I finished season one of Amazon’s The Rings of Power show adapting material from the appendices to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I also did two other things since my last post on the show that affect how I view it: I rewatched the Peter Jackson LotR movies and I read (reread) academic historian Bret Devereaux’s posts dissecting the battle of Helm’s Deep and the siege of Gondor. The rewatch raised things a bit, with the show holding up well and benefiting from the careful touches of foreshadowing that are including. Revisiting Jackson’s LotR adaptation lowered things a bit.
My final estimation stayed where my initial estimation landed. Rings of Power is good, not great. It didn’t fall off a cliff like The Wheel of Time or Game of Thrones adaptations. It isn’t remotely as atrocious as Jackson’s Hobbit . . . thing (do not attempt to defend those movies or compare them with the show, as I do not suffer fools). But nor does it rise to the heights of Jackson’s LotR movies or, especially, the source material.
Revisiting Jackson’s LotR adaptation did solidify something that had been oozing around the dark corners of my mind. The basic problem with the show is that Jackson’s movies are its urtext.
Jackson’s LotR movies are in many ways a monumental feat. Getting LotR filmed at all was a big deal, let alone in an adaptation that was both good and popular. It ended a decade-long live-action fantasy movie drought. But it hasn’t exactly ushered in a golden age of fantasy on the screen (that remains the 80s). And enjoyment and gratitude don’t prevent pointing out its flaws. Which are many.
My point here isn’t that Jackson’s movies have flaws, it is that Rings of Power is doomed to repeat them. It isn’t going to improve on anything that Jackson screwed up in LotR because it is chasing Jackson’s shadow. Jackson’s work looms too large over the fantasy landscape in the popular imagination now, and Amazon has too much money at stake to be even a little daring. Jackson’s sins leaned heavily toward changing the source material to bring it closer to Hollywood convention, and the last thing nervous executives want is a departure from convention, with its illusion of safety.
Telling a prequel is tough enough (nobody is worried about Isildur). Combined with the above, we aren’t going to get anything daring that moves Rings of Power past Jackson’s vision. The show is necessarily a copy of a copy, and copies always degrade in quality a bit with each subsequent copy.
So the presentation of battlefield tactics and war strategy will be dubious. Geography will be ignored. The land will be curiously empty, even next to cities which must be fed . . . .somehow. Much of the subtlety and magic of Tolkien’s words will slip away. The good characters will be the architects of their own trials (and of everyone else’s). Elves will be more Vulcan and less fey.
Hence the excessive reliance on allusions to the movies (has there been a line lifted from the books that wasn’t in the movies?). A fair amount of criticism of the show amounts to panning it for not hewing closely enough to the movies, but the problem is the inverse.
The show is certainly pretty. (It comfortably exceeds The Wheel of Time but falls short of late-season Game of Thrones.) But the look, too, is tied to Jackson’s vision. This may be the biggest problem of all. It will necessarily be visually boring, something most of its viewers have seen dozens of hours after rewatches of the movies (and a single watch of the Hobbit movies). But the time constraints are tighter no matter how much Amazon spends, so the visuals will always be slightly worse. A copy of a copy always degrades in quality.
So I will keep watching and enjoying the show. And I will give thanks that it didn’t get The Wheel of Time mistreatment. But I weep for what could have been and wonder when we will ever break away from Jackson’s vision to get a fresh (and hopefully more faithful) interpretation of Tolkien.
 I originally typed that as “The Lord of the Rights”, which, well, yeah.