Writer's Blog & Home of Warpsteel Press

Category: TV

Review: The Rings of Power (Episodes 1-2)

The beauty of the Undying Lands

I propose to write about The Rings of Power. This is a controversial topic to address on the internet, based on the past few months, and perhaps perilous. There are dungeons online for the overbold. And overbold I fear I may be accounted, as a humble fan of all things Tolkien. This realm is wide and deep and high and is filled with many things. 

This post will be in three parts, should you wish to skip over any of it. First, I will present my bonafides, my own history as a lover of Middle-Earth. Second, I will address the primary issue of “faithfulness” to the original writings. Third and last, I will give my actual review and thoughts on the first two episodes of Amazon’s new series, The Rings of Power.

What right do I have to speak on this topic?

Why am I even writing this part? Because in the majority of discussions I’ve seen on this show, anyone who disagrees with a certain loud opinion is accused of being a “new” Tolkien fan, someone who clearly doesn’t understand the lore. Feel free to skip this part if you don’t want to read about how much of a nerd I am.

I first read The Lord of the Rings in third grade. The librarian was very skeptical about this little boy checking out all three massive hardback adult books at once. My mom shook her head and assured her I’d return them all on time and fully read. She was right, of course. And since then, I’ve read through the entire trilogy over twenty-five times (I lost count eventually). I’ve read it out loud (all the way through) six times. I’ve also read everything else Tolkien ever wrote. The Silmarillion? Five or six times, and one time aloud. I own an entire shelf of Tolkien-related writings, and have read more than I own. This includes no less than four biographies of the man himself, and numerous critical essays and writings.

I like books. This is only part of the Tolkien shelf.

But why stop at books? Back in high school, I played a great deal of Iron Crown’s Middle-Earth Role-Playing (MERP). And when the Middle-Earth Collectible Card Game came out in the 90s, not only did I buy every card I could find, I even wrote a scenario for publication in one of the game books. At present time, I also enjoy playing War of the Ring and other modern Middle-Earth related games.

Turns out I’ve been writing fantasy stuff for a while…

I could go on, but I’ll spare you some of the most nerdy things I’ve done. In my freshman speech class in college, I tried to do a dramatic recitation of The Bridge of Khazad-Dum scene… but anyway…

The issue of “faithfulness”

This is a big topic and I can’t possibly cover it all in one short essay here. A horde of internet posters, YouTubers, and so on, have been (very) loudly proclaiming that Peter Jackson held true to the “spirit” of JRR Tolkien, while Amazon is not. And they proclaimed this, of course, before the first episodes ever came out.

This is absolute nonsense.

First, let’s address the mumakil in the room. Some of the complains are racist. No question about it. Some people are bafflingly furious that some of the roles in this series are being played by non-white actors. “But, but Tolkien described this character as ‘fair’!” Tolkien also had some of his characters speak like people in the 1611 King James Bible. (“he will not slay thee in thy turn…”) “Fair” doesn’t mean what you think it means, Vizzini. I could write an entire essay on this topic alone, but for now, let’s just let it go. 

Second, Peter Jackson was not faithful to the written word of The Lord of the Rings. Not in the slightest. I could list hundreds of departures. He started by replacing Glorfindel with Arwen and increasing Galadriel’s importance so that he could have two female characters on the movie posters. (If Fellowship of the Ring were being released today, some of these critics would be howling that he’d gone “woke.”) He had Saruman and Gandalf engage in a silly force duel. He absolutely butchered the character of Faramir, made the Ents look like absolute buffoons, turned Gimli into a comic relief sidekick, and turned Aragorn’s character arc completely opposite what it was in the books. If you listen to Jackson’s own commentary on the movies, you’ll hear a certain phrase repeated a disturbing number of times. When pointing out that something differed in the books, he (or Phillipa Boyens) would then say, “You can’t do that.” Sometimes, they would clarify with “you can’t do that in a movie,” but most of the time, they just said “you can’t do that.” They flat out said Tolkien was wrong to write the way he did, and they were making it better by changing it.

In some cases, they changed completely random things, like the number of orcs killed by Gimli and Legolas at Helm’s Deep. Why change a number by a single digit? It has to do with Hollywood writer credits. Apparently, you HAVE to change a certain number of things to get credit as a writer. It’s silly.

All that being said, I love those movies. I own the DVD, Blu-Ray, and digital versions of the extended editions. I have a stack of books connected to the movies. I enjoy them all greatly. But let us not hear any nonsense about how Jackson was faithful to the text.

Adaptations are always going to be different from a book. Recently, my family watched some episodes of The Chosen, an online series based on the life of Jesus Christ. Did they faithfully follow the exact text of the four Gospels? No, of course not. They added new characters and new events in the lives of existing characters. They told stories that fit (very loosely) within the text. That is the nature of an adaptation.

Frodo and Gandalf figurines from before the movies. Not exactly how you picture Frodo now, is it?

How then, are we to judge whether Jackson or the new show is true to the “spirit” of Tolkien? For most fans, it’s a nebulous thing. A “feeling.” As such, it’s wholly up to each individual to judge for themselves. Now, let us be clear: there is a limit to this, obviously. There is a moral layer to Tolkien’s work that should be reflected in any adaptations. I think some of the video games in recent history have gone far beyond the spirit of Tolkien. Shadow of Mordor, for example, is about a ranger possessed by the wraith of Celebrimbor going on a revenge mission. Everything about that seems contrary to Tolkien’s writings… but that’s my opinion, based on what I have read and believe about JRR Tolkien and his subcreated world.

So what did I think of the first two episodes of The Rings of Power?

Short answer: breathtaking, gorgeous, enthralling, and intriguing.

Now for the much longer answer. I’ll begin with positives, move on to negatives, and finish with my opinion on “faithfulness.”

Positives: The production values are off the charts, as should be expected for the most expensive TV show of all time. Everything looks and feels “real.” The glimpses of Valinor were inspiring. Khazad-dum is beautiful in a different way. I loved it.

Many mainstream critics complained about the pacing, saying the show was too slow (which is funny considering the source material). But I found it worked very well. Not once did I get bored, or wonder when a particular scene would end. For the number of characters and storylines being juggled, the pacing worked as it should.

Could one of these two be the mysterious “Stranger”?

Those characters were all interesting. In many shows or movies, there are one or two characters that just annoy me and I hate when they’re on the screen. Not so with this one (so far). I’m intrigued to see where each of the disparate storylines leads and how they connect.

The music is outstanding. I’ve actually been listening to the soundtrack for a week or more, and it’s familiar enough to me now to enjoy when I catch some of the main themes.

I suppose it’s a positive to point out that absolutely NONE of the purported angry claims about what would be included came true. No sex or nudity. No modern-day politics. 

Negatives: On occasion, a line of dialogue will sound too “modern.” But we had that in the Jackson films too. (And so far, we’ve had yet to see anything remotely eye-rolling as Legolas skateboarding a shield.) Nothing has made me quite cringe yet.

There is one absolutely huge problem with the lore. It’s made all the more problematic in that it’s a key plot point for the first episode. This, I suppose, takes us into the third section about faithfulness.

My biggest problem is the way in which the return to Valinor is treated, and really, it’s several problems. First, the idea that the King, Gil-galad, could give out return voyages as if they were cruise tickets is completely contrary to the books. Sailing back to Valinor is a choice that each elf makes for themselves. Second is the issue of Galadriel herself taking that voyage. Here is where it gets tricky. I understand that the creators of the show do not have the rights to what is written in The Silmarillion, and so they have to dance around certain topics (like how Finrod died). In the books, Galadriel is actually forbidden from returning to Valinor, because of her part in the rebellion of the elves (it’s a very long story). It isn’t until she faces the temptation of the One Ring and triumphs that she is redeemed and able to return. So I suppose her turning back at the literal entrance to the Undying Lands in this episode is kind of sort of taking the place of that ban, but it’s awkward and doesn’t really work.

EDIT: Having read another review, I now realize something else about this scene. By taking Galadriel to the very edge of Valinor, they set things up well for when Ar-Pharazon will try to get there, later in the series. I get that, but it was still awkward.

Aside from that, the show is remarkably faithful to Tolkien’s works, in my opinion, and in the typical ways of any adaptation. Timelines are condensed, some characters are left out or combined, etc. That’s normal. The moral element lines up with Tolkien’s work thus far, without any problems. But it is hard to completely judge the “spirit” of the whole thing at this point, as we don’t know exactly how the showrunners will take it to the end. If, for example, Celebrimbor dies and his wraith possesses one of the other characters to help out on a revenge mission, then I’ll have a problem with it. But based on what we’ve seen so far, I highly doubt anything that egregious is going to happen. At least, I hope not!

So I came in with the attitude of being cautiously hopeful. I ended the night with much more optimism. I hope it continues that way.

On an absolutely personal point: I’m thrilled, and it took me a while to nail down exactly why. When you finish reading a great story, there is a great sense of satisfaction. But also (usually later), there is a regret, a wish that you could read it all over again… for the first time. To experience that joy and excitement again. In a small way, that’s what is happening here. Is it a new book by JRR Tolkien? No, of course not. Is it high fantasy in the spirit of Tolkien and using his subcreated world? I would argue that it is. And so, I’m experiencing this story for the first time (though I do know where most of it ends up). That’s a delight and a thrill I never thought I’d experience, and I’m hopeful it continues.

Finally, for those who think Amazon is paying off everyone who says anything positive… BWAHAHAHAHAHAA!!!!! You clearly haven’t seen my bank account. But if you’re reading, Bezos, my 19-year-old truck won’t pass the state inspection, so I need just enough to fix it…

Talking Rings of Power

This is one of the many, many books I own related to JRR Tolkien and his writings. Those who know me well know that I’ve been a fan since long before Peter Jackson began exploring the idea of making movies. The title of this particular book (published in 1968) seems especially apropos right now.

I’ve never been more disappointed in a fan base in my life than I am in the Tolkien fanbase right now. As I peruse social media, every single post about the Amazon Rings of Power TV show is overflowing with negative comments. Scores of people (or bots, I suppose) are condemning the show, sight unseen, and proclaiming themselves the true arbiters of “what Tolkien would have wanted.”

On one end, we have the outright racists who are furious about the hiring of non-white actors to portray various characters. While Tolkien did endeavor to create a mythology for England and the North, that doesn’t mean he’d be upset by this. Tolkien condemned racism, apartheid, “race-doctrine,” and anything associated with those topics.

Then there are a seeming multitude of other critics who don’t seem to say much at all except that this is a travesty and an attack on the spirit of Tolkien. They provide almost no evidence for this, seize on off-hand comments by anyone associated with the production, and blatantly ignore anything that contradicts their viewpoint.

I don’t know if the show is going to be good. I sincerely hope it is, and I’m very much looking forward to the premiere next week. I’m cautiously excited. And I say this, again, as a lifelong Tolkien fan with a shelf full of ridiculously nerdy books on all things Middle-Earth. I think I have room to talk here.

Agents of SHIELD and Fulfilling Your Promises

One strong bit of writing advice I’ve seen repeatedly over the past few years is: fulfill the promises you make to the readers. By “promises,” what is meant is an indication within the story that something will happen or be explored. Writers make many promises to their readers throughout a story, sometimes without even realizing it. This ties in strongly with the “Chekhov’s Gun” concept or trope (look it up). This is not quite the same as foreshadowing, though the two concepts are linked.
For example, in the opening pages of my current novel, a surprising character wields a very expensive looking sword. A few pages later, that sword is missing. If I never mentioned the sword again in the book, that would be a pretty flagrant breaking of a promise to the readers. Obviously, the sword must be important somehow, and I need to bring it back up again later. That’s a clear promise to the reader. 
This whole concept has really come home to me the last couple of weeks. I’ve been rewatching the TV series Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD with my son (it’s his first time seeing it). I had vague memories of season one, which started back in 2013. Mainly what I remembered is that much of the first season wasn’t very good, as if the series was kind of just spinning its wheels until Captain America: Winter Soldier came out and changed everything. After that, it took off, got steadily better season-after-season, and never slowed down again.
marvels-agents-of-shield.jpgAs I rewatched it, I was reminded of the promises concept. Many times in the first season, the show threw out names and concepts familiar to long-time comic book readers, and then never followed up on them. It was a classic example of not fulfilling what was promised. 
Before I go any further, I’m giving a spoiler warning. I’m going to discuss some very specific plot elements from multiple seasons of the show, including the most recent (five). If you don’t want that, stop reading now, go watch them all, then come back. I’ll wait. 
Actually, no. I won’t wait. That’s a lot of TV for you to binge through. I’ll just keep going now.
Here’s the big surprise in all of this: Agents of SHIELD DID fulfill some of their biggest promises – but not until season five! I have no idea if this was planned all along or not.
In some of the very first episodes of season one, the agents uncover this strange element called “gravitonium” (stop laughing; still better than “unobtanium”). They also meet the scientist studying it: Dr. Franklin Hall. All of that added up to one thing to comic book readers: Graviton! In Marvel Comics, Graviton is a massively powerful super-villain, with the power to manipulate gravity itself. And he started out as an ordinary scientist named… Franklin Hall. In the show, when Dr. Hall is absorbed into the gravitonium itself, and one final stinger scene shows his hand reaching back out of it… it’s a clear set-up. It’s a promise to the viewer: Graviton is coming!
Except he didn’t. The gravitonium showed up briefly in a couple more episodes late in the season… and then was never mentioned again. It was a huge disappointment. So why did the TV show do this? Budgetary concerns? Marvel telling them they couldn’t use that character after all? A change in the direction of the show? We may never know.
But then something happened early in season five that made long-time viewers sit up and pay attention. Someone name-dropped gravitonium again. It became an important plot element all of a sudden. Wow.
And then: shock of all shocks. In the final storyline of season five, Graviton arrives. Yes, it was totally different from the comic book in the way that it happened, but it made perfect sense for the show. One major element had me kicking myself for not guessing it ahead of time.
The promise from early season one was finally fulfilled in late season five. Amazing. 
That’s not the only example. Multiple other plot elements that seemed to be tossed aside or forgotten came back at least briefly in season five. I have no idea if any of this had been planned ahead of time. More likely, the writers group for the show looked back and asked something like, “what can we bring back here during what might be our final season, that will reward our long-time viewers?” 
Either way, it was immensely satisfying. And that’s what writers should be aiming to do for their readers. 
But hopefully, it happens sooner than five books into a series…

Unfortunate Events in a Series

Last week was a series of unfortunate events.
Also, I watched A Series of Unfortunate Events on Netflix.
My personal set of unfortunate events were primarily due to jury duty. Despite being number 55 in the jury pool, I still ended up on the jury for the entire week. To make matters worse, the case was aggravated sexual assault against a child. To make it even worse, I was the alternate juror.
Alternate juror = worst job in the world. It means you have to sit through the entire trial with the jury, but then when the jury goes to deliberate, you have to sit outside and wait. You have no voice, no input. Unless, of course, one of the “real” jurors has a sudden heart attack, or something.
Because I’m self-employed and my work is deadline-based, I also had to keep up with my regular work every evening after jury duty. As I said, it was a series of unfortunate events.
And that brings me back to Netflix. I don’t know why I chose to start watching A Series of Unfortunate Events, but as it turned out, it was the perfect antidote to the real-life ugliness I was being forced to hear about during the day.
lemonysnicket-01112017.jpgI had not read the books and knew very little about this series prior to the Netflix show. Some, I know, have criticized it for being too dark, especially for a children’s story. But Patrick Warburton is narrating, and Neil Patrick Harris is the villain. I could watch it just for those two reasons.
In this story, for those who don’t know, a trio of children go through a continuing saga of bad things happening to them and those around them. The humor is dry and dark throughout, beginning with the theme song, in which Harris warns everyone to go watch something else.
As a writer, I have to make one big observation about this series. It’s really no different from what all fiction writers do… just more honest about it. Face it. As fiction writers, we put our characters through horrible things to see how they come through it, what it says about their character, etc. And because it creates drama. In stories that continue over long arcs, whether a book series, or comic book title, or “long-form television” (as Count Olaf describes it, while glancing at the camera), the protagonists experience a continuing series of bad things. When has anything of lasting good ever happened to Peter Parker, for example? How often has Batman had to fight the Joker? How many times does Hiccup have to fight bad dragons or Vikings? How many murders take place in Santa Barbara?
All fiction is a series of unfortunate events. Most of the time, of course, there are some good things that sort of resolve the bad things. Count Olaf’s repeated defeats are good things, even if they don’t last.
The big key to all of this, usually, is the happy ending. But that’s a topic for another blog post.
I’ve never read any literary commentary on A Series of Unfortunate Events, but I can’t help feeling that the author, in addition to all the other humor, is subtly mocking fiction writing at large. That is quite all right. We could use it. And for me, this week, it was exactly what I needed.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén