At the London premiere of The Rings of Power in early September, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos shared a request that his now-22-year-old son Preston had made of him when the studio first set out to produce its billion-dollar fantasy television series.

“My kid is a huge Tolkien fan,” Bezos announced, “and after Amazon got involved he came up to me, looked me in the eye and said, ‘Dad, please don’t f*** this up.'”

Millions of other J.R.R. Tolkien fans around the world no doubt uttered a similar prayer — to themselves, online, and elsewhere — though perhaps not in the same words. With the first season wrapping up on Friday, however, it has become clear a lot of them are swearing now.

The Rings of Power has its defenders — the entertainment industry among them — but it has failed to make the overwhelmingly positive splash its budget, hype and beloved source material should have ensured. Rather than unify their audience, the showrunners prioritised politics and paid the price, putting the show’s visuals — including its appearance of progressiveness — ahead of solid writing, acting and pacing, as well as faithfulness to Tolkien’s works and lore.

Considering how dazzling The Rings of Power looks for the most part, you have to feel bad for the artists behind all the sets, costumes, props and CGI, who underwent years of training, experience and honing their talent only to be let down by writers for whom there was no equivalent vetting process. It must be brutally frustrating to work so hard perfecting a parade float only to have it pulled into the public square by a couple of donkeys.

As showrunner Patrick McKay admitted in a recent article in Hollywood Reporter, “we had no idea what we were getting into. No one else did, either.” If only there had been some indicator — somewhere — of Tolkien’s popularity to prepare them for the expectations.

It is fitting that the most expensive and ambitious project in television history should be dedicated to Tolkien’s legendarium. In addition to the vast scope and detail of that body of work, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit represent two of the best-selling titles in history, with LOTR having repeatedly been named book of the century by polls of readers. Whereas academics and other public intellectuals continue to reject Tolkien as a writer of serious literature, the admiration of fans has upheld his relevance above that of institutionally enshrined authors. He is a phenomenon, and the rarest of literary anomalies — a writer whose record-breaking sales continue to this day, and whose quality matches those sales.

With the dedication and longevity of Tolkien’s fandom, it makes no sense how systematically Amazon Studios has squandered the goodwill of so many of the people it ought to have won over — people whose passion for Middle-earth has been nourished by the very quality, depth and immersive detail that make Tolkien’s legendarium so valuable. In choosing to ignore or demonise its critics rather than address — or better yet, anticipate — their criticism, the studio has forfeited the opportunity to create a television classic and will instead, it seems, spend the show’s run slinging the mud of the culture war’s deepest trenches.

No production will ever please everyone, but it did not need to be this bad. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit film trilogies had their own controversies as adaptations, but the criticism didn’t extend to every facet of their being.

Spinning straw out of gold

Demonstrating a touch that can only be described as reverse-Midas, The Rings of Power has turned from gold to dross just about everything of Tolkien’s material its narrative has taken up. One hardly knows where to begin. The meticulous chronology has been collapsed like a cheap tent; Elves, Númenóreans, and Hobbits reflect bastardised social tropes; and the hard line between Good and Evil has been smeared out for speculation.

Meanwhile, important individuals have been bled of all majesty and mystique. The show’s version of Galadriel is an atrocity, though even Pharazôn of Númenor is a two-dimensional throwaway. All this is to say nothing of the show’s stabs at original storytelling, which can’t be bothered with credible details, much less likeable characters. It says a lot that the Orcs and their progenitor Adar are turning out to be more sympathetic than anyone else.

There are a lot of reasons why The Rings of Power is turning out to be the show it is, most of which can be traced to creative decisions. These include the fact — now being presented as an excuse — that Tolkien himself wrote relatively little about the Second Age in which it is set, as well as the legal boundaries governing Amazon’s adaptation. Neither consideration ought to excuse the show’s poor qualities, though it is true that the studio’s rights to Tolkien’s works are spotty. Speaking to Vanity Fair earlier this year, showrunner J.D. Payne explained,

“We have the rights solely to The Fellowship of the RingThe Two TowersThe Return of the King, the appendices, and The Hobbit. And that is it. We do not have the rights to The SilmarillionUnfinished TalesThe History of Middle-earth, or any of those other books.”

The proprietary dismemberment of Tolkien’s body of lore was the first big mistake. A world as historically continuous, interconnected and internally consistent cannot simply be chopped up, and it is not the audience’s job to adjust its expectations based on legal negotiations over intellectual property. One of the things that makes the legendarium so engrossing is the abyssal depth of its timeline, from which events echo themes and patterns of meaning. If The Silmarillion was a tantalising backstory to some of the lore in The Lord of the Rings, it was essential to understanding the Second Age.

Nonetheless, and even if one ignores all the creative possibilities of adapting the core books for television — something the Tolkien Estate appears to have dismissed after a pitch from HBO — there remains the question of why Amazon went with the Second Age, and why it chose a dramatic format for the series rather than that of a historical chronicle (as it was originally written). In terms of Tolkien’s works, these choices required the showrunners to invent the most amount of material using the narrowest template in the legendarium. Their projected five seasons of The Rings of Power will require them to come up with four or five times the amount of dramatic storytelling included in The Lord of the Rings film trilogy with, at best, a hundredth the amount of Tolkien’s own writing to lean on, and none of it dialogue. Even the 25-page Downfall of Númenor — as part of The Silmarillion — is technically off the table.

It may seem reasonable for a builder to seek the least developed land for his own projects, but when it comes to established intellectual properties, every tract carries building codes in line with the founder’s example and vision. Because the cultivated wonderworks of Tolkien’s First and Third Ages overshadow the gap left by the Second, the writers effectively penned themselves in. Amazon Studios set out to tell a story Tolkien never told, but to call it Tolkienian, and with the blessing of his Estate. As the results prove, and as their talents dictated, the decision yielded less a playground than a prison. The Rings of Power needed Tolkien himself, and no amount of money will get a dead man writing again.

Again, it did not need to be this way. While intellectual properties are bound to grow (and to warp) with accretion of new material, the wellspring of Tolkien’s own work is far from tapped. The best decision a studio could have made would have been to have chosen a narrative framework for the series that would have minimised rather than maximised their own inventions. Focusing on the legends, backstories, and other histories woven throughout The Lord of the Rings, they might have approached the show as an anthology of distinct episodes framed as retrospective tales, perhaps told by Aragorn and Arwen to their son, Eldarion. Jim Henson’s Storyteller worked this way.

Using the voiceover of a narrator would have allowed the stories to proceed by exposition, as in the books, and reduced the need to fabricate dialogue. Even The Silmarillion could potentially be explored in this way, however unfilmable some have deemed it. With The Lord of the Rings and its appendices alone, however, the possibilities are dizzying, offering material for single episodes (Beren and Lúthien, The Coming of the Istari, The Disaster at Gladden Fields, the Fell Winter, the Kin-strife, etc.) as well as multi-episode arcs (The Last Alliance of Elves and Men, Khazad-Dûm, the Dúnedan kingdoms, etc.). Whereas The Rings of Power has had to fabricate hours of material to link canonical events, an anthology series might simply have adapted the events themselves.  

Baiting the scapegoat and attacking fans

Despite wall-to-wall complaints about the show, Amazon’s showrunners continue to single out issues of race when addressing fan backlash. Calling opposition to the casting of non-white actors for certain roles “patently evil,” they’ve also said such attitudes run contrary to Tolkien’s spirit, which “is about disparate peoples who don’t trust one another and look different from one another finding common ground in friendship and accomplishing big things.”

Because the accusation brooks no civil dialogue, fans have responded by accusing the studio of using racial casting as a veritable human shield, reducing every and all criticism about the show to bigotry, and deterring discussions about fidelity to source material that used to be a normal part of any adaptation. It does little for good faith that the studio’s tactic partakes of cancel culture’s civil blackmail, where anyone concerned with his or her polite reputation must signal unconditional approval of its message or be banished to the outlands of societal respectability. Some self-professed Tolkien scholars have defended the series savagely, tearing the throat from every straw bogeyman propped before them and dismissing the values inherent in Tolkien’s work as matters for reinterpretation. Saruman would be proud.

Blaming racist, fascist, and otherwise “toxic” fans for The Rings of Power’s failures is a lure baited with red herring, and for a couple of reasons. First, it avoids an honest discussion of the television industry, whose business and practices must bring real people into formerly imaginative spaces. In the strictly imaginative context of a private reading, for example, it is indeed ridiculous to suggest that a fictional person deprives the opportunity to exist from someone else. Whether it is a character’s skin-colour, the model of his car, or his favourite flavour of ice cream, the values and structures posited by fiction take nothing away from anyone or anything in the real world. With live-action adaptations, however, the professional opportunities are limited, and are reflected de facto if not formally in the policies, ethics, and obligations surrounding hiring. For reasons that should be obvious to anyone, Amazon chose not to put out casting calls for Caucasian actors only. Fair enough.

Because distinctive peoples, bloodlines and migrations are a meticulously detailed component of Tolkien’s world, however — as they are in other fantasy series including The Witcher and A Song of Ice and Fire — colour-blind casting casting has created a distracting anachronism in The Rings of Power, comparable to a knight wielding a carbine.

There are two ways the showrunners might have assuaged this distraction, but neither one happened. The first is through the sheer, spellbinding might of great performances, on the part of the writers as well as the actors. Such performances win over sceptical audiences, and they are what good television is supposed to be about. Both Netflix’s The Witcher and HBO’s House of the Dragon showcase characters “race-swapped” from the books, but complaints have been minimal due to the quality of the performances. It is an injustice that both shows are far better than the series named after Tolkien, to whom they owe their very existence.

There is something else The Rings of Power could have done to welcome a diverse cast and been adequately faithful to the source material. The compromise has eluded the showrunners, again because it requires great writing, but also because issues of race have become like a basilisk stare — unavoidable but paralysing. Once transfixed by the deadlights of political correctness, creativity flounders.

While it is true that Tolkien’s work focuses specifically on the history and peoples of an imagined northwestern Europe, his stories do offer narrative opportunities involving peoples from the south and east. In The Lord of the Rings, for example, Sam Gamgee witnesses a battle between Faramir’s Rangers and a band of the southern, dark-skinned Haradrim, including one of their Oliphaunts. Seeing one of the southlanders’ bodies, he reflects:

His scarlet robes were tattered, his corslet of overlapping brazen plates was rent and hewn, his black plaits of hair braided with gold were drenched with blood. His brown hand still clutched the hilt of a broken sword.

It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.

What’s this man’s story? Why couldn’t it have been told? By choosing to inexplicably place non-white individuals among otherwise white populations, The Rings of Power misses the opportunity to introduce those characters authentically, and in a way that avoids mere tokenism. Non-canonical expansions of Tolkien’s work have already done this; the 2017 video game Middle-earth: Shadow of War features Baranor, a non-white Gondorian soldier who was born in Umbar and was adopted by a family in Minas Ithil after his parents were killed.

A course correction is still possible for The Rings of Power, but it is difficult to see a studio fixing a show the industry has made it a hate crime to dislike. It is nonetheless a shame that it began production before Top Gun: Maverick came outa movie that proved not only how successful shows made for established fans can be, but also how readily mainstream critics will adjust their perspectives in the face of that success.

Entertainment is supposed to be about giving people what they want, and what they want more than anything is to step outside a political climate so divisive that it will use anything — even a beloved fantasy — as a wedge. Tolkien himself defended such healing escapism in his essay “On Fairy-Stories”, asking

Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.

Such an assessment holds the world a fallen place, however worth fighting for. Sadly, Tolkien’s own work has now become part of that struggle.

Harley J. Sims is a writer and independent scholar currently living on a mountainside near Vancouver, British Columbia. In 2018 he published his first book, the Unsung, a literary epic fantasy. He holds...