in all its glory—and gore. It is a billion-dollar visual feast built from the breadcrumbs left behind by J.R.R. Tolkien. Amazon Prime Video’s new offering—described as Jeff Bezos’ vanity project—promises to slake our thirst for high fantasy. But it takes creative liberties that make purists cringe.
In 2017, Amazon bought the television rights to The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy, The Hobbit and the appendices for $250 million, and then poured another $465 million into the first season of The Rings of Power alone. But it does not have the rights to the rich lore of The Silmarillion or other books of this complex world.
We don’t get to see elves driven by avarice and power-lust kill each other in their quest for the Silmarils, the jewels crafted by Elf Lord Fëanor that have the radiance of light. Instead, we get a rather white-washed introduction at the start of the series.
If Tolkien’s work is the Bible, then ‘Rings of Power’ is a litany of sins.
The first sin: Lies
There’s creative liberty and then there’s just plain dishonesty. The storyline of Rings of Power so far is just that.
While her memories of Valinor play out on screen, Galadriel’s voice compresses thousands of years of bloodshed into a couple of minutes. That’s allowed. But she conveniently does not mention that her kin were involved in the first clash between elves. Or that she defied the gods (Valar) and left Valinor despite the threat of a ban.
Morgoth, one of the creators who makes the evil Sauron look like a baby cockroach, is reduced to a bogeyman, his name dropped at regular intervals for nothing more than context.
And then there’s Galadriel, whose complex history Tolkien revised multiple times. Her quest to avenge her brother is the driving force of the narrative in Rings of Power. But in Tolkien’s legendarium, he is alive and well in the undying lands of Valinor, reunited with his true love. Yes, he died while killing one of Sauron’s werewolves, but he was reincarnated by the Valar and granted a return ticket to the undying lands of Valinor because of his noble behaviour. It’s highly unlikely that Galadriel was kept in the dark about her own brother’s fate.
The second sin: Tired tropes
Lies can be forgiven or passed off as minor transgressions. After all, creative licence is all about playing with fictional truths. What’s unforgivable is the Ring of Power’s reliance on tired tropes.
The first two episodes have reduced Galadriel to a careless vengeance-seeking caricature.
She jumps from ships and swims roiling oceans to go back to Middle Earth. Blinded by her need to confront and end Sauron, she puts the lives of elves under her command at risk. Galadriel, who is of noble lineage, is ambitious, not stupid.
Every epic needs star-crossed lovers. Tolkien’s Beren and Luthien had a love that shone through the darkest of times. In Rings of Power, we have a new character, Arondir, and a village healer who was rather boring. But we’re still on the second episode. This subplot has the potential to redeem itself, but it will still pale in comparison to the original lovers.
For a bit of light relief, there are the ‘harfoots’, a new species. Perhaps they are to the hobbits what Neanderthals are to homo sapiens. But they seem to be replicas of the Hobbits in their mannerisms. Their sole purpose is to remind us about the power of innocence when good and evil clash.
The third sin: Flat script
Tropes, even the tired ones, can be forgiven if they are witty or interesting. But barring the dwarves, everyone’s voices in Rings of Power fall flat.
The harfoots seek the safety of their known world. But Nori Brandyfoot, like Bilbo Baggins, is yearning to explore the unknown. She’s the rebellious daughter, the underdog, a vital subplot in an epic fantasy. But unlike Bilbo and later Frodo and company, she is constantly reminding the audience of her wanderlust.
It’s particularly jarring when the elves get some screen time. Tolkien’s elves are creatures of art, poetry, and music. But series showrunners J. D. Payne and Patrick McKay have either forgotten that or couldn’t find talented scriptwriters. There’s more to an elf than pointy ears, an aquiline nose and perfect hair.
There’s an old-world cadence in their speech, a lyricism that sets them apart from gruff dwarves, growly orcs, plain-speaking humans and chirpy harfoots.
This omission in the Rings of Power is upsetting, especially against the stunning backdrops of their cities that speak of their skill as craftsmen. It makes the younger generation of elves like Galadriel, Arondir and Elrond sound like high school students playing dress-up, while the older high-born lords sound like petulant children.
The fourth sin: The hook
Tolkien’s son, Christoper, in a 2012 interview with Le Monde was unhappy with the original movies. “Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time…The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: to turn my head away,” he had said.
Christopher died in 2020, but his harsh criticism holds true for Amazon’s Rings of Power. It is glorified fan fiction.
The problem with well-produced, commercialised fanfiction is that it can be entertaining. It’s got its hooks in me, and I will watch Rings of Power again next week. It’s like digging into a bowl of death by chocolate for breakfast. You can’t wash down the lingering aftertaste of guilt.
Views are personal.
This article is part of a series called Beyond the Reel. You can read all the articles here.