The recent publication of Amazon’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, has received both praise and criticism. The most severe criticism has come from what I call Tolkien purists, who hate most the show’s departures from his books. While one should always make allowances for film, it is a reminder that the book is always better than the movie.
Like many people, I huddled down to watch the first two episodes of “The Rings of Power” this weekend. Overall, I liked what I saw, mainly because I believe the material Tolkien wrote outside of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings deserves a fuller telling. Most people are unaware of the vast world that Tolkien created, not just as background for his first two published works, but as a lengthy mythology detailed first in the Silmarillion and more recently in The Children of Hurin, Beren and Luthien, and The Fall of Gondolin. I found the vision of Middle Earth the show presented quite beautiful, with broad vistas, varying landscapes, and hidden ruins that give a sense of long history and fueled a desire to want to know more. Film excels at visualizing the descriptions of books, and “The Rings of Power” is no exception. I particularly found the depiction of Valinor quite moving. While the show may not match precisely the imaginations of some readers – each reader brings his own interpretation to written descriptions – it supplements and often replaces such visions with the film creator’s own. For those who are unfamiliar with the books or who lack such vision, film is an invaluable aid.
I largely dismiss the largest criticism of the show, which is the inclusion of people of color in the cast. I would prefer to generously assign the motivation for such criticism as a desire to be true to the world of Tolkien than racism per se, a term that is overused. England was, after all, mostly Anglo-Saxon at the time Tolkien wrote. Nevertheless, the books themselves rarely describe the color of people, which was unimportant to the plot, and since the races he describes are imaginary, there is broad room for interpretation. We must also remind ourselves that actors portray someone else, and as long as there is a suspension of disbelief, they need not always be precisely like their character. In the past, Shakespeare used young boys to play girls, and James Barrie used a young girl to play Peter Pan. It might perhaps be understandable to object to actors too unlike their characters, such as a petite woman playing a strapping male warrior or to a red-headed actor playing someone explicitly described as blond. However, I found nothing in the show that stretched credibility or was inappropriate. Rather, this criticism tells us more about the views of the critic than about the show or the book.
A more difficult criticism to counter is that the show’s producers and writers departed wildly from the story of Tolkien. The show follows the general outline of the Silmarillion and appendices of The Lord of the Rings, but within that outline it takes many liberties. In some cases, this is to simplify the story. Some may complain about the lack of explanation of how the elves came to Valinor or the reason for the return of the Noldor to Middle Earth, but one has to make allowances for compressing 300 pages into a five-minute introduction. It is always possible that they introduce or refer to some of these elements later. Other changes were the result of simplifying the action. It is natural for producers to want to reduce the story to a handful of main characters rather than trying to introduce the hundreds of characters that Tolkien describes over a history of thousands of years. Thus, we find Galadriel and Elrond involved in parts of the plot that did not involve them in the books. At the same time, the show added some storylines and characters not in the books to keep the viewer’s interest, such as the interaction of Galadriel and her father or the deeds of the Harfoots. For the most part, these changes were in keeping with the books. Less forgivable were the changes in the trajectory of character arcs. Making Elrond into a dissimulating and self-interested politician or suggesting Galadriel as driven primarily by revenge rather than redemption were unnecessary and not true to Tolkien.
These criticisms raise general problems with making books into films, which have been true with every book almost without exception. Film adaptations always take shortcuts. This is partly because some sections of books don’t translate well into film, such as inner voices, and partly because books are far more complicated than movies, with more characters, plotlines, and locations. Film is a visual adaptation, not a full retelling of a book. A thousand-page book could result in a dozen hours of screentime, which is neither cost-effective nor marketable. Further, a film is a reflection of the views of its makers, which do not always align with the vision of the author. How script writers shorten a book, how actors portray characters, and how directors cut the film all contribute to the final product. Producers always need to be wary of drifting too far from the author’s vision, especially when the main thing that attracts people to Tolkien is his worldview of valor, mercy, and redemption. It is a reminder that, while films can be a good introduction, they can never replace a book. To grasp all of the details and to see clearly an author’s vision, it will always be necessary to read the book.
Once we understand the differences in film and books, we can understand why the producers of “The Rings of Power” made many of the changes they did, although some changes were unnecessary and detract from the power of Tolkien’s story. Nevertheless, to truly understand the vast background of the characters, to appreciate the majesty and beauty of Tolkien’s mythology, and to see clearly his vision of reality, it is necessary to read his books. This is true of any film adaption of literature. The book is always better.
© 2022 J.D. Manders