New from Sarah Welch-Larson on Substack: 17: Swords and Megachurches

The Rings of Power has been heralded as the Next Big Fantasy Epic, something to fill the hole left behind when Game of Thrones ended—or at least, to compete with HBO’s Game of Thrones spinoff House of the Dragon. The show certainly looks expensive: the costuming is rich with elaborate embroidery, and the set design and physical props include complex wood carvings and metalwork. The show’s CGI is also elaborate, almost like a digital homage to Alan Shore’s concept paintings, which provided the blueprint for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Overall, the production design for The Rings of Power features the kind of craftsmanship that helped to immerse audiences in those blockbuster movies, produced on a similar scale.

But for all its size and detail, the show skims over the foundations of the world it’s trying to immerse its audience in far too quickly. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is layered with meaning upon meaning because he built his world from the bones up, starting with a creation myth and then following the world’s history—and the evolution of its languages—from inception to the end of time. The first two episodes of The Rings of Power give a precis of the start of that history, but it’s a bare-bones telling, skipping the cosmology almost entirely. This won’t bother most casual Lord of the Rings fans, but the ones who have an affinity for Tolkien’s poetry, languages, and lore will likely find the allusions slight.

This desire to tell a grand story with a light touch is understandable: it’s impossible to translate a book word-for-word to the screen without getting bogged down in lore, and I’m glad that the show doesn’t try. I’m also happy to see that The Rings of Power appears to be consolidating its storylines primarily around female characters, and that the show is careful to include people of color in its cast, something that neither the original books nor the filmed trilogy manage to prioritize. Where I think the show still fails in this regard is that the cast remains majority white, especially with the background extras. The female characters also all bear a similar stamp: they’re dissatisfied with their lots in life, they’re all physically tough, and they’re all curious about the world outside their respective lives. In short, they’re all Eowyn, just in different bodies; the sameness makes each character feel less distinct, and therefore less special. In future installments, I would hope to see these characters filled out and granted additional depth and space. As it stands, I’m concerned that they are each simply a version of “strong fantasy female character,” and by extension the show might only be a generic version of The Next Big Fantasy Epic.

The first two episodes of The Rings of Power are now streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul scrutinizes megachurches and the people who lead them. The film is a collage of comedy and drama, mockumentary and straight filmmaking, a mix of disparate ideas that manage to cohere under writer/director Adamma Ebo’s assured hand.

Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) and his wife Trinitie (Regina Hall) are weathering a scandal that closed down their megachurch, Wander the Greater Path Baptist Church. They’d like to pretend that everything is fine. The couple shows off their church and its trappings—the gold thrones, the indoor fountain, the closet full of Prada—as they prepare to reopen on Easter Sunday. The opulence underlines the teachings of their church as a form of prosperity gospel: do everything right, and you’ll be blessed with riches. On the surface, Pastor and First Lady Childs have done everything right, but the veneer is beginning to crack. They’ve already lost everything, they just don’t want to acknowledge it yet.

The writing and set design help serve to underline that veneer, and the theology driving the couple, without putting too fine a point on it. Wander the Greater Path Baptist Church is a blend of disparate architectural styles, a mirror of the church’s disparate teachings. The foyer features a gigantic fountain, the kind found in mall food courts in the ‘90s; the sanctuary stage includes a pulpit and stained glass windows that must have been salvaged from an older church, while the upholstered, comfortable pews are all contemporary. Potted ferns and amplifiers dot the sanctuary’s massive stage, a detail that made me nod in recognition of some of the churches I spent my youth in. Lee-Curtis’s sermons sound like a blend of Baptist and more charismatic ideas, all of which Brown combines into a spectacle worthy of any showman. Trinitie peppers her own speech with Bible verses, backing up her own personal decisions and biases with Scripture taken out of context. The result is a perceptive and studied portrait of a specific flavor of Christianese.

The only detail that feels like a miss here is that Lee-Curtis and Trinitie are almost completely alone in their desperate scramble to reopen; there’s no cloud of administrative assistants and staff  tending to the closed church, no one to prop it up until the congregation comes back. The movie uses this development to show just how delusional the couple is about their prospects, and about the good will they’ve already burned through in the scandal that first closed the church’s doors. The couple’s commitment to their church has shut everyone else out of their lives, with no room left even for Jesus, let alone the congregants they so desperately want to court. It’s easy to laugh at these characters, at least until they fully commit to the consequences of their actions. Then it just isn’t funny at all.

Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. is in theaters and streaming on Peacock this weekend.

What I wrote:

The essay I wrote for Think Christian about Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated film The Lord of the Rings has been collected into an ebook, along with other TC essays about Lord of the Rings adaptations throughout the years. You can find the ebook here.

For subscribers, I wrote about the Netflix adaptation of Persuasion. (Remember when that came out last month/a lifetime ago? I sure do, and I’m still mad about it.)

What I talked about:

Kevin’s on vacation this week, so I was joined by the great Abby Olcese on Seeing & Believing. We reviewed Three Thousand Years of Longing, and then Abby introduced me to another Peter Weir movie, The Last Wave (which I liked very much, and which you can currently stream with a Criterion subscription.)

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