BBeing one of the richest people on the planet, Jeff Bezos isn’t used to being told what to do. But when Amazon announced it was creating The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, which will likely become the most expensive TV series ever made, he received a blunt order from his son: “Dad, don’t fuck it. not. ”
With legions of die-hard JRR Tolkien fans ready to dig into every detail of the series, pleasing them all was always going to be as difficult as crossing Mordor. And the worldwide release of its opening shows on Friday revealed that there was, unsurprisingly, no middle ground when it came to Middle-earth.
After greedily devouring the first two episodes, released at 2am in the UK, some fans were in for the seventh Valinor, while others lambasted its creators for, in the words of one forceful armchair reviewer, “ spit on Tolkien’s legacy”.
Away from the fury of social media, the reaction is nuanced, says Shaun Gunner, president of the Tolkien Society. Although with more than 500 members of society gathered for Oxonmoot in Oxford this weekend, and a screening of the first two episodes and a panel discussion planned, the debate is likely to be heated.
“I think it’s fair to say that there are mixed reactions from the members about what they saw,” says Gunner. “Some of them say it’s amazing, beautiful, spectacular. The other members aren’t so sure.
Gunner says the show’s creators went to great lengths to engage the Tolkien community and were among 100 fans who turned out for the star-studded premiere in London’s Leicester Square honored by Bezos. His opinion ? “I can’t wait to see more,” he says. “Very few people just write it down…I would say cautious optimism is probably where most people are.”
The Rings of Power – which the Guardian review called so stunning it gave rival HBO series House of the Dragon an “amateur look” – covers the Second Age of Middle-earth. It is set approximately 2,000 years before Frodo Baggins set out on his fateful journey from the Shire in Lord of the Rings and introduces the Dark Lord Sauron and the story behind the forging of the Rings of Power.
Unlike the Peter Jackson adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, the Amazon Prime series isn’t based on a novel, says Dr Dimitra Fimi, senior lecturer in fantasy and children’s literature and JRR Tolkien scholar at the University of Glasgow, but on The Lord of the Rings trilogy appendices – the rights to which cost $250m (£216m).
“They have the basics of a story, but they don’t have the details,” she says. “They have to invent characters, they have to invent scenarios, but keep them in this skeleton. It’s an interesting creative challenge.
Some took umbrage that there were “Hobbit-esque” characters – called harfoots – in the series, as Tolkien wrote that the hobbits had done nothing of note before the Third Age. Other less savory reviews focused on the diversity of the cast, because, as Lenny Henry, who plays the barefoot elder Sadoc Burrows, put it: “They have no trouble believing in a dragon, but they find it hard to believe… a black person could be a hobbit or an elf.
In the confines of the internet, there’s been a “really horrible backlash,” says Fimi. “Scholars were rushing to say, well, [Tolkien’s world] wasn’t as white as you think. But we were attacked, it was quite serious. It shows the strength of sentiment here but, at the same time, how it can go a bit to the extreme.
Andrew Higgins, a scholar and Tolkien fan, argues that the decision is important – not just because, he says, Tolkien never wrote that all elves should be white, but because it helps attract new fans to the writer.
“If someone sees a character they can relate to, that’s a great way to get into Tolkien,” he says.
Away from the so-called culture wars, the grunts are more likely to increase if the show’s writers — relatively unknown writing duo Patrick McKay and JD Payne — create a world that doesn’t feel authentically Tolkienian, says Dr. Mark Atherton, Lecturer in English Language, Old English and Medieval English Literature at Regent’s Park College, Oxford.
“It’s all in the detail,” says Atherton. “If you don’t understand […] then you should do something else, you should create your own fantasy, not ground it in Tolkien’s world, it seems to me – but maybe I’m biased, I teach medieval literature. Atherton reserves judgment as he hasn’t seen the show yet, but he has – Bezos will no doubt be pleased to hear – subscribed to Amazon Prime in order to watch.
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