New from Sarah Welch-Larson on Substack: 23: Back to Middle-Earth

I wish I could quit The Rings of Power. I can’t quit The Rings of Power. The show infuriates me, and I can’t stop thinking about it. (This is a spoiler-free essay about the show, if you’re not caught up on the finale and spoilers are something that you find concerning.)

My first review of the show expressed my dissatisfaction with its desire to tell a lot of disparate stories set in Middle-Earth without being willing to go deeper than surface level. My cohost Kevin and I got into some of the details for a rare TV episode of Seeing and Believing podcast as well. I recognize that my inability to let go of The Rings of Power is, in part, an unwillingness to let go of a story that consumed me when I was a teenager. I’m not going to get into the side-by-side comparisons between Tolkien’s lore and the show’s versions of events—I’ve bored my husband enough by yelling about minutiae already—but I do think it’s worth getting into adaptations, and how they work, and why this show fails at the task it’s set out to do.

The trick with adaptations is that you’re not going to please everybody to begin with. The adaptor has to translate the original into a new medium, in a way that speaks to the strengths of the new medium without losing sight of the original author’s story. It’s not so much a question of original authorial intent; once a work of art is out in the world, it can be interpreted any number of ways, and it’s no longer fully the author’s own. The adaptor must present the adapted work to their audience in a way that both clarifies the original work, and that rings true to audience members who might have come away from the original with their own interpretations. (Someday I’ll write a deeper piece about “the book was better,” which can be true because the book actually was better, or it can be true only for the audience member who said it, because the adaptation didn’t line up with their own read of the original story for any number of reasons.)

The problem with The Rings of Power isn’t just that it doesn’t mesh well with Tolkien’s ethos (although this is also the case, and I’m resisting the urge to get into the details even though I said at the top I wouldn’t.) The problem with The Rings of Power is that it doesn’t do a very good job of translating Tolkien’s appendices from the written page to a streaming TV model.

The show is tasked with taking the sparse history Tolkien laid out in the appendices of Lord of the Rings and turning it into a more personal, grounded prequel of sorts to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. The Rings of Power must illustrate the canonical historical events that Tolkien created, provide the connective tissue between the plot points where none existed previously, flesh out the characters who previously only existed as a sentence or two of names and character traits, introduce brand new characters that make sense alongside the old ones, maintain a sense of geography for a very large world, avoid drawing too much on the Tolkien works that the creators don’t have the rights to, and still manage to flesh out the details that Tolkien chose to leave out. That’s a tall order for any adaptation in any format.

I can see why the show’s creators (J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay) and financiers (Amazon) chose to adapt the appendices into a TV show instead of a movie. The cost (still astronomical—a reported billion dollars for the first season!) could be spread out over a wider series of episodes without having to manage the risk of making the first movie in a planned series and having it flop. TV gives us the chance to spend more time in Middle-Earth, and allows the audience to get to know and understand the characters—and their relationships to each other—on a deep level. TV makes sense as an adaptive visual medium.

It’s a shame, then, that Payne and McKay and the executives behind the show have made a TV series that doesn’t manage to satisfy the needs of the story’s adapted medium, either. It’s possible to tell a complex story with an ensemble cast and multiple story lines woven into one, but The Rings of Power doesn’t do it. There are half a dozen threads in this season, and each one of them gets dropped by the wayside for multiple episodes for no good reason other than time. When those threads are dropped, I never felt the tug toward those characters. There’s no sense of tension about what’s happening off-stage and out of sight; it’s as though the dropped story lines have been left inert because the storytellers got bored with them.

The end result is the feeling that these dropped lines are filler, intended to pad out the runtime of a given episode and justify the price tag on the show’s production. This feeling of filler is compounded by the fact that the story lines that end up by the wayside are inevitably the ones that concern characters that do not appear in Tolkien’s appendices and were created specifically for the show, like the Men in the Southlands or the Harfoots on their migration. The filler pieces each make sense in the immediate present, especially according to the dictates of the plot, but when considered as a whole, they’re borderline incoherent. The Harfoots talk frequently about how no one in their society “walks alone,” and yet, when it’s important to drive up the tension in their story, it’s also established that they’ll leave the weak and injured behind. The tension between those two ideas would be compelling if the show acknowledged it at all, but there’s no exploration of either idea, so the Harfoot storyline comes across as jagged and inconsistent, an afterthought in the minds of the showrunners.

Conversely, the story lines that do remain at the front of the show’s attention—Galadriel’s, specifically—end up repeating themselves, as though the writers forgot about any points they made in a previous episode. Episodes flow into each other without solid borders or demarcations between them, rendering the entire season of the show shapeless.

This last point is probably not just the fault of the showrunners, although it’s been made noticeable by the show’s release model. TV shows developed specifically for streamers under a “release the entire season at once” model tend to feel like their episodes run together. Showrunners who talk about how they made a “season-long movie” are another symptom of this development—I’m not the first person to point out that they sound embarrassed that they’ve made TV, and that they’d rather have just made a movie instead, even though functionally the lines between TV and film grow blurrier by the year. Streaming TV made under the “it’s really a season long movie” model doesn’t always do a good job of telling a cohesive story in each episode. The episodes are just delivery vehicles for plot points that will get us to keep watching until the season is done. The Rings of Power has episodes shaped very much like this model, even though they were released on a weekly basis instead of all at once.

Compounded with the show’s inattention to consistent detail, its inability to tell coherent discrete stories within each episode, its stated desire to flesh out the unexplored parts of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, and the meta knowledge that Amazon’s entire streaming TV department is riding on the success of the show, The Rings of Power feels as though it’s caught between very different priorities, none of which it’s able to fulfill. It continually undermines itself and the foundations it’s been laid on. Because I still can’t let go of it, despite my frustrations, I’ll be curious to see if it can dig itself out in future seasons, or if the wreckage is only going to keep piling up.

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What I talked about:

For Seeing & Believing podcast this week, Kevin and I reviewed Chinonye Chukwu’s Till, which traces Mamie Till-Mobley’s grief after the 1955 lynching of her son Emmett, and outlines the beginning of her work in the Civil Rights Movement. Chukwu’s direction and the cinematography in particular stand out; the film is very much worth seeing.

For our Watchlist segment, Kevin introduced me to Charles Burnett’s excellent feature debut Killer of Sheep. We got into some of the imagery that stuck with us on the podcast.

What I watched:

Spooky season continues apace, which means when I’m not watching new releases, I’m catching up on horror I haven’t seen before. No vampires this week, but since the last issue I have watched Night of the Living Dead (the O.G. 1968 Romero one, which I’ve technically seen before but it was at a Halloween party in high school so it doesn’t count), Häxan (wild!), and John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (not a fan of the script, but the vibes were straight up immaculate).

What I’m listening to:

Werewolf” by Fiona Apple.

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