I’ve held off writing about The Rings of Power for a few weeks, since I wanted to give the series a fair chance before passing any judgment on it. I’m neither on the side of those who think it’s wonderful nor on the side of those who decided to hate it without seeing it. But it does have the same issue that has plagued a lot of recent epics, namely The Game of Thrones Problem.
What is that, you may ask? Suffering from too many characters.
Now, I harp on this a lot and I realize it’s redundant and boring, but there is a reason for it. After spending a decade of analyzing fictional characters on Funky, I learned a huge cast means minimal screen time for every character, which translates into a lack of depth. A cast of 22 characters, divided by 8 hours of miniseries, is not much time for any of them to shine.
The reason I call it The Game of Thrones Problem is that series started it; every show since has “to have” at least six subplots. The truth is, most stories are better when they are about a particular main character and their journey. The best writing advice I ever received was, “If you don’t even know who your main character is, your plot is a mess.” And that’s The Game of Thrones Problem. Who, in The Rings of Power, is the main character? It’s Galadriel, because we started out with her… but by the end of the first episode, we also meet Elrond, several Harfoots (early Hobbits), an elf in love with a human, her kid, and various other humans. Five episodes later, we have even more characters—the dwarf king and his wife, a lost king, Isildur and his father and his boring sister and her crush, the queen of Numenor, her counselor and her dad, and a Stranger who fell from the sky. And some of them I really like, so it’s a bummer they get four lines every second episode. I know no one’s name who isn’t canon, and the ones who are canon, I don’t recognize as being “like” their “original” counterparts. Galadriel is obnoxious, Elrond is emotional, and … I don’t know whether to hope the Stranger is Gandalf or not.
The visuals are spectacular and certain scenes are wonderful (mostly those having to do with the Elves or the Dwarves). It’s not terrible. I love Tolkien, and I consider The Lord of the Rings to be the best film series of all time, but I don’t worship it and am not a stickler for total accuracy. I just want a good story told in an interesting way. Nor do I care if there are black folk running around Middle-Earth.
My thoughts are this: this isn’t Tolkien. It’s trying to be, but there is only one Tolkien. The poet, the dreamer, the Catholic mystic, the man who loved trees, filled his book with pages and pages of “songs,” and who wrote entire languages before he ever got around to writing the actual stories. A man totally in love with the world he created, and for good reason, because it’s amazing. Tolkien set the standard for high fantasy. In Peter Jackson’s movies, we got a lot of Tolkien’s “soul.” By that, I mean his lyrical style. We have characters saying amazing lines like, “Dark have been my dreams of late,” “So fair yet so cold, like a morning of pale spring clinging to winter’s chill.”)
Authors have a certain style identifiable as their own, and Tolkien’s is to be poetic. And I think that is largely what’s missing from The Rings of Power. It’s not written in his style. And in fairness, nobody can write the way he does. There’s no memorable dialogue in this series. No poetry. And to be honest, it’s not fair to expect that.
Sometimes, it’s very good. I want to spend more time with Galadriel and Elrond and the Dwarves. I want to learn more about mining mithril under the mountains (and eventually, “they dug greedily and too deep… you know what they awoke in the darkness of Khazad-dum… shadow and flame!” … you need to read that in Christopher Lee’s voice to appreciate it). I want to see Sauron deceive the Elves into forging the Rings of Power. I want this to be amazing.
But it’s not there yet. It’s like too little butter scraped over too much bread. There are too many characters, too many subplots. I just want them to focus on one or two of them and flesh them out and let them breathe. There are so many little things that just make the Tolkien nerd in me squeal with joy, but not all of them are necessary.
Not every series lives up to LotR, either. The Hobbit… I do not hate it the way others do, I enjoy it, but even that is still Tolkien. It’s his story, with mostly his story beats, and while it’s wildly inflated for the running time (it should have been two movies instead of one), it still has his heart in it. Both those franchises had large casts, but it worked because we got to know them slowly. We met Frodo and his friends, and Gandalf, and spent forty minutes in The Shire and on the road. Then we met Aragorn and Arwen. And over the course of twelve hours, we really got to know the important characters, but we did it beat by beat, rather than being shown disconnected plot lines.
Usually the first season of a series is the roughest, as it tries to find its feet and learns from its mistakes, so I hope that going forward, if a second season gets green lit (maybe not at such an exorbitant price tag), the writers can slow down, eliminate some of the storylines that are going nowhere, and learn to focus more on the story they want to tell. And maybe have some depth to it. Tolkien’s world resonates because he was a deep writer whose faith informed everything he wrote and pervaded his worldview. There is wisdom in Middle-Earth of the kind our society needs (“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends”). I want the show to grow, deepen, and succeed, because I want to spend more time in Middle-Earth.
I’ve been struggling through it, mainly only watching for the Sauron plotline at this point. I find it almost like fanfiction and not even particularly good fanfiction. They’re recycling lines like crazy. I don’t like a lot of what they did. But I’m trying to not hate it.
The last episode was decent but still terrible in terms of ruining the lore — they didn’t craft the three Elven rings first, and now Galadriel is personally responsible for the rise of Sauron, because she told them nothing about his true identity. Wut???
My thought is that if its Tolkien, there should be no doubt. I’m not going to watch. I can’t even bear to see the previews, to me it is especial sacrilege.
My sister who watched a few episodes dubbed it:
“The Keebler Elves and a Series of Unfortunate Events.”
The Game of Thrones problem is real. Any time you have one very, very popular and lucrative story and a bunch of people trying to imitate it, or even being subconsciously inspired by it, you run into issues (look at what The Hunger Games did to YA). But I feel like with Game of Thrones, it’s a particularly knotty problem, because the things ABOUT that show which others are trying to imitate–massive, sprawling storylines, a gazillion subplots, and amorality and darkness and antiheroes galore–are things that MOST WRITERS cannot pull off just by their very nature. In the hands of most writers, that’s just gonna give you a boring, depressing story full of unlikable characters that nobody wants to root for.
George couldn’t even sustain that many characters in GoT. His books drag after the first one, and you get stuck reading about a character you could care less about, while waiting to get back to those you like or find interesting. Which is the same thing that happens with a television show with too many characters. At least if the show centers around one person and you don’t like them, you can quit watching it.
Dickens had giant sprawl, but he relied largely on humorous tropes (stereotypes) to fill in side characters and made them all super eccentric, so it was at least entertaining even if it wandered off the plot a lot.
I mean, if George can’t even handle it… WHY DOES EVERYONE ELSE INSIST ON TRYING?
Dickens could do it, but Dickens was an anomaly, and I don’t think anyone should try to top him. 😉