Rings of Power has garnered harsh reviews since its release, and if you’ve been keeping up with my previous Rings of Power posts, you know where I stand: the show keeps me watching, but it’s a mixed bag. There are things to celebrate and aspects to critique. Many of the people I’ve talked to feel the same way. They enjoy the show but don’t think it compares to the grandeur of Peter Jackson’s interpretation of The Lord of the Rings, which at twenty years old, still stuns the ear and eye.
Some media outlets, however, are accusing the disappointed fanbase of racism and misogyny. If you don’t like Rings of Power, it might mean you hate diversity and inclusion. Amazon notoriously hid a number of reviews on its platform the first few days after the show’s release and put out statements condemning racist or other “hate speech” in the reviews. Literature professor Anna Smol recently wrote an article for The Conversation on the “far-right” attempt to discredit Rings of Power, claiming every story is subject to creative reinterpretation to better fit the times. She writes,
“There is no such thing as a ‘faithful’ adaptation in all details. As literary scholar Linda Hutcheon has pointed out, every adaptation is a re-interpretation of source material. Far-right commenters use “Tolkien” as an image of the world they want to have: a male-dominated, all-white society, and they attack any other interpretations.”Anna Smol, ‘The Rings of Power’: Every adaptation is re-interpretation so ignore the haters (theconversation.com)
I agree with Smol that film adaptations can never perfectly cross mediums. Turning a novel into a movie requires creative leeway, and there are qualities we inevitably lose when moving from the page to the screen. And I further credit Smol and her like-minded peers who push back against hateful remarks. There has without a doubt been an unfortunate racist backlash against Rings of Power. But what about the bulk of the negative reviews? Do they fit Smol’s caricature?
Wanting to see more for myself, I visited the Rings of Power Rotten Tomatoes meter to see what normal fans were actually saying. The show currently enjoys an 85% critics’ score but slouches at an abysmal 38% audience rating. While critics speak well of the show, most ordinary viewers are dissatisfied. I found the discrepancy telling, so scrolled down to get a sense of the complaints. Based on Smol’s understanding, the low reviews should have been vitriolic in all the wrong ways, but that’s far from what I found. Reviewers called the show “boring,” found the writing “terrible,” and tended to feel like the show didn’t look like a billion dollars. Many also find the characters unlikable. Here are a couple of reviews from today alone:
“Boring, boring, boring, nonsensical, boring, did I mention boring? The dialogue is some of the worst you will hear on TV this year or any other year. Also boring.” (Scrooge M.)
“I have no idea how the professional critics think this is good. The writing is terrible. Not just because they don’t follow Tolkien, but because they cannot write a good story.” (Devon B)
“I couldn’t make it to the third episode, I struggled to invest in any character.” (Tomek W)
Other reviews are positive, but most of the ones I saw didn’t peep above the two-star mark. Its positive critical standing serves as just a weak patina; a closer look tells the bigger story. It’s almost like the writers think their show should be above any criticism, so now the low reviews are misconstrued as a “far-right” conspiracy to maintain cultural hegemony. While the racist and sexist reviews are certainly out there, lots of fans simply don’t like the show, and for valid reasons.
Scolding the fanbase is a strange marketing strategy, and hasn’t seemed to work, as the audience score witnesses. You must earn a fan’s approval through good storytelling and carefully balanced dialogue and action. You can’t please the racist internet troll out there, no matter how hard you try, but you can please the LOTR fan. Just get the storytelling right!
Smol also claims that every adaptation requires re-interpretation. She’s right. However, how much of Rings of Power involves a Tolkien-written storyline? Aside from some familiar characters and the general setting of Middle-earth, the show invents more than it interprets. So, the show struggles under the burden of creative liberty, as I discussed at more length here.
If big-budget TV shows are above criticism, people will feel co-opted to approve of sub-par productions. Even if it cost a billion dollars to make and fills all the right diversity quotas, no show is above fair critique. If fans aren’t allowed to give honest dissent, they’ll be forced to voice false praise—giving entertainment companies more license to underdeliver quality content. Art will suffer for it.
Here are my two previous reflections on Rings of Power:
Amazon’s Rings of Power and where the conflict really lies If Peter Jackson gave the LOTR cast unnecessary internal conflicts, then the Rings of Power writers have done it on steroids. The third and fourth episodes reveal an interesting storyline. But do the characters have too many distracting internal conflicts?
Amazon’s Rings of Power: Some warning signs but still hope. The screenwriters had to create dialogue from Tolkien’s notes about the world in which Lord of the Rings is set. However the writers fare with inventing “Tolkien” dialogue, the challenge is to stay faithful to his reality, where good and evil are not Marvel cartoons.