Let’s get this out of the way: Rings of Power is not Tolkien, even if Amazon paid to have The Lord of the Rings in the title. These stories are essentially fan fiction. I have been waiting expectantly for this premiere for months while also being worried that it may distort the Tolkien legacy. This evening I watched the first episode as soon as it was released. After viewing it, I am guardedly optimistic. I knew going into it that I would not like all the choices (by writers and directors) I saw, but I did hope the process of getting approval from the Tolkien Estate would help limit those objections. So after watching it, I return to my opening sentence—this is not Tolkien, but fan fiction.
But that statement applies to a great deal of fantasy in whatever medium—novels, films, radio productions, and video games—ever since Tolkien published his stories in the 1950s. So many works—from the novels of Terry Brooks, Robert Jordan, Patricia McKillip, Tad Williams, and many others—have drawn from Tolkien to varying degrees. Dungeons and Dragons drew on Tolkien (along with Fritz Leiber and Robert Howard) too. In some senses, most of modern fantasy has been at worst a plagiarizing of his imagery and at best a love letter. So it is natural to place Amazon’s project here too.
But Tolkien is certainly not the only influence. This series (obviously) has been dramatized and filmed and has a visual vocabulary—one that obviously wants you to think of Peter Jackson’s films. The magnificent landscapes and intricate set and costume design betray the amount of money invested in the project. The series offers many beautiful images. Peter Jackson’s films were fan fiction too (he departed from Tolkien in notable ways—particularly with The Hobbit), but they had more source material, and they could importantly lift large sections of dialogue and follow a detailed plot line. Here John Payne and Patrick McCay have only mythic tales in The Silmarillion and outlines in the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings. Expectations will be huge—would you want this task?
I still reserve my judgment until I have seen more, but I do like the performances of Morfydd Clark as Galadriel, Robert Aramayo as Elrond, Markella Kavenagh as Nori Brandyfoot, and Ismael Cruz-Cordova as Arondir. I don’t like Galadriel jumping off the boat on the way to Valinor, but I can ignore that. I recently saw an article pitching a supposed “war for the soul of fantasy” between this series and The Game of Thrones prequel. If those are the choices (gliding over the much weaker Wheel of Time series on Amazon), then you will find me here. If future episodes don’t live up to the promise, I’ll turn my TV off and go find my copy of The Silmarillion and appreciate the master storyteller all over again.