Can footnotes make great television if you throw enough money around? Anything is possible but, with The Rings of Power, based on fragments of JRR Tolkien’s writings, Amazon hasn’t. According to the ratings, the series is a hit: 1.3 billion minutes have been streamed, against Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon's 781 million minutes.
But artistically Amazon has made a flop that misunderstands JRR Tolkien. The writer of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion was also a survivor of the Great War, and the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University, where he lived in dusty splendour until his death in 1973. If Oxford never gave him his due as a novelist - no one is more important than the university, least of all a fantasy novelist – neither does Amazon. To both Oxford University and Amazon, hobbits – his great creation, and the pathway to his world – are a sideline: well, they are small.
The Rings of Power, which is based on Tolkien’s footnotes – it is a sort of mad tribute – is hobbling towards the conclusion of the first series. (Horrifically, five seasons are planned.) Amazon paid $250 million for the rights and has produced, for its money, a travesty of both the novels and Peter Jackson’s trilogies The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit which, though brief – the novels are a labyrinth – are faithfully done. It’s a truism that modern cinema is a race to the bottom – I saw a Star Wars film in Russian once, and I understood it – but to make junk from the words of a professor of English literature and language feels cruel.
A sky, a mountain, mines, cities, beacons of fire: none of it will retain a viewer’s interest without characters to love. There are not enough hobbits – in The Rings of Power they are called harfoots – and the ones that do exist are not as good as Tolkien’s, who did not write the greatest fantasy novels of the 20th century glibly. (Or these harfoots at all. They are newly invented.) He poured himself into them.
“I am in fact a hobbit,” he wrote, “in all but size. I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humour (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much.”
Middle Earth is vast, but Tolkien had an intimate understanding of friendship, to pull his landscape down to something worth saving. There is Bilbo and Gandalf; Frodo and Samwise; Faramir and Eowyn. (It’s not true that Tolkien couldn’t write women. He could when he wanted to, which wasn’t often. Eowyn is as brittle a fantasist as any woman Jean Rhys wrote. I also think that, in his study of Gollum and Sméagol, he had an acute understanding of mental illness, and alcoholism. But art is a mirror: you find what you seek.)
The novels are about friends Tolkien lost in war but reanimated in fiction: I return to Samwise on the rock as the Lonely Mountain explodes, thinking he is dying and telling Frodo he would have married Rosie and stroked pumpkins all the years. Tolkien based his hobbits on men he met in the Great War (“My ‘Sam Gamgee’ is indeed a reflexion of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognised as so far superior to myself,” he wrote), his school friends at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, with whom he formed a literary club The T.C.B.S (Tea cup, Barrovian Society), and himself. “I have always laid that to the credit of the inspiration that even a few hours with the four [the T.C.B.S] brought to us,” he wrote.
Robert Gilson died first, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Tolkien wrote to Geoffrey Smith, another member of T.C.B.S: “I do not feel a member of a complete body now. I honestly feel that the T.C.B.S. has ended.” Smith replied: “The T.C.B.S. is not finished and never will be.” Then Smith too was killed. He had written to Tolkien: “For the death of one of its members cannot, I am determined, dissolve the T.C.B.S. Death can make us loathsome and helpless as individuals, but it cannot put an end to the immortal four!”
Middle Earth is England, and Tolkien peopled it with his friends, who he called hobbits. The Shire is based on the west midlands, particularly Sarehole, a hamlet just south of Birmingham, now ruined, like the nightmare vision at the end of The Lords of Rings, where he lived as a child. “It was a kind of lost paradise,” Tolkien told a journalist, “There was an old mill that really did grind corn with two millers, a great big pond with swans on it, a sandpit, a wonderful dell with flowers, a few old-fashioned village houses and, further away, a stream with another mill. I always knew it would go – and it did”.
Now this does too. The Rings of Power is overwhelmed by landscape, which it confuses with characterisation. $250 million you will make yourself many mountains I suppose; enough to blind you, but none of them can speak. It is also a mistake, in the absence of Tolkien’s excellent hobbits, to have Galadriel, a pretty variation of Mr Spock, as the main protagonist.
It is almost impossible to care about elves: as Hugo Dyson, a fellow member of the Inklings, Tolkien’s informal literary society at Oxford, the Inklings, said, on reading a draft of Lord of the Rings, “oh no, not another f______ elf”. Elves exist to taunt us with what we are not: I saw Lothlorien as a kind of spa hotel. It is apt that Bored of the Rings, the 1969 Tolkien satire by Henry Beard and Douglas Kenney, is filled with insufferable shagging elves.
If The Rings of Power are over-stuffed with elves, dwarves, and men, because that is all that Tolkien left us, it turns his Middle Earth into a mad episode of The Only Way Is Essex. It is tinny, trivial and over-coloured: there is a Moria that looks like it could plausibly host The Office – why such low ceilings? – and a lazy computer-generated city featuring a boring sub-plot about political oratory. Also – this is essential – there is no wizard. It’s not hard to write a wizard. Gandalf, Dumbledore, Merlin: they are all the same wizard.
Bad television is always with us, and it is forgivable: what else can you do? It is not forgivable is to take the work of a scholar like Tolkien and turn it into this, for money, and call it tribute. It is the opposite: it is theft. A kind of awful modernity came for Sarehole: now it returns with $250 million for Tolkien’s poor footnotes.