‘Nothing is evil in the beginning,’ says the voice of Galadriel in Amazon Prime’s new Rings of Power series, and presumably Amazon didn’t set out to create an abomination, but here we are.
The new Lord of the Rings spin-off is filled to bursting with characters and set pieces and storylines and little touches like acorns in people’s hair and too much hairspray in other people’s hair, and yet so little of actual emotional weight or creative significance. As Amazon’s response to HBO’s Game of Thrones it measures up only in ambition. But it is nowhere near exciting or brutal enough to rival that series, and I say this as a Lord of the Rings superfan myself.
Middle-earth was my haven in the throes of pre-pubescent despair. I didn’t just read The Hobbit and LOTR; I read The Silmarillion twice (essentially Middle-earth’s Bible with a creation story and Old Testament-style battles), I tracked down the random stories Tolkien wrote like Farmer Giles of Ham—I even taught myself elvish (tried) and wrote my university dissertation on Tolkien’s world. I say this not to show off but rather to make a point—that despite having a degree in Tolkien, even I don’t know what the hell is going on in The Rings of Power.
The creators have taken bits of Tolkien’s Silmarillion and the appendices and added narratives of their own and I don’t contest any of that as long as the result is good. But it isn’t. It is exactly what I imagine fantasy-haters hate about fantasy—the pseudo-ancient language, the laboured and confusing metaphors like this gem: ‘How long can living flesh endure where even sunlight fears to tread?’ Nevermind that it was sunny where they were treading, and nevermind that sunlight doesn’t tread. It feels as though sub-par fantasy writers think they can distract the nerds if they just throw in wordy stuff that sounds wise but is actually nonsense. Rings of Power’s writers clearly spent so much time attempting to mimic Tolkien’s writing style that they forgot to write a plot. The first three episodes jump between at least seven different main characters and spend roughly four minutes on each one. I have spent three hours of my life watching this thing and I can’t tell you anyone’s name except Galadriel’s.
The tone is just as inconsistent. One minute we have a slow-motion gallop through the surf, blonde elvish hair waving, ocean glistening, Enya-esque music telling us this is an important moment—and the next we have a darkened cave-fight that ends with somebody’s blood spattering the camera lens. What is this, a docu-drama on snow trolls?
Possibly the worst part of the series are the Harfoots—the ancestors of Hobbits, which were so popular in The Lord of the Rings films that Amazon clearly thought they needed protagonists just as cute and quirky as Bilbo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee. Instead, we get Lenny Henry dressed in acorns.
Predictably there was a backlash against the casting of Black and Asian actors as the Harfoots. This is silly of course. There are elves and dwarves walking around for God’s sake, what’s wrong with Sara Zwangobani playing a Harfoot with an Irish accent? Is realism what we’re aiming for here?
Lenny Henry does a fine job with what he’s given, which is not much. But there’s no getting round the fact that all the Harfoots look ridiculous. There’s one bit where they cover their heads and caravans in pampas grass presumably for camouflage, but then proceed to walk in the open where there is no pampas grass so they actually stick out instead. They keep talking about the great migration and pull their grass-strewn caravans to some unknown destination.
Travelling is their way of life, as authentic as their Irish accents. ‘We move to survive,’ says one wise Harfoot to another, or something like that. But what are they moving away from? This is not clear. Their hidey-holes inside big trees looked like a safer bet than those rickety caravans. Plus they wouldn’t have to drag all their belongings behind them, and that old man with the broken leg who we’re supposed to care about could just rest at home instead of worrying if he’d be abandoned by his people.
Beyond the Harfoots the other main characters are elves. These are carefully modelled on Peter Jackson’s design but without the long wigs. In fact only one or two of Amazon’s male elves has long hair and the rest had hairsprayed coifs that were somehow more distracting than the Jackson wigs.
There are some fine actors among the elves too—Charles Edwards, Morfydd Clark as Galadriel, whose role as the psychotic nun-wannabe Saint Maud proved her range in horror as well as comedy—she was also hilarious and pathetic as the daughter of Kate Beckinsale in Love and Friendship, the 2016 adaptation of Austen’s Lady Susan. Clark’s face works so well for comedy and horror because it is sad and intense, but transplant her face onto an ancient, noble elf and the result is weighty, ponderous and earnest. Only a rare few actors can pull off lines like, ‘We had no word for death, for we thought our joys would be unending’ – and Clark is not one of them.
Rings of Power is a victim of its own success. With a budget that equates to $89.4 million per episode it is the most expensive television series ever made. The creators spent $715 million making the first season—where do you go from there? Hollywood still does not understand that all the money in the world cannot take the place of good writing, or of characters we actually care about. This was always going to be tricky to adapt for the screen given the source material.
With the Jackson films, the writers took much of the dialogue straight from the books. That’s much harder to do with a text like The Silmarillion, which has so little dialogue. Amazon writers Patrick McKay and John D Payne clearly had to make their own up, which is not a good idea. You can’t write new scenes and dialogue for elves and expect it to measure up to the master.
The reason Tolkien is so obviously in a class of his own is that his language is truthful—although he invents languages (elvish, dwarvish, etc) they are all based on real languages, primarily Anglo-Saxon, Old Nordic, Welsh and Finnish—the languages he himself loved and knew well. Not everyone can be a language scholar-turned-fantasy writer but that is why Tolkien is special. And that is why Amazon paid $250 million to the Tolkien estate for the right to ride his success.
And the result? Lines like these ones: ‘Go to the back of the caravan line,’ one Harfoot tells another. ‘Do you mean the back of the back, or like the middle of the back?’ To the very back, you Hobbit hack-frauds, where you belong.
Feature image: Harfoots, Amazon Studios