When assessing works of art, it is a sound rule of thumb to generously look for the true, the good, and the beautiful, which are the transcendental features of the world we live in. As J.R.R. Tolkien taught, artists are sub-creators and, therefore, channels of the “light of being” through their works. The artist is not a manipulator, but a pupil, of the real. Accordingly, Tolkien also taught that the sub-creator distorts his office and the good, the true, and the beautiful when he subordinates and instrumentalizes creation and sub-creation to his own will, purposes, or power. Such is the essence of tyranny.
Amazon’s “Rings of Power,” the multimillion-dollar adaptation of Tolkien’s stories about the Second Age of Middle Earth, was therefore fraught with antithetical possibilities. “Rings of Power” is a sub-sub-creation that is twice removed from the reality that Tolkien’s mythos sought to reflect. While some have given reasons for cautious hope for the show, the verdict of many critics is that it is doubly tyrannical: Its departures from the source material are radically anti-Tolkien distortions of the characters and stories of the second age, which discard Tolkien’s deeply Christian moral imagination and therefore the order of the reality his mythos sought to reflect. The 39 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes suggests many viewers agree.
The show’s portrayal of the character Elendil in the third episode is particularly illustrative. Elendil, as Tolkien depicts him, is a Numenorean hero who helps lead the remnant who are faithful to Eru Ilúvatar (the one true God who created all) and refuses to apostatize to worship and serve Morgoth. But the Elendil portrayed by Amazon expresses exasperation by saying, “Oh good gods,” as if neither the difference between polytheism and monotheism nor the actual religious beliefs of the Numenorean faithful are particularly important to Tolkien’s mythos.
Such critiques need not rest on stodgy Tolkienian puritanism opposed to all creative license. Indeed, “The Silmarillion” itself — which was a hodgepodge of loose-leaf pages stuffed in boxes when Tolkien’s son and steward of his intellectual property, Christopher Tolkien, began editing it — is the product of the son taking some creative licenses with the work of his deceased father.
Yet, based on the evidence we have, the critics’ basic point seems sound: Amazon has used its creative freedom very differently than Christopher did, for ends in tension with or contrary to Tolkien’s vision of the purpose of art apparent in his myth and fairy story. I contend that this doom was entirely predictable insofar as “Rings of Power” is the fruit of dragon sickness, the lust for riches.
It is debatable how far back the dragon sickness can be traced. Tolkien himself sold the film rights to Hollywood in 1969 for £100,000. Over 40 years later, Christopher lamented what he took to be the distortions of the original “The Lord of the Rings” (LOTR) trilogy, believing that the filmmakers had eviscerated the books to create an action movie targeted at younger demographics.
Perhaps “evisceration” goes too far. But the original LOTR films had their share of shortcomings. The original movie trilogy, which followed many of the creative footsteps of the 1981 BBC Radio dramatization, significantly mischaracterized some of the source material’s heroes. For example, Aragorn’s drama was one of overcoming self-doubt about his vocation. But in the books, he was confident in his kingship and only waited to reveal himself until the time was right.
Still, such departures and others could at least arguably be chalked up to Peter Jackson’s good-faith effort to build suspense on the big screen. Such choices ultimately, if imperfectly, sought to advance the basic intentions of Tolkien’s mythos. It was not until “The Hobbit” trilogy that the evisceration began in earnest.
Sure, “The Hobbit” films were speckled with bits of brilliance. The dwarves’ performance of “Misty Mountains Cold,” for example, was a pitch-perfect adaptation of the original dirge. And Benedict Cumberbatch’s turn as Smaug the dragon — and especially the treasure room conversation with “Barrel-rider” — was a fine example of how, rather than detract from it, CGI could bring the original story to life in a new and wonderful way.
But the creative license taken in “The Hobbit” movies was as extravagant as it was overstuffed with unnecessary characters, subplots, and overwrought CGI spectacle. How else could a short children’s novel be tortuously transmogrified into a sprawling eight-hour trilogy worth $3 billion at the box office worldwide? The great irony of adapting “The Hobbit” was that Peter Jackson caught the dragon sickness and became Smaug.
You will recall that Smaug’s reign cursed the Lonely Mountain treasure. But, whereas Smaug took 150 years to infect the treasure, it took Peter Jackson less than 20 to curse the gold mine of Tolkien’s intellectual property. If Jackson could extract such exorbitant profits from “The Hobbit,” what unimaginable riches could be mined from “The Silmarillion”?
Hence, like the five armies that descended upon Lonely Mountain to battle over its treasure, the highly coveted gold mine of Tolkien content set off a bidding war. Amazon fought off Netflix and HBO to license “Rings of Power” for a quarter-billion dollars by Amazon in 2017, and Tolkien’s intellectual property was recently purchased for hundreds of millions more.
In “The Hobbit,” Thorin Oakenshield was overcome with the lust for mammon and fell because he failed to reckon with the curse that lies upon gold long brooded over by a dragon. We would be wise to take Thorin’s lesson to heart when assessing “Rings of Power.”
Tolkien’s intellectual property has long been instrumentalized for mass consumption (and hence, the tastes of the moment) and profit — which is to say, power.
Like Sauron, who disguised himself as an angel of light for much of the Second Age, Amazon’s story will doubtless appear fair and wise to many — and may actually be so. But the dragon sickness at the heart of the enterprise generates an insatiable lust that cannot help but ultimately distort the true, the good, and the beautiful.
Kody W. Cooper is UC Foundation assistant professor of political science and public service at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Follow him on Twitter at @DrKodyCooper.