Why the Rings of Power Show Is Not Good (Part #7934)
What makes a work of Fantasy WORK?
Wayyyy back in the 70s and 80s, science fiction/fantasy/superhero content hadn't completely taken over the culture yet. New nerd content was rare and treasured.
The Superman movie (1978) was mind-blowing. (I’m old enough to remember when Superman was a good guy.) A new Star Trek series was an impossible dream. Battlestar Galactica was cherished. We were so desperate for sci-fi stuff that we watched Doctor Who, for God's sake!
Now, of course, this sort of content is pretty much all there is. You can turn on the tap and choose from 73 different flavors of Medieval Fantasy Content. We nerds wished on the Monkey’s Paw, and got what we wanted. And nothing else.
We lost a key thing, though. Back in the 80s, when Willow came out, the first new fantasy movie in forever, we were still able to recognize it wasn't that great and feel free to say so. Sure, we watched it, because WIZARDS!!! But there was no political obligation to like or hate Generic Fantasy Product made by a Trillion Dollar Global Conglomerate.
So. I watched the first three episodes of Amazon's Ring's of Power series. This show has cost, from what I read, over $750 Million US Dollars. Some estimates are higher. It’s the most expensive TV show ever.
The show is bad. Here is why.
You Have To Slow Down When You Drive By a Car Crash
I never cared about a new Tolkien series. Why would I? I love Tolkien. I'm of a nerd generation where multiple reads through Lord of the Rings and Dune and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy were just table stakes to enter our weird little culture.
(If you saw the Hitchhiker's movie and never read the book, please consider reading it. It's terrific and short.)
Here's the thing. Art is individual to its creator. Only Van Gogh can paint a Van Gogh. Only Shakespeare can write Shakespeare. Only Tolkien can write Tolkien.
Rings of Power could never, ever be Tolkien. It could be, at best, competently made "I Can't Believe It's Not Tolkien." Yet, Partially-Hydrogenated Tolkien Substitute still could have been a good show.
I didn't want to watch it, but, honestly, I wanted to see what it looks like when a megacorporation spends a billion dollars to pander to me.
It's not good in basically the same way that Wheel of Time, The Witcher Season One, and the end of Game of Thrones are not good.
Understanding why might be instructive.
(I'll get some pushback on The Witcher Season One, but no. It's a mediocre show. Sorry. It only seems better than it is because it's entirely boilerplate generic story jumps through time in a confusing manner. If it was told as a proper, clear, linear story, its blandness would have been obvious.)
Rings of Power Is Dull
I like to joke that fantasy is the easiest sort of story to write. There is no excuse for not being able to finish your fantasy epic. There is only one fantasy story: "See that guy over there? He's bad. To kill him, we must find the Magic Woozle. Then we must stab the guy with the Woozle/throw the Woozle in a hole." Throw in a little political intrigue for spice, which the good guy wins.
End book/game. Collect money.
It's kind of hard to blow this pattern. The problem for Rings of Power is that it is part of the plague of Prequels that afflicts us. There is no suspense here for anyone that knows anything about Lord of the Rings.
Here's the next 50 hours of Rings of Power: 1. "I'm a bad guy, and I made you some rings. For free!" 2. “Oh, gosh. Should we put on the rings?" 3. "Let's put on the rings!" 4. "Ahhh! Everything is on fire!" 5. "It’s fine, we won anyway. Yay!"
But they have to stretch this out for FIFTY HOURS. (At least.) There is no real enemy in the story right now. No real goals. Everyone has to sort of wander around and mark time until the rings show up. How do you stretch this gruel out?
Answer: You rely on Mystery Box writing. You introduce suspense by withholding information from the audience. A magic man just fell out of the sky. Why? The dwarves have a glowy box. What's in it? A dinosaur is following hobbits around. Why? A village got wiped out. By who?
Saying, "A weird mystery guy fell out of the sky." isn't interesting. Saying, "This weird mystery guy is trying to accomplish a specific thing, and everyone must react." is interesting. Saying, "Gosh, don't you wish you knew what's in this box." isn't interesting. Saying, "The box has a powerful, disrupting thing, and our heroes must deal with it." is interesting.
Seriously, in the first three hours of this series, when it really has to push and sell itself to get you to watch it instead of the 500 other shows, NOTHING HAPPENS.
So of course the characters are bland and their actions are senseless. To make them interesting, they need something real and intense to react against. But the show has to keep its secrets close to its chest, because we all know what's going to happen anyway and they have to stretch out this material a lot of hours.
This could all be papered over if the characters were rich and deep and believable and interesting. Then they could be fun to watch as they follow minor plots and the main story grinds to life.
For them to be interesting to watch, however, the viewer needs to feel that they came from a real, developed place with interesting qualities and ideas. That is the true power of Tolkien: He created people and places that felt real and solid, with their own goals and beliefs. He spent years creating infinite background material before writing the actual books, and you felt it.
Which gets us to the Real Problem.
The Real Problem
All of these works I've mentioned are in the genre of Medieval Fantasy. They don't take place in the actual Middle Ages. None of us can possibly really understand what it was like to live then. It was a completely alien time to us with a completely alien worldview.
Medieval Fantasy takes place in an imagined Middle Ages. What do we know (or think we know) about this time? We know (or think we know) it was a stratified, honor based culture. Word, duty, honor, and one's role in society were taken very, very seriously.
(Or at least this is what we think now. Don't over-idealize the past. Study of the life of Henry VIII may be instructive here.)
These qualities are what gives this sort of fantasy its weight. Highly honor-based societies did exist, and they don't anymore, at least not for the target audience of Rings of Power. They fascinate us, and perhaps a small part of us misses a world where a person's word was their bond.
Why do the first few Game of Thrones books work? (And Lord of the Rings. And Conan.) Because their authors were able to channel a version of the old mindset that feels real to us. The characters in Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones are serious people with deep beliefs. We may not like them or what they do, but they command respect. Honor culture may not work (Game of Thrones is about this system falling apart), but it provides a framework for the characters.
Generic Modern Television Fantasy never even attempts to emulate these qualities. Thus, no matter how good the CGI is, it will always be dull and shallow. The world doesn't feel like a world, so the characters just don't feel like characters. Without a belief system, they're clumps of thrown together character traits wandering around inside a video game.
Pretty much all of the first three episodes of Rings of Power display these problems, but I'll pick out three examples.
Example the First: The Dwarven Test of Endurance
So dwarves are awesome, right? They’re the people of stone. Tradition-bound. Inflexible. SOLID. Gruff. Sticking to the old ways unless forced to change. This is what makes them cool.
So Elrond the Elf, who is supposedly this diplomatic master, drops in on his dwarven friend Durin after an absence of twenty years. Yet, his mega-diplomatic brain does not grasp that this sort of unexplained absence gives offense. Still Elrond has a sweet deal to offer the dwarves.
Durin, prince of the dwarves, has a duty to look after his people. He is honor-bound to do so. So if the wealthy and powerful elves walk by with a deal for him, he should listen. He can say No, but he has to hear. It's what's best for his people. Instead, he throws a petty tantrum and refuses to listen. (This could be excused if it was a personal visit, but not if your guest is an envoy from a mighty and allied kingdom.)
OK, let’s accept this. The tantrum happens. Durin says to Elrond, to stay in Dwarfland, has to win this endurance contest by breaking more rocks than the dwarf. Failure means permanent banishment from Dwarfland. This penalty is made explicit SEVERAL TIMES.
Note that the dwarves in Tolkien (and thus all Medieval Fantasy, because all Medieval Fantasy is a reaction to Tolkien) take this sort of thing serious. Again, a dwarf's word is like rock.
So the elf fails, of course. Elrond must be banished forever. And so the dwarves ... Forget about it! Sacred test? Absolute consequences? Their lord's word? Whatever. They are made of tissue paper. Elrond just hangs out, almost without comment. What was even the point of the stone-smashing scene anyway, if it is of complete unimportance?
No thought took place in any of this. Do you want to make Durin a complex character? Then, at some point, you have to understand his beliefs. But he shows no beliefs. All that are left are surface details. Beard. Grumpy. Scottish. Short. Got it.
I’m sure some will vehemently disagree with all this. Dwarves have gradually become comic relief, and I’m sure some enjoyed a bit of wacky sitcom action. I’m sure we can all agree, however, that all this was goofy wheel-spinning. Except this is really when you need to be getting some actual story going.
Example the Second: Galadriel Sword Troll Thing
In the first episode, Galadriel, everyone's favorite Elfboss, comes up against a giant troll in combat. The monster smashes many of her warriors, so she draws a giant sword, flies through the air, and cuts the thing to bits. (Side note: We need to bring back Kung Fu movies.)
This is a group of ancient, experienced warriors. It is jarring to watch several of them passively get smashed like idiots before one person bothers to act and then immediately does everything. It's odd, but the real problem is much subtler.
What is the purpose of this scene? It's to show that Galadriel is a mega-badass. The way they stack the deck here is to make everyone else around her an idiot, and even that isn't the real problem.
Consider this. In the books and Peter Jackson's movies, it was never questioned that Galadriel was a mega-badass. She was a figure of awe and mystery. Yet ... She never got in a fight. She never touched a sword at all!
Why was she a badass? Because of the portrayed quiet calm, dignity, and intelligence. She was welcoming and kind to outsiders. She was wise. She was offered the ring of ultimate power, and she rejected it, because taking it would be wrong.
This is why she was chosen as the core of a new series. She was powerful through her personal honor and rectitude, not because of high stabbing efficiency.
The problem with showing Galadriel as a badass by doing sword-chopping is not the sword-chopping. (Though it is the easiest, least interesting way to show a character is impressive.) The problem is that extreme violence is the ONLY way the screenwriters are capable of showing someone is a badass.
Also, she threw herself off a boat in the middle of an ocean. That was just dumb.
Example the Third: Broken Hobbit Ankle
In this show the Harfoots (pre-hobbits) are dirty, nomadic people. Their tribe realizes they have to move, and quickly. The main hobbit’s father breaks his ankle.
When this is announced, one woman openly mocks him. His daughter tells her to mind her own business, then nobody else reacts.
Again, these are nomadic people. The show makes clear that a harfoot who can't travel is left behind and is thus very likely dead. It's serious. It's a small tribe. This guy is their friend, their family, and his life is in peril. Someone in the tribe mocks his suffering and barely gets a reaction. Does anyone care?
Tolkien was no stranger to pain and suffering. In his work, sadness and injury are treated with great reverence. This harfoot stuff is just totally off for the setting.
It's not that you can't do this. If you want to go all Rock & Morty with it, go ahead. It's just that this is bizarre behavior, in any context. If you want someone to act in such a freakish way, it requires an explanation. Otherwise, it says, "Nobody takes any of this seriously at all. So why should you?" Not a good look for the beginning of your fantasy epic.
I'm Not Watching More
I was tempted to watch more of this stuff, but this is a problem that just doesn't go away. I watched three hours. The length of the Fellowship of the Ring movie.
Watch the Fellowship movie and see how immersive everything is, how well developed, how believable. It is because the writers understood who these characters are, they respected them, and they communicated it in an honest, straight-forward way. This is the way.
If You Can't Say Anything Nice, Don't Say Anything At All
This is a difficult thing to do. Joking aside, writing good fantasy is hard. You can't just throw in a bunch of fireballs and crowns and goblins and get a story that works.
So here are some examples of stories that did it right.
The Expanse, on Amazon Prime, is a very good show. The cultures the characters come from are fully developed, and the show respects this, even when it drives the characters to do bad or foolish things.
The musical Hamilton is not fantasy, though it is an epic tale. Much of its resonance comes from the fact that it depicts a strongly honor-based society. It is the tragedy of very smart, talented people throwing their lives away in foolish, wasteful (to us) duels.
We watched the anime Naruto with our kids. The first series (when the main characters are 12) I think does a great job of showing a very serious, honor-based society. Its systems of law, military hierarchy, and magic are thoughtfully developed and consistent. It's flawed, of course, but there's good stuff there.
The first three Game of Thrones books and first four seasons of the TV show are terrific. George Martin has a real feel for this stuff. And if you haven't read the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books, then, you know, do that.
The Dune novel and recent movie fully depict and respect the ideas of honor of the characters. It's spaceship fantasy, and it's terrific. The recent movie was as good an adaptation as we'll ever get, and I'm really looking forward to the sequel.
A Few Other Small Notes
The violence in this show is way too explicit. If anything should be for the whole family, it's Tolkien. This should not be Saving Private Ryan. Entrails being ripped out and arms being lovingly broken in close-up are not the right call here.
Note I got through this whole thing without mentioning the skin hue of any of the characters in the show. I might, however, observe that medieval villages were highly isolated places. If your little, insular hobbit clan that hides from all outsiders has half white people and half black people, three generations later everyone in that village would be brown. Just throwing that out there.
You can now yell at me for dissing your favorite show (or making fun of me for complimenting Naruto) in the comments. Thanks!
EDIT (9/24/22): Fixed some typos. Thanks! Also, I am banning anyone who insult’s someone else’s skin color, effective immediately. Race hatred has no place on my blog.
Our new game, Queen’s Wish 2: The Conqueror, an all-new, innovative, Empire-building indie RPG, is out for Windows & Mac. The writing in it is pretty decent.
Great review. I'll put this one on the shelf with Wheel of Time and GoT for "stuff that could have been cool but I probably won't ever watch (or wish I hadn't watched, in the case of GoT)."
You and Paul Kingsnorth are my two favorite substackers, both writing greatly informative stuff with surprisingly similar insights about vastly different topics and from vastly different backgrounds.
Thank you for saving me from the irritation I would get had I decided to watch this show!