“It’s Not Tolkien”

No, it’s not. But that comes with the territory.

Yes I’m talking about Amazon’s Rings of Power TV show and the critisisms of it’s lore breaking and general willingness to make change/unwillingness to be a direct adaptation of lore. This critisism online has circulated as the phrase “it’s not Tolkein.”

To be clear this post isn’t a review of Rings of Power. Nor is it a defence against the “it’s not Tolkien critisism”; I feel wanting an adaptation of a story to be accurate can be a valid reason not to enjoy something, as most adaptive works (though not all) want to try to remake stories accross mediums.

But the “it’s not Tolkien” discourse is interesting and I think worth talking about when it comes to print to screen adaptations. Mainly because, as I stated before, of course Rings of Power isn’t Tolkien. The man died in the 70’s. His son, Christopher, famously dismissed Peter Jackson’s trilogy on the grounds it was too comercialised, and that he disliked that handling of his father’s literature.

The truth is that while, yes, “it’s not Tolkien” is a relevant reason not to like the show, it’s also a redundant statement that isn’t as critical as many think it to be. No Lord of the Rings media is Tolkien except for that which he created himself.

Peter Jackson’s trilogy is not Tolkein. It cuts out waves of content from the books and still, each movie is three hours long with four hour directors’ cuts. Likewise, for the opposite reasons, neither is Hobbit trilogy truly Tolkien. The Hobbit extends a short childrens book into a fantasy epic by inserting new content in the hopes of capturing the scale of the trilogy it is a prequel to, and was never originally designed to contend with.

You may know what I’m getting at by now… Death of the author. It’s the idea that an author has full reign over their work to shape how it is told, received and what it is generally about until it is published. After that point the words are cemented forever on a page, unable to change. They can no longer be altered or reigned over. The way the writing is now received and retold is in the hands of the readership.

Max Brooks, the author of World War Z once said at comic con how at first he was astonished by how disconnected the film adaptation was from his book. But he soon came to not care. Because the film was so disconnected – so not what he had written – that it were as though the two were different stories with different characters entirely. It’s fair to say he let his troubles go when he realised the adaptive work was not attempting to be a remake of his own, but to utilise his idea to achieve different goals.

This is something J.K. Rowling has struggled with. She clings to control of her work to it’s own detriment. She famously declared Hermione to be a black girl despite her own cover-art and in-text descriptions indicating she’s white. She made Dumbledore gay; change that had absolutely zero impact on the Harry Potter world because the character was written so his sexuality was irrelevant to his actions. That was until she forced it into her Fantastic Beasts plotline, when she confirmed Dumbledore had sex with the bad guy, which is an image that illicited more laughter at her desperate attempts to appear virtuous than it did generate any awareness and respect for any LGBTQ+ group. All this in the name of control, masked as inclusivity and diversity. A vein attempt to keep her work relevant and to repair self image, after a transphobic streak on social media.

There can be positive instances of death of the author too. For example Stephen King greatly enjoyed The Mist (2007), and found the very different ending to the film to be so goodthat he wished he’d have come up with it for the book.

Tolkien himself even has a positive death of the author story where he hadn’t realised how much christian imagery he’d filled his stories with until everyone else picked up on it and pointed it out. At this point he self reflected and realised that his readership had found value in his work that he hadn’t intentionally put there. Thereafter, he found value in his work that he had never even intended.

But death of the author can be a complex idea the more you dig into it. And I’d argue the reason no modern Lord of the Rings media is Tolkien can be made infinitely simplier than that, just by looking at the differences between writing and film.

They are simply two different mediums that cannot be conveyed in the same way. And authors and directors must have different skill sets to achieve quality within those mediums. Both have inherant strengths and weaknesses; literature draws upon your own imagination to depict what words on the page are communicating, while film shows you exactly what it wants you to to illicit desired emotion. Neither is better than the other, it just means they’re different mediums consumed and made differently.

And no modern Lord of the Rings media will truly be Tolkien, short of having the text of the books scroll accross a screen for us to read… Which would be down right boring!

None of this is to say I am unsympathetic towards fans who want Rings of Power to be more faithful to Tolkien. I am aware when they say “it’s not Tolkien”, that doesn’t always mean they want a one-to-one recreation of his lore, so much as they want a faithful take that’s in the spirit of what he made. And that sometimes, they merely want the show to be recognisable to the lore, if not a copy of it.

Hell, recently I was in the position of these Tolkien fans while watching Thor Love and Thunder. I am a huge fan of the God Butcher story by Jason Aron and Esad Ribic, and in my review of the film mentioned how the dialled down stakes of the adaptation didn’t live up to the grandeur of the original.

It is only natural, and often fair, to draw comparisons between original works and their adaptations. But when doing so we often forget the context of the mediums, how they’re absorbed, the intent of their creators and what can be gained (or lost) in our own interpretations when the work is no longer theirs to change.

All of this to say… Adaptation isn’t a synonym for remake. World War Z, Harry Potter, Thor Love and Thunder, and Rings of Power are not remaking literature in a new medium. They’re adapting that content through the lens of someone elses creative vision for that work. Some are very faithful to their source material and others make make huge changes. But as I said, that goes with the territory.

So while worth noting that, no, Rings of Power definetly is not Tolkien, as a means to deter fans looking for something more faithful, I also don’t think it’s useful critisism for those making the show. There’s nothing critical to the statement, its just a preference. All the show can do with it is double back on itself and play catch up, which would likely only amplify it’s existing pacing problems.

Truly, adaptarion is a tricky business.

2 thoughts on ““It’s Not Tolkien”

Add yours

  1. It’s not Tolkien. And yet it is sold by a greedy corporation as if it were part of the work of a brilliant Author. Sold as a product for the mindless masses who don’t have to think, just consume. The product produced by people who are only cogs in the machine that are no different from the employees of the nail factory. Their product is supposed to conform to guidelines, not Tolkien’s work. And these guidelines are defined by fake activists whose only meaning of life is to shout and throw accusations at everyone around – the louder they are, the more power they have.


    1. It goes both ways. I think it’s undeniable that the motives behind making The Rings of Power are cynical- from the perception of Amazon specifically. But equally, there has been over-the-top vitriol from those opposing the casting of black actors and the inclusion of a woman as the main character, neither of which – included because of activism or not – hurt the show inherently.

      My point of view is it doesn’t matter whether Rings of Power is or isn’t Tolkein – from my point of view it can’t be in any way other than in spirit due to the nature of adaptations. As long as it’s recognisably Lord of the Rings and of high quality. Needless to say many – and I’m inclined to agree woth them – would say it’s not particularly high quality.


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