This article contains spoilers for season one of Prime Video’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of PowerPrime Video’s new Lord of the Rings series, The Rings of Power, has been the recipient of a lot of criticism since the first season aired in the second half of 2022. Some of the criticism directed at the series, such as the uneven writing and flat characters, is valid. However, one of the biggest critiques is doesn’t quite hold as much water. At least, not yet. That chief complaint is regarding how the series is adapting the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. The Rings of Power adapts the Second Age of Middle-Earth, which is an era of The Lord of the Rings that general audiences are less familiar with. The events of The Rings of Power are set thousands of years prior to The Lord of the Rings, and there are many different characters and parts of the world depicted in the series that no longer exist in the Third Age when the tales of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins unfold.
For fans of Tolkien’s books, however, the Second Age is a very familiar time. That era of Middle-Earth has been explored through numerous texts written by Tolkien. A general outline of events is detailed in the Appendices included at the end of the Return of the King novel, while other details are expanded upon in The Silmarillion, entries in the History of Middle-Earth series and other supplementary materials. For ease of those wanting to dip their toes into the lore of the Second Age, most of these writings have recently been compiled into one single book titled The Fall of Númenor. There’s a lot of material to get familiar with, and many die-hard Tolkien fans have spent years submerged in the wondrous depths of Tolkien’s Legendarium. However, The Rings of Power has made some significant changes to the material as it has been brought to the screen. While these changes have upset many fans, some of them are unavoidable.
Some Things Just Don’t Translate Well to Screen
If you’re a massive fan of any novel or pre-existing story, it’s only natural to want the on-screen adaptation of it to be as faithful as possible. There’s something truly special about getting to experience a story you love brought to life in front of your eyes. Seeing something that had previously only existed on the page and in your imagination be brought to life through film can be a dream come true for fans. However, it’s important to keep in mind that there are bound to be changes to the material. Some things just don’t translate well when adapted to the screen, and it can be necessary to make changes for the sake of telling a coherent story. There are many aspects of just about every written story that work well on the page but wouldn’t be as effective when depicted visually. While there are certainly movie adaptations that have been praised for being both excellent films and faithful adaptations, every story is different and must be approached differently.
It’s important to keep in mind that just because an adaptation is faithful does not mean that it is good. The opposite is also true; some of the best book-to-film or television adaptations have made significant deviations from the source material. Faithfulness to the source material is only one of many aspects that have to be taken into consideration when adapting a story to a new medium. The most applicable comparison to The Rings of Power is the trilogy of films based on The Lord of the Rings that Peter Jackson directed in the early 2000s. Those films are considered to be one of the best trilogies of all time, and they are generally considered to be excellent adaptations of Tolkien’s work. However, that doesn’t mean that they are completely and utterly faithful to the books. There are many notable differences between the story of The Lord of the Rings as it is told on the page and as it is presented on-screen. Numerous key characters and world-building moments are omitted from the films entirely, while other major moments and characters’ personalities are adjusted and rearranged. Even the extended editions of the films, which add a few of these elements back into the story, do not include the likes of Tom Bombadil, Beregond the Citadel Guard, or the Scouring of the Shire.
There are undoubtedly aspects of the Second Age of Middle-Earth that would not work on-screen, even with a budget as astronomically high as The Rings of Power‘s. Aspects of the Númenorean culture, such as the yearly gathering to witness the bears of the island doing a big dance together, would be a bit strange for a show like The Rings of Power. The biggest reason, however, for many of the exclusions from the Second Age as shown in the series is that Amazon only has the rights to the core Lord of the Rings books and the information included in their Appendices. That means that the series can only adapt the Second Age as far as it is described in the Appendices of The Return of the King. All the other expanded material of The Silmarillion, The Fall of Númenor and the rest of the books is entirely off-limits. So, even if they wanted to, the showrunners couldn’t inject any dancing bears into The Rings of Power.
Condensing the Timeline
However, even though The Rings of Power is limited to the descriptions of the Second Age that are given in the Lord of the Rings books, that still provides the series with plenty of material to pull from. In addition to the numerous conversational explorations of the Second Age within the story itself, the Appendices expand and detail many of the key legends and events of that time. Appendix A gives a thorough description of the line of Númenorean kings and the island kingdom they ruled over. Númenor is essentially given a complete history that leads all the way into the establishment of Gondor and Arnor in Middle-Earth, the assault upon Mordor at the end of the Second Age and many of the events that followed for the Men of Westernesse.
Beyond the kingdom of Númenor, the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings also detail many of the key moments from the Second Age in Middle-Earth. Tolkien described everything ranging from the Elven kingdoms of Lindon and Eregion to the realm of Mordor, Sauron’s return, the forging of the Rings of Power and the numerous wars that defined the Age. This all gives The Rings of Power a solid roadmap to build upon. However, translating that story to screen isn’t as simple as it was adapting The Lord of the Rings for Jackson’s film. That’s because none of those stories are told from a first-person perspective or in any similar narrative. It’s all relayed essentially in the same manner as a historical text. There’s no dialogue or elaborate descriptions of smaller details. It’s a general outline that recounts the story without delving too deeply into the nitty-gritty of it all.
The key exploration of the Second Age that is given in the Appendices, however, is a complete timeline of events which is provided in Appendix B, The Tale of Years. This roughly one-and-a-half-page timeline outlines all the major events of the Second Age. With one look at the timeline, it’s clear that change was needed to adapt it into a show or movie. That’s because the major events of the time, such as the forging of the rings, the destruction of Númenor and the march of the Last Alliance against Sauron, all take place over the course of nearly 3,500 years. In Tolkien’s text, the Rings of Power are forged nearly 2,000 years before Isildur is even born. If The Rings of Power were to adapt this story faithfully, it would either become the longest-running TV series in history (with major characters like Elendil and Isildur only appearing in the final season) or the pace of the show would be so frantic that nothing would be understandable.
In order to make things more digestible for general audiences, the showrunners of The Rings of Power wisely made the decision to condense this timeline down to a much shorter timeframe. While there will likely still be significant time jumps between seasons, most of the major events of the Second Age will occur in roughly the same half-century, within the lives of men like Isildur. Even though this is a massive change from the way Tolkien established the lore, it was the best decision that could’ve been made for the show. It allows the depiction of all the key story points while keeping consistent characters that can be followed throughout it all. It may seem blasphemous to a Tolkien purist to depict the Rings of Power being forged in Isildur’s lifetime, but to general audiences and from a general story perspective, it was undoubtedly the right call to make such a change.
The Need to Be Careful
Now, while major changes like that are essential to making the story of the Second Age more coherent for a visual medium, that does not mean that The Rings of Power gets a free pass to just run wild with the source material. If the series were to really go off the rails and suddenly kill off a character like Isildur or bring the likes of Bilbo Baggins into the story, there would understandably be a lot of people upset. There’s a delicate balance that needs to be struck when it comes to adapting any material. While changes will inevitably have to be made, even if they are dramatic, the adaptation needs to maintain the spirit of the source material. That’s a big part of why the changes made for Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings are forgivable; the films he produced thoroughly preserved the heart and spirit of what they were adapting. The core plot and emotion of the story were untouched.
So far, The Rings of Power hasn’t shown that it is taking that same careful approach to the spirit of what it’s adapting. There have been a number of other major changes from the source material that alter the actual substance of the story. The biggest of which is the character of Annatar. In the source material, Annatar is a disguised Sauron who lived among the Elves for many years and gradually deceived them into creating the Rings of Power. It’s one of the core aspects and moments in the entirety of Tolkien’s lore, and The Rings of Power seems to have altered it almost beyond recognition. This was done by entirely omitting the character of Annatar, replacing him with Sauron’s new guise of Halbrand, who pretends to be a long-lost king of Men. Then, in the season one finale, an injured Halbrand is brought to the Elves in Eregion for healing, where he swiftly convinces them that they need to forge the rings in order to preserve their long life.
While The Rings of Power could double back on Annatar in future seasons, it would risk retreading on a story the show has already told while also deviating even further. The choice to condense the timeline of the Second Age is understandable, but to blatantly alter the story itself is less so. If The Rings of Power continues to make major changes like that in future seasons, then many of the criticisms lobbed at the series will start to hold much more weight. The show will lose what makes The Lord of the Rings really special, in favor of cheap attempts to surprise fans who are familiar with the material. While it is important to give the creatives behind the show the room they need to tell the story, it is equally important that those creatives tell that story with consistent respect for the material they are pulling from. It’s a fine line to walk, but it’s one that has been walked before, even within this same franchise. If The Rings of Power is to win back the die-hard fans that have been so critical of the series, the showrunners need to stick more closely to what has made the material work in the past, with changes only coming when an opportunity to genuinely expand upon or enhance the material presents itself.