Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, October 01, 2022

Not Enough Power, Not Enough Ring

We're six episodes into the first season of The Rings of Power, Amazon's foray into the backstory of Lord of the Rings. Each Friday night we log in with Brandon Watson and spend an hour or so gaping in astonishment at how even $500 million dollars is not enough these days to buy half-way competent storytelling. The show is visually compelling (though it often doesn't pay to think too much about the logic, or lack thereof, behind the imagery, which is the perfect example of what Brandon and I have styled Fake Awesome.

Brandon has written about Rings of Power through the lens of Aristotle's elements of drama:

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...

And Darwin recently wrote about how he would restructure the beginning of the series to focus on Tolkien's actual mythology, instead of a half-baked modern fantasy narrative

Aside from having a more clear and fast moving plot (it's rather shocking in terms of writing that we are five episodes into an eight episode season and the series plot is only now slowly coming into shape, while the individual episodes themselves do not tend to have a satisfying plot and resolution of their own) my premise here is that the changes the series would most need would be in the themes which drive the Elven and Numenorian parts of the story, and in particular those which drive Galadriel. Morfydd Clark is certainly giving the role her skill, but the writing she's being given doesn't give her much to work with, and it just doesn't seem to fit with a character who is one of the oldest and most powerful elves in Middle Earth at the time of the story.

One of the qualities of mythology is a storytelling that steps out of the everyday into the realm of epic, where every element becomes an archetype. When people retell stories from mythology, they usually humanize them by adding episode, interactions dealing with small moments in the larger plot that show characters grappling with choices, emotions, and the little human moments of life. These moments of episode bring the listener into the myth by giving them the chance to identify with the choices the characters make.

One reason why Lord of the Rings is a far more compelling subject for drama than is the Silmarillion (or the Appendices, which are what the show's creators actually have the rights to use) is that there is a dearth of episode in the ancillary materials to LOTR. What makes The Lord of the Rings a classic of world literature is smallness played against largeness -- the little human moments of humor, terror, and moral choice enacted against a backdrop of danger and grandeur almost too sweeping to comprehend. This little object, a golden ring, bears within it the power to destroy everything Frodo loves. This little hobbit, Frodo, takes on an enormous burden that only he is small enough to carry. The powerful cannot be trusted with the ring precisely because they are powerful and do powerful things. Frodo (and later, Sam) are both humble enough that they have no scope for wielding the ring to the destruction of empires, empires which consist of multitudes of unnamed people and leagues of untamed land. And the hobbits' character arcs are expressed in the small hidden choices that most of us make each day, unnoticed and unapplauded. The pity of Bilbo shall rule the fates of many, says Gandalf -- a small, mundane pity that was expressed in one or two lines in the Hobbit. Bilbo sees the misery of Gollum, understands it, and forbears to strike him when he might have done so with no consequences to himself. It is a little thing in the larger narrative, a little bit of episode that Bilbo himself doesn't dwell on. And yet it is the hook on which the whole saga hangs.

The Silmarillion and Appendices have few small moments. Most of the narrative involves larger-than-life events enacted by larger-than-life characters with larger-than-life motivations. There are few pauses for conversations or deliberations, and what moments do exist are narrated in an elevated style. And so, our show runners must create the small moments of episode which turn the story from documentary to drama. How do they do with this act of sub-creation?

Not especially well, as it turns out. The show comes up short on two fronts:

1. It is poor Tolkien.

2. It is poor writing.

In an act of self-restraint that few will understand but most will appreciate, I will forebear to elaborate on point #1. The writers deviate significantly from Tolkien's mythology, something which I could forgive if by doing so they made the plot more streamlined and the characters more intelligible. They do neither. Every episode is more confounding than the next. Nothing makes more sense as time goes on. No one's motivations become clearer.

Almost no one's. As in many works of fan service, the most compelling characters and episodes are the ones the writers have created themselves. Adar, leader and Father of the Orcs, is not in Tolkien, but not inconsistent with him either. He is, as best we can tell, a fallen Elf, captured and corrupted by Morgoth long ago, and although we don't know his full story, we believe that there is something he wants, and that he knows how to get it. He is dramatically complex and his dialogue resonates. When he is onscreen, I believe. 

He is also emblematic of the problems of this show, which is that the writers have little faith in the power of goodness. They do not know how to write it. Adar is compelling because he is twisted: his compassion and will to heal are expressed in specific cruelties and atrocities. By contrast, the characters who are supposed to represent what is good are mired in a morass of cliché and paint-by-numbers scenes. Everyone except Adar must express conflict through escalating bickering, repetitive and unenlightening. The Elves bicker. The humans bicker. The dwarves bicker. Diplomacy breaks down into bickering. Only Adar is above bickering. He knows other ways to get what he wants, and hence his small moments of episode are dramatically interesting, and their tension earned.

"Unearned" is how a friend described the plot payoffs of Rings of Power, and I think it's fair assessment. Things happen because the writers feel them necessary. Character choices feel rammed into a plot template rather than flowing organically from the motivations of the people making the choices. Gil-Galad, the Elven king, should be a character of power and majesty capable of facing Sauron himself, yet here he is a banal bureaucrat with a strange incuriosity about the major threats facing Middle Earth. Galadriel fights because... because she doesn't know who she is if she puts down her sword. Elrond and Durin, the Dwarf prince, face a breach in their friendship which seems rooted in nothing more than the writers' need for some easy conflict. Celebrimbor, grandson of Fëanor, whose pride in his craftsmanship set the Elves on the destructive course that mars so much of the history of Middle Earth, says a line or two about wanting to equal his grandfather's accomplishments, but his mushy character turns what ought to be an exercise in power and pride and skill into an exercise in construction project management. Numenor, the great island kingdom given to the humans who fought a millenia ago as partners with the Elves against Morgoth the fallen angel, can not gin up any controversy more compelling than labor disputes and guild membership, and every controversy and conversation there seems half-baked. Almost every scene in the series plays better as an outline (X pushes back here; Y demands a decision, X reacts defensively) rather than interactions that specific people would have.

The spectacular elements also feel unearned. A calvary charge, meant to be a eucatastrophe in the finest Tolkien tradition, feels more the show runners knew the fans wanted an echo of the charge of the Rohirrim rather than something that would be plausible, or even possible, in this particular scenario. A victorious battle strategy relies on a Rube Goldbergesque series of manipulations and demolitions, which leads to questions on the part of the viewer -- why would the people who initially constructed this fortress build it in this way in the first place? Nothing makes any sense except as a means to further spectacle or plot machinations. 

If this show has a redeeming aspect, it's that it's allowed for small acts of friendship for us, as we text in indignation and pedantry while watching simultaneously in Ohio and Texas. But how much better would have been to be united in appreciating a good show, Tolkien well told? That's a pleasure that we have yet to know.


Brandon said...

Bickering as the fallback way of creating something in the vicinity of drama is definitely a wearying part of the series. I suspect you're right that part of why Adar works is that all the drama around him comes from his actually doing things that tend toward some kind of goal. Everyone else seems aimless; even Galadriel, who is seeking vengeance against Sauron, doesn't know where he is or what he's doing, so she just seems to be randomly trying things out.

MrsDarwin said...

Arondir is one of the better characters in the show, and I think one reason is because he never bickers. He also wants a positive goal -- the love and well-being of Bronwyn, and the safety of the human village -- and the plot has given him plenty of believable obstacles to overcome in pursuit of that goal.

Galadriel's goal is mostly negative. She doesn't want to heal Middle Earth of its hurts, or even establish her own dominion, but simply to keep searching for Sauron for revenge, because that's what's come to define her, in her own mind. That's why she can't bargain effectively with Adar. Good bargaining consists of finding out what the other person wants, and then helping them get it in a way that benefits you and your aims. Galadriel doesn't know how to find out what other people want. She doesn't know how to work with anyone else. She just wants to fight, and maybe to feel something with Halbrand. The bickering-as-interaction is a symptom of this underlying character problem.