Carefully constructed from the appendices, footnotes and old bits of crumpled-up post-it notes
What is LOTR:ROP?
It’s finally here, the series that nobody apart from Jeff Bezos asked for: The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. LOTR:ROP tells the tale of the second age of Middle Earth, some thousands of years before the events portrayed in the Lord of the Rings. Carefully constructed from the appendices, footnotes and old bits of crumpled-up post-it notes from Tolkien’s rubbish bin, LOTR:ROP will take us back to experience the world of J. R. R. Tolkien once more, a world of good versus evil, dragons and treasure, duty and honour, and prosthetic ears.
Having spent one billion dollars on this show — a sum large enough to make one thousand people millionaires, or one person, me, a billionaire — Amazon really is going all in on this intellectual property. This innovative company with a proven track record, and a story based on a world created by one of the greatest figures of British literature, means hopes are high for this series.
Episodes one and two came out at the same time, so let’s delve into both together. The raison d’être of this blog is short form reviews. But hey, LOTR is epic, right? And judging from recent productions, “epic” means “long”, so here are my words splurged manically over your screen.
So Far, So Familiar
They seem to be trying to do a Star Wars Episode VII job on this. Kind of following the basic outline of the original, LOTR, with enough nostalgia thrown in to keep people hooked. We have Galdriel, we have Legolas 2, we have the Hobbits (kind of), we have a dark lord, we have a looming danger, and we have juicy maps. My concern with this show is they might follow the path of Star Wars episodes 7-9 which, although not awful, perhaps do not spiritually live up to their predecessors. But we have to see if this is a case of respectful homage or memberberries as the series develops.
Remember the Lord of the Rings? Remember how we had the Hobbits who epitomised a nostalgic olde timey rural England where things were simpler but life was better? Remember how duty and burden fell on one of these wee folk, and how in the hobbits we had the everyman characters through which to experience and connect with this fantastic world of wizards, dragons, elves and orcs? Yeah, well that’s all been replaced with a kind of gypsy tramp version of the Hobbits, now restyled the Harfoots, who caravan their way through the woods, just because. Instead of being our window to the world, these Harfoots seem to function as a kind of bumbling comedy relief. So I’m not sure what the point of them is other than to say, “Hey, remember the hobbits? Nostalgicus Rememborius! Poof!“
The Harfoots feature a Ghostbusters style all-female reboot. Whereas before we had Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, now we have a kind of comedy mash-up of the original fab four boiled down to a twosome: Fat Hobbit, who looks just like Dawn French in the wonderful French and Saunders LOTR spoof, and Female Frodo (minus the burden of the ring), who herself looks eerily like Jennifer Saunders. Perhaps the presence of French’s ex-hubbie Sir Lenny Henry as Chief Harfoot (can’t remember his, or any character’s, name) is tripping my mind out. As an aside, and speaking of resemblances, the elven master smith, Celebrimbor, bears more than a passing resemblance to Monty Python member Sir Michael Palin, and I just can’t get this out of my head. I feel at times like I’m stuck in some kind of new version of Erik the Viking.
In short (no pun), I worry that the showrunners are going to push the Harfoots in an Ewoks / JarJar Binks direction.
One of the great things about Tolkien was his excellent command of the English language and the poetic beauty of his prose. So LOTR:ROP has taken the novel approach of, err, ignoring Tolkien’s own words. Some of the lines are way of the top and completely trite. They “march at first light”, of course. And then there’s, “You don’t know what’s down there!” –“That” (pregnant pause) “is why I must go”. So far, so fanfic.
It’s not just the dialogue which is over-the-top. Some of the action and special effects are ridiculous. Remember when people complained that in LOTR Legolas was almost like a computer game character, spinning and twirling about? Yeah, okay, well bring Legolas’ willing-suspension-of-disbelief testing agility back, because the way Galadriel dispatches a troll like a video game character, and the way the useless white men by contrast flail around, is just too much. Absolutely ridiculous.
Lord of the Woke
I don’t want to touch this toxic subject, not least because I risk sounding a bit Klan-ish. But it’s been a big talking point, so I have to.
Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power is going out of its way to be woke. And that isn’t a compliment. All the main characters are female and/or ethnic minority. All the white males seem to be dysfunctional idiots. Every marriage is mixed race. In fairness, Tolkien himself said the Harfoots were darker than the Hobbits, although I’m not sure he had Sir Lenny Henry in mind. But anyway, there’s nothing per se wrong with any of this. However, the producers have been inclusive in a way that draws attention to itself, and therefore at the expense of the immersion of the world they’re creating. And that is unforgivable.
This series will be compared to Game of Thrones, so let’s just get down to it. GoT was multiracial and featured many important female characters. But it never felt shoehorned in or for the sake of ticking boxes. It was completely natural. The people in the North were broadly ethnically similar, those from Dorn had a kind of Latin and/or Mediterranean vibe about them. The various races all mixed together in a natural way and in appropriate locations. It all just made sense.
By way of contrast, LOTR:ROP has the strange primitive isolated Harfoots who, for some reason, live in a multiracial society, where some folks speak Zummerzet, others Irish, and others still Jamaican — often the same character will sport all three accents within a sentence. This just makes no sense whatsoever and draws attention to itself. And it’s weird that in this multiracial society, there seems to be no interracial marriage; all the whiteys stick together, and all the non-whites stick together. None of it makes any sense.
But at least LOTR:ROP deals with racism through its world-building genius, where white men refer to non-white and or non-male elves, as “dagger ears”. Ooch.
There are some plus sides. They’ve done reasonably well introducing us to a wide range of characters fairly quickly. Although maybe they should have followed Tolkien a bit better by introducing them over time. They do set up a lot of stuff very quickly, albeit with a lot of exposition. But this is handled mostly effectively.
The visuals are excellent, and there seems to be a kind-of return to the aesthetic of the LOTR films and away from the overly CGI design of the Hobbit. And that’s very much welcome. The show does look gorgeous, for the most part.
The acting isn’t blowing me away, but it’s not bad. I’ll be interested to see if these relatively unknown thesps are able to deliver a heavy emotional payload later in the show as legends such as Sir Ian McKellan could in the LOTR movies.
On the whole, LOTR:ROP isn’t overly exciting me. It’s not what everyone hoped it would be, but it’s not what everyone feared it would be, either. I think some of the harsh reviews so far have been a little bit unjustified. Sometimes I don’t know if reviewers believe what they say or they are simply in love with the sound of their own witty barbs (case in point, Christopher Stevens from the Mail). We need to give this series space to see what it can grow into.
As for the storyline, before firing up Prime, I was concerned. It’s because LOTR:ROP isn’t based on a story, so much as it is based on a series of appendices and footnotes and backstories that Tolkien deliberately left out of his novels as he knew it would all get in the way. It’s like when an artist comes out with an album comprised of the offcuts of a previous album, but tries to sell it as an original work. We were on dangerous ground.
So given this isn’t an adaption of a Tolkien story like LOTR or the Hobbit were, I had fears about what the story was to be. Nonetheless, so far everything seems pretty clear: there’s some kind of dark lord, he’s comin’ ta getcha, and the powers that be are blithely and blindly ignoring the imminent threat — the elves being particularly culpable, having declared “mission accomplished” and buggering back off to their vineyards. Kind of riffing/ripping off LOTR, but you could say that is a tried and tested formula.
Enjoyable, but nothing amazing. And we can’t use the yardstick of Tolkien’s magnificent work or the wonderful Jackson-Boyens-Walsh films to judge this by; we must judge it by its own standard. Nonetheless, more evidence must come in before the jury can render a verdict.
© 2022 Bryan A. J. Parry