Culture

Amazon’s ‘Rings Of Power’ Critics Are Being Labeled “Racist” And “Sexist,” But I Think We Can All Agree The Show Just Sucks

By Andrea Mew
·  12 min read
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I’m aware just how biased I am, having been obsessed with “The Lord of the Rings” from a very young age, but I won’t mince words: Amazon’s attempt at a Tolkien tale sucks.

Perhaps you’re looking for background noise or something to lull you into a deep sleep. In that case, I highly recommend Rings of Power. But if you’re looking for a compelling show or even just an honest adaptation of Tolkien’s world…this ain’t it, chief!

In spite of every genuine criticism leveled against Rings of Power, if you go against the grain and call out Amazon’s blatantly hollow, money-grabbing (and money-burning) production, you’re labeled a “racist” or a “sexist.” Well, I say enough of the ad hominem-ridden list of “ists” – we have to be able to candidly comment on pieces of media without immediately being called dirty names. 

What Made Previous Adaptations Captivating Appears To Be Missing

Peter Jackson’s original trilogy of Fellowship of the Ring, Two Towers, and Return of the King was shockingly faithful, despite how much was cut from the original literature or had to be reorganized. The aspects that Jackson simplified or edited were done respectfully since it’s honestly difficult to successfully adapt a book into a movie or show. After all, as much as I loved reading about Tom Bombadil, I can’t imagine how Jackson would have handled those scenes. 

But there’s a reason why, in 2000, Jackson referred to his project as “the Holy Grail of filmmaking, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” It simply was. 

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The casting choices were incredible; the practical effects married with tasteful CGI were dazzling, not distracting; the script was smartly structured; the visuals were gorgeous, whether it was costuming, makeup, set design, or location scouting; the dialogue was witty and mature and sparse; the action sequences were enthralling; and don’t get me started about the sound mixing and soundtrack. It’s difficult for me to so much as hear the music from this trilogy without tears welling up in my eyes. Jackson raised the bar much higher than he may have even expected, and now it’s nearly impossible for new adaptations to meet it.

Now, we’re forced to taper our expectations to meet the level of performance and production we’ll be served, but when the media outright falls short, it’s no wonder why we’re left underwhelmed and genuinely offended. 

Is a Slow Burn Supposed To Be That Painful?

Oh man, is there too much exposition in the opening episodes of Rings of Power. And unnecessary exposition at that – like servant elves telling Elrond he can’t go to the elf council because he’s not an elf lord (which seemingly has no bearing on the story). Before you shout that this volume of exposition is needed to translate Tolkien to the screen, how come Peter Jackson managed to world-build in the first four minutes of Fellowship of the Ring so successfully? How come his storytelling was entertaining and comprehensive without being on the nose? 

If you have to omit entertainment – which is an integral part of capturing an audience for a show – then you need to provide viewers with a good script. Our society is full of short attention spans, and I am in no way suggesting that we should instead provide viewers with quick, passable content, but the beginning of this show lacks any real draw. 

Look, there’s value in a good, slow burn that’s drawn out through gorgeous visuals, but if the accompanying storyline is shallow then why bother watching it? Tolkien’s writing was full of intelligently crafted wisdom that felt ancestral, despite being written within the past century. Rings of Power’s writing is rife with attempts at homing in on an antiquated, Tolkien-esque voice but these attempts feel more like empty platitudes. 

With bland scriptwriting comes characters that the audience can’t help but feel indifferent about. Galadriel’s re-worked character is already lost on me, so am I supposed to be impressed with a slow motion scene of her riding her horse for way longer than I needed to see? Alright, so then maybe we’re supposed to be enchanted by the side characters? Unfortunately, they’re forgettable too.

Well, there’s forgettable, and then there’s just outright poor artistic choices. Elves suddenly having the same buzzed haircuts that the frat boys at my local college have totally throws off any semblance of elven aesthetics. 

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Remember at the end of Return of the King when Frodo makes his decision to leave Middle Earth and sail to Valinor, a blessed reward not unlike heaven? Look, I’m no Tolkien scholar, but even I can tell that Amazon’s Valinor makes no sense. The journey to the Undying Lands which Gandalf describes as “the grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it […] white shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise,” is reduced to a surface-level interpretation.

Why is the depiction of Valinor so dramatic (and dare I say, even creepy?) with screeching birds and abruptly parting CGI clouds? Sure, Valinor was likely palatial and radiant, but it wasn’t so ritualistic to get there – it’s supposed to be a return to the elves’ homeland. And what’s with the weird trance that Galadriel’s fellow elves fall into when they hear the music coming out of Valinor? It’s as if the writers took Gandalf’s quote about dying super literally and chose to genuinely make the clouds roll back when he was really just being poetic with Pippin. Poor artistic decisions like these detract from the source material in order to give Amazon’s wide audience a passable, generic fantasy show.

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Jackson’s Trilogy Acknowledged Feminine Strength, Amazon’s Series Lazily Accepts the Girlboss

Nothing makes my eyes roll harder than poorly handled gender roles in film and television. There’s a tasteful way to discuss gender in media, and then there’s the segment of showrunners who insist on inauthentically giving women more masculine, powerful roles. Despite just how transparent their virtue signaling is, I understand how important it is for women to see quality female representation in media. Rings of Power fails to do so and could have learned a lesson or two from the source material or Jackson’s original trilogy.

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Tolkien once admitted that the Blessed Virgin Mary’s grace and feminine beauty were the model for the female characters he created. In Jackson’s adaptation, he portrayed realistic, strong heroines on screen who still embodied the elegance that Tolkien originally intended. Women aren’t helpless damsels in distress; we can certainly hold our own in many regards and Tolkien’s original female characters were perfectly fine representations of that. That said, our physical capabilities can’t top that of men or monsters double our strength and size.

Yet, in comes “Commander Galadriel,” a preachy female lead who could easily exist in any other cinematic universe. She lacks the nuance that Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel had and instead is vengeful, obsessive, and self-righteous.

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As is the case with many aspects of Rings of Power, Galadriel’s character feels more like a vehicle for lecturing on social justice. If this maverick version of the matriarch didn’t exist in Tolkien's source material, why else would she be written this way? We didn’t need a reimagining of Galadriel, and if it was only done so to make a social statement, then that’s a poor use of the opportunity to adapt Tolkien’s masterpieces. It’s only natural that there was a strong response from both women and men unhappy with how an iconic character was entirely reworked.

No Character Is Sacred, No Stone Left Unturned

Safe to say, feminist Galadriel isn’t the only example of Amazon’s Rings of Power being in direct opposition to Tolkien’s source material. While the writers dishonestly reassured audiences that they would return to the books for inspiration and guidance, they then turned around and shared that they “brought some events up and [moved] some back,” and insisted that they “worked very closely with the Tolkien estate to make sure we had their blessing to do that, as one of the big liberties that we took in adapting this.”

Suddenly, we’re given Harfoots as the Hobbits' ancestors, a baffling thought since Harfoots are originally just another type of hobbit. You know, that race which doesn’t appear until the Third Age (Rings of Power is Second Age), but the cash grab would be missed if there were no hobbit-like characters on screen. Sidetracking aside, the disregard to source material goes deeper. Plot points are unclear. Timelines are jumbled. Entirely new ancestral races are bafflingly introduced. Geography doesn’t match up to Tolkien’s masterfully built world. Amazon served up a fresh dish of new characters with a new plot that appears to have been based on these little “clues” that the writers always allude to. 

Okay, well if you’re not going to be accurate to the lore, at least write a compelling script, right? Unfortunately, Rings of Power doesn’t even come close to being a captivating, high fantasy tale. Characters across all races – doesn’t matter if they’re a dwarf, elf, or man – sound uncomfortably modern in their dialogue and line delivery. For goodness' sake, Tolkien created at least 12 languages, varying in levels of completeness. The way characters communicate in Rings of Power feels out of place, which brings me to another controversial criticism: the racial diversity.

Middle Earth Was Crafted in Britain’s Honor

It’s not untrue that there are genuine racists out there who rue the show’s existence because of the added racial diversity, but not all people who call out how heavy-handed the diversity agenda appears to be are actually racist.

Perhaps a lot of our expectations are impaired by the visual images we got used to with Jackson’s original (and subsequent) trilogy. But even looking back at the old Rankin-Bass animated adaptations of Tolkien’s literature, you can clearly see what the people of Middle Earth were meant to look like in Tolkien’s mythology. 

In his letter to publisher Milton Waldman, Tolkien wrote how many European cultures have their own unique legends (Celtic, Finnish, Germanic, Greek, Romance and Scandinavian), but in his eyes, there was a lack of English mythos. He acknowledged the Arthurian world, but gave the caveat that as “powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing. For one thing its ‘faerie’ is too lavish and fantastical, incoherent and repetitive.”

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In other words, Tolkien's intent behind the Middle Earth mythos was to depict a uniquely English world, which logically would have been racially homogenous. This is not to detract from other countries, as ethnic groups worldwide have robust mythologies that could easily be adapted if we really wanted to see more diversity in film and television. Instead of being dedicated “to England; to my country,” the writers of Rings of Power decided to put on their 2022 goggles while adapting Tolkien’s world. And let's not forget that Amazon fired Tom Shippey for this “scholar".

It doesn’t feel like an act of oversight, it reads like an intentional lack of faithfulness to the source material to appease the modern taste to need perfectly even representation. Reminder, this is the same Hollywood where the Academy has strict diversity rules in order to be considered for an award. In any case, if I were an actor implicitly cast due to the color of my skin or some other physical characteristic I have no control over to make a social statement, rather than being cast based on merit, I’d probably be offended that my presence on screen is quietly meant to fill a quota.

If Black Panther were hypothetically remade many years down the line and a white actor, a Hispanic actor, or even an East Asian actor were cast as the lead, wouldn’t there be complaints about just how little the casting choice makes sense? In all truth, they would be justified in their complaints about flagrant “appropriation,” because a story intentionally connected to racial, ethnic, or cultural identity should remain faithful to the unique narratives they depict. 

Had Rings of Power been based on a different fantasy series that wasn’t inherently depicting a carefully planned British legend, then perhaps the creative liberties taken would make sense. But it’s not, which leaves audiences understandably feeling like it’s a poor adaptation of Middle Earth lore and is rather just some new, stand-alone series that’s capitalizing on Tolkien's name.

Closing Thoughts

Instead of using the vast resources Amazon has in its arsenal to create a dazzling masterpiece that rivals Jackson’s original trilogy, it butchered the adaptation of the fantasy genre’s most celebrated collection of literature. Call out their shortcomings and you’re suddenly a racist, because you’ve been cornered as a captive audience in mass media’s culture war. If you can’t accept their edgy pushes toward “progression,” suddenly you’re the bad guy.

The voices of critics in this cultural dialogue matter. Since Rings of Power draws from one of the literary world’s most legendary universes and is the most expensive show ever made, the mistakes the showrunners make are not insignificant. Rings of Power’s billion-dollar, blasé production and – at times – blatantly distasteful handling of its source material will be a deeply consequential fumbling of the proverbial football if the show doesn’t sharply change its direction…and soon.

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