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Is 'Rings of Power' Woke? Or Just What We Deserve?
Thoughts on Tolkien, pop culture, and the loss of Story.
Well, after watching the first two episodes, I can report that Amazon’s Lord of the Rings prequel The Rings of Power is neither as good as its advertising claims, nor as bad as its critics insist. Like many—perhaps most—other pop culture artifacts of the streaming era, it is mostly a collection of juxtapositions: gorgeously staged, but tepidly written; epic in scope, but often predictable. While its promoters clearly want us to associate it with Peter Jackson’s trilogy, its most vocal opponents describe it as a soulless exercise in “woke” rebooting, a cash-grabbing excuse to populate a universe with more skin tones, feminist girl-power, and “personal trauma” sermons.
Personally, I don’t see much evidence of “wokeness” in the series thus far. Obviously this could change. There are some hints in the first two episodes of the kind of personal trauma narratives that led to Disney+’s Obi-Wan Kenobi being saddled with a dull villain. Most worryingly, Galadriel’s trajectory seems headed toward an
Disney Amazon Princess arc. But I don’t think the series seems likely to generate meaningful grist in the culture war machine.
Which is a little unfortunate, since an ideological series might stumble into occasions of profundity. Instead, The Rings of Power stumbles into the same trap that is claiming nearly every big-budget item coming out of Hollywood studios nowadays: Its diversity, its feminism, and its being conversant with Millennial and Gen-Z pressure points all feel like deliberate substitutes for genuine creativity. As with The Rise of Skywalker, as with the Ghostbusters reboot(s), as with the Jurassic Pratt franchise, so too with The Rings of Power: there’s a “why”-centered hole at the center of the project that stunning visuals and engrossing production values can’t fill.
Unfortunately, I don’t think “why” is something that better writing alone can supply. As I’ve been watching both Disney+’s Star Wars offshoots and The Rings of Power, I can’t help but suspect that neither George Lucas nor Peter Jackson would be able to get their original films produced today. Lucas was famously unpopular with the suits at 20th Century Fox. He was a film geek whose imagination was shaped by special effects gimmicks and cheesy Saturday matinee serials. After multiple other studios laughed him off the lot, New Line gave Jackson a $270 million check to produce three movies based on a thousand-page novel by an Oxford philologist: a novel that had heretofore been mostly popular with hippies and literature scholars. Similar stories surround the production of films The Godfather, Jaws, even the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Hollywood history is filled with conflicts between corporate risk assessment and stubborn filmmakers. They gave audiences a conspicuous number of our most treasured movies.
This kind of conflict presupposes, however, a couple things. It presupposes a corporate studio system that still, however dimly, believes in the financial power of originality. And it presupposes a crop of writers and directors whose instincts for what makes great entertainment goes beyond what’s already been done, an ability to imagine themselves as the audience and make something that really does move, thrill, or inspire. It seems to me that both of these things are largely missing from current pop culture landscape. Studios no longer believe that audiences care to see something they haven’t seen before. The dance between originality as a liability or an asset is done for; it’s all liability now. Further, it seems to me that emerging generation of storytellers may be ill-served for having come of age in a mass media culture in which all the artifacts that thrilled and inspired them were constantly on repeat.
So take Rings of Power as a case study. In Lord of the Rings, Jackson and actress Cate Blanchett give Galadriel a personality consonant with her nature as a supernatural being. To the hobbits (and so to us) she seems transcendent, otherworldly, speaking and moving and turning her head in ways that suggest she’s not like the rest of us. In the Rings of Power, Galadriel seems to have more in common with Rey. She’s a plucky, independent woman, driven by trauma that others (=men) discount because they Just Don’t Get It. Gone is the numinous presence of the seer that seemed to suggest a divine providence in the quest of the Fellowship. It’s been replaced by something that looks more like the kind of characters that kids beg for in Target aisles.
Which brings us full-circle back to the question of wokeness. There is a sense in which the gatekeepers of mass media do not believe in the power of Story, they only believe in the power of stories: where mythological tradition fails, individual narratives of overcoming microaggressions and institutional insensitivity prevail. It’s something less than targeted ideology; it’s just the new way our mythmakers see the world. And this new way of seeing the world is highly marketable, highly tweetable, highly conducive to #takes and the triumph of digital epistemology. In a screen-mediated society, captivating hearts is a fool’s errand (and a stockholder’s allergy). The goal is merely to capture attention: get the click or die trying.
And while this era persists, the stories of previous eras, with fresher memories and earthier tastes, will taste more flavorful than current menus.