Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
Golden Ring and Mountains Digital Art 3D Render
Image licensed via Adobe Stock

Don’t Turn The Lord of the Rings into Star Wars

When you have something as good as the world of Middle Earth, it becomes ever easier to injure the original vision and trade quality for commercial success

Amazon’s The Rings of Power, which is based on the appendices in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, was an ambitious and expensive project that arguably provided little more than a surface-level and underdeveloped interpretation of Middle Earth and its characters. The show, while entertaining and with its strengths, exemplified a flaw many fans feared: commercializing Tolkien inevitably leads to compromise. Even Peter Jackson’s highly praised rendition of the fantasy epic has its critics, including Tolkien’s son and heir of the family estate, Christopher. The show was visually stunning but had some storytelling issues. For one, we don’t ever get a sense of Middle Earth’s size. Characters pop in and out of different places as if it’s a five-minute walk, when, if you’ve watched the original films and have read the book, travel is an arduous and time-consuming process. Travel means a journey. In fact, I’m not sure how much of a story you have in LOTR if you take out all the walking. That’s when most of the events happen — on an unexpected journey. The characters in Rings of Power, most notably Elrond, seem to be able to teleport without effort or sacrifice.

In addition, the dialogue often felt forced and unconvincingly didactic. I don’t actually think this is the fault of the show’s writers. They only had so much source material to work with and so had to invent most of the dialogue themselves. When you don’t have Tolkien’s own wit and wisdom to guide you, it can be tempting to settle for deep-sounding metaphors and catchphrases that end up falling flat and out of place. In the end, the pacing, dialogue, and characterization were wanting in The Rings of Power, even though I enjoyed the show.

The Commercialization Continues

If The Rings of Power wasn’t enough to reignite the debate over “canonicity” in Tolkien’s wonderful literature, Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema announced last month that it will be rolling out several Lord of the Rings movies in the coming years. We don’t know the details, including what era of Middle Earth the films will feature, but they’re coming, and right on the heels of a $1 billion dollar Amazon production. When I first saw the headlines, my gut told me: NO! We don’t need another visual retelling of LOTR just twenty years after Peter Jackson’s project. Those films, to me, haven’t aged a day. The practical effects, casting, and soundtrack have earned an inviolable throne in modern cinema. How could it ever be supplanted or improved upon? Even Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy failed to imitate its elder brother due to the excess of CGI over practical effects and extraneous storytelling. But, these movies will probably explore new horizons in Middle Earth, akin to The Rings of Power (which might mean R.I.P. to R.O.P).

This seems like an overarching problem in Hollywood. The industry milks every popular franchise dry. I’ve lost count of the number of Marvel movies out there, and no longer feel any urge or desire to see them when they come out because they all feel the same to me. They run together. It’s one long chaotic action scene. And with the addition of the multiverse into the equation, the world feels unmoored and without real stakes or risk. (Although I loved Spider-Man: No Way Home. Anything to bring back Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield!)

Kayleena Pierce-Bohen, writing for Screen Rant, compares the cinematic expansion of the LOTR franchise to Star Wars. Just when you thought they were done, a preview comes up for Andor, Mandalorian, Kenobi, etc., etc. But Star Wars has better reason to do that, Pierce-Bohen writes, because they aren’t answering to a foundational Star Wars text. The canon is open-ended. Making more shows and movies helps increase the fanbase. There’s room for expansion and gap-filling, and a lot of those projects have been valuable additions to the lore and story. But LOTR is not Star Wars, and media giants shouldn’t try to make it compete with the likes of Marvel and other big-buck franchises. The writers will, of course, draw from material that Tolkien imagined, but if Rings of Power is any indication, that endeavor may injure the magic of the original story. When you have something as timeless and good as the world of Middle Earth, it gets easier to deviate from the original vision and trade quality for commercial success. Then it becomes a cash cow, subject to the trends that can deteriorate good storytelling: lots of action but little soul. Pierce-Bohen writes,

To paraphrase Thorin Oakenshield, if Warner Bros “valued quality above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world,” but instead, they choose to oversaturate the market with something below Tolkien’s standard just to cash in on his popularity.

-Kayleena Pierce-Bohen, New Lord Of The Rings Plan Is Tolkien’s Nightmare (msn.com)

Only Tolkien could’ve put it so well.

For further reading:

Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories and has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and is the Writer and Editor for Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture.

Don’t Turn The Lord of the Rings into Star Wars