A return to Middle-earth

Amazon’s Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power seems like it’s on the right track

A return to Middle-earth
Image: Andrew Liptak 

I picked up The Lord of the Rings at just the right time: midway through high school in the midst of trying to figure out what types of science fiction and fantasy stuff really spoke to me. J.R.R. Tolkien's epic worldbuilding was unlike anything I'd read at the time; a rich, immersive world that provided new revelations each and every time I picked up the books and dove into them.

I'm certainly not the first to make this observation: there are entire scholarly conferences (including one in Vermont!) dedicated to studying Tolkien's words and world. But it's a revelation when you're a teenager and trying to make sense of the larger world: Tolkien's words did that for me, first by showcasing an epic quest of good vs. evil, something that was particularly enticing after 2001, and later as its layers revealed themselves on each and every re-read.

That depth and the layers that come with it is an intrensic part of Tolkien's worldview and process, and few authors – Frank Herbert and Dune comes to mind – have ever been able to match that. Tolkien's world was informed in no small part by his experiences in France during the First World War. He was sickened during the battle of the Somme, and would later learn that two of his closest friends were killed.

On a bigger scale, Tolkien's witnessing of the destruction of the landscape and the industrialization of war helped to shape the character and inhabitants of Middle-earth. Together, those elements provided a firm footing for the emotional and moral core of the larger narrative: how to resist and overcome an insideous evil and the various forms it takes.

All heady topics for a young fan with time to spare reading into these ideas at a time when the world and country was dealing with no small amount of uncertainty. Tolkien's deliberations and words gave much to examine and reexamine, along with as much beautiful scenery, magic, and action that you can shake a stick at.  

Darkness comes for Middle-earth
A new look at the upcoming Amazon Prime series

In the last couple of weeks, I've spoken with a couple of younger fans, and over the course of our conversations, had to emphasize just how much of a game changer Peter Jackson's adaptation was back in 2001. The genre world's come so far in those two decades, and it's incredible to look back and realize just how big that first trilogy was, both as an exercise in adaptating a dense story, but also for how much it influenced how we watch movies.

Tolkien's trilogy was often thought of as an unfilmable story: all of those qualities that made up Middle-earth, that moral core, is difficult material to convey. Stories are a bit like a stack of Jenga blocks: if you pull out one element, you run the risk of undermining what makes said stories great. Given the audience reach that a film has over a novel, that's no small thing: a terrible adaptation can stain the reputation of a book for years or decades later (There's a great ancedote running around right now about how Neil Gaiman reacted in horror to some of the changes to a proposed Sandman adaptation from years ago), and for many people, said adaptation is the definitive story for them.

Jackson's take on Lord of the Rings was a good balancing act: conveying the story's biggest beats, but also understanding that an adaptation is just that – an adaptation. His trilogy also demonstrated the importance of telling a story in the time that it needs to take, rather than simmering it down to a mere one-to-two hour blockbuster. People complained about the Return of the King's 3.5 hour run-time, but then went out and bought the Extended Editions. (Conversely, expanding The Hobbit into three blockbusters... didn't work.)

In the past week, I had a realization about my dueling reactions to Jackson's Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies: the Hobbit was far too much an extension of the former, rather than its own thing. There were one specific moment that struck me as the camera swooped over the party yet one more time as they hiked through Middle-earth. It was a shot that felt emblematic of the differences in the stories: Lord of the Rings is enormous in scale: it's dealing with weighty issues about loyalty, corruption, morality, and the fate of the world.

The Hobbit is considerably smaller: a simple quest with a bunch of stops along the way. The parts that worked the best in the film were the smaller, quieter ones: Bilbo entertaining his unexpected visitors, or confronting Gollum in the cave. It's shakier when Jackson pulls the camera out for a wide view to try and capture some of that bigger storytelling that his first trilogy captured. The big moral questions that Tolkien was grappling with in his legendarium are there in his books, but they're running along in the background, waiting to be tackled decades later.

Over the last couple of years, I've been watching the development of this series: I vividly remember the rumors breaking about Amazon acquiring the rights for a series and then the subsequent announcement. It was a big, consequential moment, made all the more nerve wracking by the uncertainty of just what the series will be about. Tolkien wrote an entire history of his world, and with the right combination of rights, a studio could conceivably run an endless number of stories for streaming audiences.

But while there's plenty of material to draw inspiration from, there's a steep risk to doing so. Tolkien's written works have attracted legions of fans over the decades, something his children have guarded cautiously, and both have expressed their displeasure over the liberties that the adaptations have brought, where they deviate from Tolkien's lore, or where they leave things out. Every fan community out there operates on their own frequency, and Tolkien fans pay close attention to detail. A studio could likely turn an opportunity like this into a cash grab that would cheapen the original works, and that possibility has brought more than a little pause to fans with each bit of news that dripped out over the last couple of years.

(Some minor spoilers for the first two episodes ahead – nothing you haven't seen in the trailers, though.)

And now it's out. Set thousands of years prior to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the series is drawing from the sparse appendices at the end of those stories, following Galadriel as she's dealing with the aftermath of the war against Morgoth at the end of the First Age, rooting out the last remnants of his forces and agents in the early years of the second age. While Middle-earth is on a path to a new golden age, it seems that Morgoth's last agent, Sauron, is biding his time, waiting for the right moment to return to power.

Watching these first couple of episodes, I couldn't help but think back to what I wrote about back in July: a thread that runs through a lot of Tolkien's work is the idea of complacency, that if you mind your own business and move on to other things, the world will hum right along. As people focus on the problems in front of them – rebuilding a world destroyed by war, smaller provincial concerns and rivalries, we take our eyes off the bigger, graver threats that are more deserving of our attention. We know the end result of those actions here: Sauron eventually rises to power and is only stopped at the last moment, only to have the cycle restart itself.

Somewhere, I saw someone refer to Lord of the Rings as the Mad Max: Fury Road of Middle-earth, a desperate quest through a broken, post-apocalyptic world when it seems like just about all hope is lost. It's an apt framing of the story, given that the state of the world is much better at the start of this particular series. And, it's a framing that allows the show's creators to dig into some of the meatier ideas that Tolkien was working to convey in his works: these ideas of lingering evil and the need for people with strong and clear principles to stand up against them. It's a story that feels extremely relevant and needed in this day and age.

I think the show (at least, based on the first couple of episodes) is off to a good start in that regard. Appendix A in Lord of the Rings provides the barest of sketches of what happened in that part of the world's history (there are other efforts that are jumping off from other parts as well), but it's a canvas that can host a big, consequential story.

And those first couple of episodes really feel like they're painting a story that's equally as epic as Jackson's trilogy, without feeling too beholden to snap things into place to make sure that it fits with that canon perfectly. I'm sure there'll be no shortage of pieces written about the differences between the two.

As a side note, one of the things that I appreciate here is that while it feels congruent to Jackson's Middle-earth, it also feels distinctly different: the world feels a little more vibrant and wilder, and in line with what comes to mind when I see the phrase "Middle-earth".

All in all, I'm pleased with what I saw on screen. It's the start to a story that feels like it has all of the things that attracted me to Tolkien's works all those decades ago. I'm looking forward to seeing what's next.

That's all for today. I'll be back tomorrow with the September book list, and next week with a couple of other items. If you're a supporting member, come swing by the Slack channel (let me know if you need access), as we'll likely be chatting about this over the next couple of days.