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Rings of Power Roundtable at Strange Horizons

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As everyone knows by now, this year’s battle of the unnecessary IP prequels created solely as cannon-fodder in the streaming wars was won handily by Andor. So handily, in fact, that the other two contenders have mostly dropped out of the fannish conversation. In the case of the Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon, this is all to the good. Rarely have I seen such a tremendous outlay of time, money, and talent result in something so dramatically inert. It’s not even entertainingly bad in a way that’s fun to crow about, the way the parent show eventually became, just kind of soulless and boring. And if you’re looking for a story that grapples with how women live in a world that doesn’t see them as people, and in which they are ultimately subservient to their reproductive capacity, you’d be much better off watching Lena Dunham’s adaptation of the 1994 YA novel Catherine Called Birdy, which is not only smarter than House of the Dragon, but does a better job capturing the humanity of its female characters (also, it stars Bella Ramsey).

But that still leaves us with Amazon’s Lord of the Rings prequel The Rings of Power, a show that is not exactly good—and certainly less technically accomplished than House of Dragon (except on the visual front—no nearly-black screens here!)—but which I found a great deal more engaging, while also finding a lot in it to argue with. Happily, Strange Horizons decided to close out the year with a roundtable discussion of The Rings of Power. This is a bookend to another roundtable I participated in earlier in the year, about the first season of Amazon’s Wheel of Time adaptation. In that discussion, my role was the token non-book-reader. Here, I showed up as a devoted fan (and someone who is far more invested in this fantasy world than I am in either Star Wars or A Song of Ice and Fire).

My fellow participants are author and reviewer Will Shaw (taking my previous spot as the non-book-reader), Strange Horizons reviews co-editor Aishwarya Subramanian, and Strange Horizons coordinating editor Gautam Bhatia—who, in a passage that was sadly cut for length, revealed that as a teenager he spoke fluent Quenya. (In addition to being a hardworking editor and constitutional lawyer, Gautam is also a talented author. His first novel, The Wall, was an engrossing fantasy that put me in mind of Ursula K. Le Guin and China Miéville, and I’ve been very eager to get hold of its sequel, The Horizon.)

An excerpt is below, but check out the whole discussion to see our varied reactions to the show (somewhat to my surprise, I ended up on the more positive end). Also, to find out what Tolkienian mainstay we all agree should absolutely appear in the second season (spoiler: it’s Tom Bombadil).

Abigail Nussbaum: So I had two reactions to the opening, one for each episode. With the first hour, my reaction was “this is so close and yet so far.” I was looking for a lot of details and plot elements, too—perhaps moreso, because I’d just finished The Silmarillion. And I constantly had the reaction of mingled familiarity and foreignness. I’m not talking about stuff like Warrior Galadriel, or even huge deviations like “the Elves maintained decades-long military rule over humans who sided with Morgoth.” But small things like the way Sauron is held up as the Big Bad, the relationship between Elves and Dwarves, the attitude towards Valinor. It all felt very uncanny valley.

With the second episode, what struck me was the Peter Jackson of it all: how much these two episodes, taken together, felt like the opening act of one of his Middle Earth movies, and how different a vibe that was from just about every other fantasy show currently running, even the ones that are supposedly less highbrow, like The Wheel of Time or The Witcher. It was all forward motion, and the characters—even the ones that feel more complex, like Galadriel—felt like instruments of the plot rather than people in their own right. Which is funny: first because Jackson’s films are now held up as the “right” way to adapt Tolkien, when really he was whittling those novels down to a specific mode and style; and second because in Game of Thrones we have another template for how “serious” fantasy shows are supposed to work—lots of realpolitik and pensive character moments—and it was almost instantly clear that this show isn’t interested in that at all.

Gautam BhatiaI agree about “the Peter Jackson of it all.” That was my overwhelming impression from the first two episodes: the aesthetic, the dialogue, the music—it all felt like a Peter Jackson rerun, twenty years on. In one way, I suppose that is not overly surprising—many media critics have pointed out how the overwhelming number of recent reruns, remakes, and expansions of popular franchises are essentially a form of service to fans who “grew up” with something in the early 2000s. In that way, I felt that the first two episodes were signalling to that generation of fans (my generation!) that this was safe territory, a space for us to relive our childhoods and teenage years that were draped by the magic of Jackson’s original trilogy.

But I also felt that the opening episodes fell well short of even achieving that goal. For one, it’s twenty years on, and, if Peter Jackson’s trilogy succeeded because it was perhaps the first to do epic fantasy at that scale, in the intervening two decades we’ve had a fair bit of media that has done similar. So it no longer has that breath of freshness. Secondly—and this isn’t the fault of the show of course—it does make a difference watching Peter Jackson on a cinema screen, and watching Rings of Power on a laptop. I don’t know if that sense of scale can work on anything other than a cinema screen. And finally, I felt that there were far too many times when the gravitas of the dialogue simply wasn’t justified by the emotional depth of the scene and the characters—so at a lot of times, the dialogue simply felt jarring. 

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