Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Rings of Power

 I have a number of things I eventually want to get around to putting up, but I've been a bit under the weather the past few days, so in lieu of any of those things, I thought I'd say something about The Rings of Power, particularly since Darwin has recently put up some reflections.

I want to try at least to be nice about it. I think it is good to have Tolkienesque things, and I think the Chestertonian dictum that something genuinely worth doing is worth doing even if done badly is at least often right. The situation underlying the show is unpromising, since they only have the right to use information from the LOTR appendices that are not licensed for other things. This makes it already difficult to build anything coherent, and it is ill-advised, in and of itself, to take a literary work that is famous for its unusual degree of worldbuilding coherence and try to adapt it under circumstances in which you are unlikely to do justice to that coherence. Nonetheless, I think here and there you can see that there was potential, and given that there is so much to complain about, I do want to recognize the potential. Nonetheless, the criticisms very easily crowd very thickly.

Let's take the Aristotelian elements: Plot, Character, Thought, Diction, Melody, and Spectacle. Those are, roughly, from most important to less important, at least for serious drama and epic, and I think one obvious problem with the show is that the importance of its elements are reversed, so I'll go through them in the reverse order.

Spectacle: The show mostly does very well with Spectacle. Spectacle is one of those things you can reasonably guarantee if you throw mind-boggling quantities of money in the direction of reasonably talented people, and this is certainly the case here. I remember thinking during the first two episodes that you could take stills of many of the scenes and make them into book-illustrations, and it would be a genuinely beautiful book. There are some weaknesses, and particularly the sorts of weaknesses that come with CGI. Numenor is weirdly substanceless. It's beautifully depicted, in the same picture book vein, but you don't get much of a sense of its being lived-in; very few people seem to work there, they mostly just congregate artistically against backdrops. 

The costuming is often decent, although it's also weirdly inconsistent -- the nomadic Harfoots without sheep or agriculture are somehow much better dressed than Men in the Southern human settlements, almost all of whom dress like they make their clothes from old sacks. Part of that, I think, is that the Southrons are depicted in a very unhistorical Hollywood Medieval. When you look at actual historical clothing that has survived through the centuries, you find that it is almost all very well made and very colorful -- prior to the machine age, textiles were one of the most important industries in almost every society, so a huge amount of social effort was devoted to clothing, and it was largely handcrafted. Because of the expense, people would not have had large numbers of clothes, but what they would have had would have generally been custom-tailored, or else expertly re-tailored, by people who spent huge quantities of time doing that sort of thing. To be sure, not everything would have been consistently good, and lots of people would have clothes with lots of repairing to make them last as long as possible, but it was the sort of thing that civilized people put a lot of time into; there were a lot of highly competent people around with the relevant skills because it was usually a thriving and profitable industry; and almost any large household would have people who did a lot of at least basic work on clothes, at least part of the time. I remember seeing promos for the Vikings show some years ago, and thinking, "No real Viking would be caught dead in clothes like that." And it's true; wearing badly fitting, badly stitched, drab-colored clothes would be a sign that you were a destitute failure. But Hollywood has developed the convention that you show pre-modern societies mostly dressed like vagrants who had been wandering in the wilderness; thus we get the Southrons in RoP dressed in truly ugly clothes. But when the LOTR movies were made, the costuming for the Hobbits was very nicely done, and much more plausible than you usually get; the Hobbits mostly dressed in nice country clothes with a fair amount of color, like you would expect in a prosperous and respectable agricultural community. The Harfoot costuming seems to be someone's imagining of an early version of the movie costuming for the Hobbits, with the odd result that the nomads dress like members of a wealthy farming community. The contrast is sometimes jarring, and is emblematic of much of what you get in the show: a lot of thought put into things combined with not always thinking things through.

Melody: Middle Earth as Tolkien conceived it is a very musical place, but Hollywood Medieval typically doesn't have a lot of room for music. We do get a nice, somewhat Hobbit-ish, song in one of the episodes, and a Dwarvish song that's at least interesting, but there's not really that much in-story music. Tolkien's Elves are singers, but RoP's Elves show no real sign of being so. The overall soundtrack, though, is fairly decent; the main title, which is nicely done, was scored by Howard Shore (who scored the LOTR movies), and Bear McCreary, who is the primary composer, is rightly famous for his work on television soundtracks, and is obviously making a serious effort here. 

Diction: The dialogue is very uneven and, frankly, the writers struggle write Tolkienish dialogue even when they try. Speakers sometimes range from fairly casual to formally florid in a single speech, and the metaphors and similes often come across as someone straining to find a metaphor or simile. But there are also stretches that are perfectly fine. The writers seem to be fairly good at capturing ordinary one-on-one conversations about homely topics, and less so at anything grand and sublime.

Thought: Thought, Character, and Plot are the most important elements, and on all three the show often falls flat. The basic story that is being told is in Tolkien's work a theological one. Numenor's corruption and destruction come about literally due to heresy fueled by pride and fear of death. The Noldor are in a semi-disobedient state; they left paradise because they wanted to rule in their own right in Middle Earh, and in the Second Age, the Noldor still in Middle Earth are those who refused to return to paradise when offered forgiveness. They, like the Numenoreans, are taken in by Sauron due to pride, although in the Elven case it is a pride of making and achievement that has no trace of any fear of death. The writers seem to recognize that pride should be a big issue, but they don't seem to have a very nuanced understanding of it; in the story, pride seems to come mostly in the form of arrogant jackassery. Subtler modalities of pride seem to be missing, which does not bode well for the themes of the work. And the underlying conception of the world seems to be almost Manichaean: Dark and Light as equal and balanced powers, rather than evil as parasitic on the good. This gives a very un-Tolkien feel to the occasional attempts to be profound or mythological.

Character: With Character we reach the point at which the series is sometimes a disaster. The Spectacle, Melody, and Diction work well enough; there's plenty to criticize, but none of it's in any way fatal. Even the shift to non-Tolkien Manichaean themes are not fatal; they may make some of the story seem more like The Dark Is Rising than The Lord of the Rings, but they could still be done quite well with proper Character and Plot. But with Character, the show almost completely drops the ball. There are characters I like, mostly because of the actors -- I like some of the Harfoots, who are played charmingly, and I like Disa (Sophia Nomvete has, I think, some of the best acting so far). Some of the interactions between Elrond and Durin aren't too bad. As far as characterization goes, Arondir has been interesting, although we still don't know where any of it is going. But having watched five episodes, I think all of the Elves except Arondir are badly written, and most are miscast. Gil-Galad, who is the most powerful person in Middle Earth and one of the greatest leaders in its entire history, always seems as interesting as a wooden block. Elrond, when he's not talking to Durin or Disa, is equally dull, and Celebrimbor somehow manages to be worse. 

But notoriously, Galadriel, although Morfydd Clark sometimes looks the part, is a complete disaster. She is the front-and-center character for the theme of pride, which, remember, the writers can apparently only write in the mode of arrogant jackassery. She has apparently lived thousands of years without learning anything about how to interact with people. We have yet to see her talk to anyone whom she does not insult at some point in the conversation. Very early on, we discover that she is a poor leader who, when her band of warriors is attacked by a troll, does not do anything to organize her soldiers in the attack against it, but instead kills it on her own in  an immensely improbable and showy manner, apparently without any concern for the dangers it creates for her people. It is not at all surprising that they mutiny and go home. Ever since, her story has put her into diplomatic situation after diplomatic situation, and in every single one she has failed miserably at even the most elementary basics of diplomacy. I mean, you can do a surprising amount in diplomacy just by being polite to people, and she can't even manage that. There is no way to make sense of her juvenile behavior given her millenia-long backstory, and no way to make sense of it given where we know she has to end up. She comes across, frankly, as a little sociopathic. Given that she is so far the primary character, this is not good.

Plot: The problems with Plot are not as glaring as those with Character, but they are in some ways worse. They can be summed up in this way. I originally intended to do a post on The Rings of Power after the first two episodes, but I didn't because, when I considered doing it, I said, "But nothing has really happened yet. I'll wait until the third episode." Then the third episode came, and when I considered writing a post on it, I said, "Well, I don't know what to say about much of it, because I don't have an idea where any of it is going; things are only just starting to happen." Then after the fourth episode, I still had the same problem, because very little had moved. Things finally start coming together, a little bit, in the fifth episode, but it's still moving slowly. My dear friends, we are not Elves. We cannot sit watching television for a century before something happens. This is not about patience, but about the simple artistic fact that at some point you have to put story into your story. We're over halfway through the season and only just getting started on the actual story. If I were to try, Aristotle-like to give you the Plot so far, it would be something like, "An Elf ended up in Numenor by accident and tried to convince them to send ships to Middle Earth to fight an enemy she doesn't know anything about. An Elf and a Dwarf renewed an acquaintance and discovered that the Elves need mithril to survive for some reason. An Elf is leading a band of Orcs for some reason and for some reason is marching to take a fortress. Not-Quite-Hobbits are moving for some reason and have found an old man who fell out of the sky for some reason. Everything else is episode." I think they are trying to build mystery, and there are parts, like some of those concerned with Adar or the Stranger or Hallbrand, that work reasonably well in that way -- we learn a little bit about them through a bit of story and it sets up puzzles and questions. But these are rare and only in come in snippets. Most of the story is a mystery in a bad way -- we just have no idea what is going on, because too little has happened for us to put anything together, even speculatively. It's not that the story has built up a mystery; it's that things are baffling because the story hasn't built anything up.

It's clear watching it that instead of dividing an episode into several storylines, they should have limited themselves to one storyline, or perhaps a main storyline and a supplementary storyline, per episode. As things are, every storyline is moving at a snail's pace. And even worse than that, it's a dilatory snail, because sometimes the storyline itself is just stalled, and we get a significant portion of an episode with just Galadriel swimming the ocean, or the Harfoots going somewhere for some reason we don't know, or a bunch of people in Numenor congregating to complain about how the Elves are going to take their jobs when they've literally seen one and only one Elf in more than a century. There are just too many points at which you can stop, and, when you ask, "Why are you here?", the answer comes back with crystal clarity, "I have no idea."

And that's about the whole of it. It's not that you don't occasionally see considerable talent on display. Some things are nicely done. But about most of it, the answer to the question, "Why?", ends up being, "I have no idea." Why even do this? I don't know. Why are these artistic choices being made? I don't know. Why is the story unfolding in this way or that? I don't know. I can make some guesses here and there, but, honestly, I don't really know.