Listen to this article:
There are books and there are books. Some books are more influential than others. One of the most influential, and there can be no debate about this, is the Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.
The fascination that Tolkien’s works have engendered is well known. Books, movies, books about the books, books about the movies, endless hours of YouTubers analysing the books and the movies, all contribute to a fictional universe whose adherents feel as strongly about these works as the more athletically inclined do about their favourite sports teams.
While Tolkien nerds have not, to the best of my knowledge, clashed with rival nerds (Game of Thrones fans come to mind here), emotions are as strong and expressed as strongly as the fans of any English football team. I speak here not only of the relatively tame football fans of today, but of the more robust English football fans of the 1970s and 80s, whose mere presence in a rival city could lead to a citywide panic.
While your average nerd is unlikely to riot in the streets in defence of Tolkien, they are absolutely doing so in every online forum available about the new Lord of the Rings’ series, the Rings of Power.
The audience meter on Rotten Tomatoes for the Rings of Power rates the series at a ‘rotten’ 38%, as opposed to the critics’ rating at 84%. On IMDB the series fares better but still not anything to boast about. As per the Guardian, this better rating on IMDB is because of Amazon taking steps to protect the series from ‘review bombing’, that is, prejudiced viewers downvoting the series for reasons other than the quality of the show.
One of the stated reasons for the fan backlash against the show is claimed to be the diverse cast in the show. Even Trevor Noah did a segment on this, making some hurtful, if not inaccurate, observations about the fandom.
However, the Rings of Power is one of the most watched series on OTT platforms right now. While performing excellently on that front, the chatter amongst fans is that the series does not live up to expectations. To clarify, this is not about that racist minority who have a problem with black actors, but a much larger number of fans who do not find the series living up to the standards that they expected.
Making an OTT series based on Tolkien’s extensive writings was always going to be an easy and, at the same time, thankless task. Easy because of the massive interest it was always bound to generate, as well as the captive audience which was always going to watch and thankless because of the equally inevitable nitpicking about deviations from Tolkien lore.
The show, for those who have invested way too much time into reading Tolkien, does include jarring variations of the stories from the Lord of the Rings and its encyclopaedic prequel, the Silmarillion. It is possible that the uninitiated viewer would not care, even if they were aware, of such heresies. However, there is a bigger problem with the series.
The scriptwriters of the Lord of the Rings films, the gold standard of book to movie adaptations, took much of their dialogue from the books. J.R.R. Tolkien, a professor of English at Merton college, Oxford University, was a writer of unparalleled skill whose words fit perfectly with the world of Middle Earth that he created. The writers of the Rings of Power do not have that luxury.
The story told in this series was narrated by Tolkien in a broad sense as a history. There is no original dialogue to use. Apart from the outlines of the plot, the writers could not borrow the pacing and sequencing of events from Tolkien because he did not delve into this part of the story with that level of detail. More than the lore variations, it is this linguistic inadequacy that is apparent. This is not necessarily a deal breaker, but some of the dialogue could really have been refined.
Tolkien, who had a passion for languages, did not set out to create a fictional universe in the modern sense. His interest was languages and Middle Earth was constructed as a home for the fictional languages that he created. It may be unfair to expect the same standard from the show’s writers but watching the series does make the quality of Tolkien’s original writing that much more noticeable and remarkable.
The unabated popularity of the books means that any adaptation is guaranteed to be popular.
The Hobbit film trilogy despite being Hollywood-ised almost beyond recognition was a massive success. The same goes with this series. While counting the many ‘inaccuracies’ in the series and divergences from canon, the average Tolkien fan will continue watching it.
To go back to the sports fan analogy, just because your team has a bad game, or a bad season or seasons, it does not mean that you give up on them.
The downside of this is that a layered, complex story that deserves to be told as such can succeed in terms of viewership without being a satisfying watch. What constitutes this satisfaction would differ, depending on whether the viewer is a Tolkien nerd or just a casual viewer.
None of this is to say that the Rings of Power is a bad watch, just that it could have been better. Nerds will rage, but nerds are also guaranteed to watch. Just make it a bit more Tolkienesque, please?
Sarim Naved is a Delhi-based lawyer and nerd.