High Hopes for ‘The Rings of Power’
My barber Billy and I want Amazon to do this Lord of the Rings series right
“Hobbit hair,” said my barber, Billy.He snipped a little, and I thought a minute about the new teaser for Amazon’s upcoming The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, due this September. It’s pretty short, and gives just about nothing away but the series’ name.
The camera zooms in through clouds or maybe smoke. There’s a clap of thunder. The screen goes black for half a second, and we close in on what could be lava moving slow-motion through a canyon, flames rising above its molten flow. And then a female voice start to intone words any Tolkien-head will know, and the flow shows itself to be not just some unfortunate geographic event, but in its every curve and bubble the effecting of a malefic will, bent on obtaining power for its own sake:
Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die
One for the Dark Lord on his Dark Throne
In the land of Mordor where the Shadows lie
Water cascades over molten metal. Steam billows up, and the camera spins around to reveal the One Ring, which many of you will recall Frodo had to work pretty hard to get rid of, some thousands of years later. The camera pans out through smoke or steam or whatever, spinning maybe a little too much, to reveal the name of the series. Given that Amazon had kept it secret up until now, you can understand the drama. But to my mind, it looks a little chintzy: for a background, you’ve got what could be a cuttingboard from a Roblox steakhouse, the lettering bold and golden and a little weathered and, yawn, it’s just bad.
My barber, Billy, is a friend of mine. He leads a local band, down here in Victoria, Texas, The Hot Attacks. I mentioned this teaser to him, after his Hobbit hair remark, and he laughed, said there didn’t seem much to it. He’s a big fan of Tolkien, like me. After a minute, he said he’d thought there was a movie adaptation happening of The Children of Hurin, one of Tolkien’s stories that his son Christopher had pulled into shape and gotten published as a stand-alone novel. It was going to star that guy from the Taken movie, that Irish actor, Billy said, but somewhere along the line the movie got stalled.
I hadn’t heard of that, so when I got home I looked it up. In the end, it was just some guy on IMDb goofing around with wish-list castings for movies that no one will ever make. There are even a couple of quite convincing trailers out there, at least one featuring Liam Neeson as Hurin, that some folks put way too much work into.
That’s the thing, though, about us Tolkien devotees. We’re a persnickety and granular bunch, and those among us who think on-screen adaptations are in order think that people should adapt them right. But really, if Amazon paid the Tolkien Estate $250 million for the rights to the appendices of The Lord of the Rings, what does that matter if they screw it up? The show is going to have splendid production values and some Game of Thrones-style drama, and everybody else will watch it and not know the difference.
What does your average Amazon Prime viewer care that there’s no such character as Trevyn (Simon Merrells will play him) in the Tolkien canon? Who’ll get the moral significance of the rulers of the island kingdom of Númenor changing their names from the High-elven to the Adûnaic tongue? And that’s if showrunners J. D. Payne and Patrick McKay even get down to that level of detail.
To my mind, and I’d guess that of my friend Billy, they really should. It’s a subtle point, but it shows Númenor’s drift away from its allegiance to the Valar, the gods (for want of a better word) of Middle-Earth. It’s not just a story about fighting orcs and the big bad Dark Lord with his One Ring. It’s about how the lust for power, over even death, leads to moral corruption, not just of individuals but of whole peoples. And that may be a matter far too nuanced for any TV show to grasp, let alone convey.
But we’ll see, won’t we? September is some time off, and between now and then we can expect more trailers from Amazon Prime, maybe even some with human or Elven or Dwarvish figures in them. Probably they’ll be battling trolls and such, or walking through meadows in a gauzy haze, or traversing dark corridors far underground. There will be trees and castles and cliffs and ships on stormy seas, illumed by flashes of lightning. There will be some arguing about some rings. We can expect quite the spectacle. But seeing as Jeff Bezos himself took part in making the deal that gave Amazon Middle-Earth to play with, it’s Amazon’s Middle-Earth now, not Tolkien’s.