Being one of the richest people on the planet, Jeff Bezos is not used to being told what to do. But when Amazon announced it was creating The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, which is likely to become the most expensive television series ever made, he received a blunt order from his son: “Dad, don’t fuck this up.”
With legions of diehard JRR Tolkien fans ready to pore over every detail of the series, pleasing them all was always going to be as hard as traversing Mordor. And the global release of its opening shows on Friday has revealed there is, unsurprisingly, no middle ground when it comes to Middle-earth.
After greedily devouring the first two episodes, released at 2am in the UK, some fans were in seventh Valinor, while others have lambasted its creators for, in the words of one energised armchair critic, “spitting on the legacy of Tolkien”.
Away from the furies of social media, the reaction is nuanced, says Shaun Gunner, the chair of the Tolkien Society. Although with more than 500 members of the society gathering for Oxonmoot in Oxford this weekend, and a screening of the first two episodes and a panel discussion planned, debate is likely to be impassioned.
“I think it’s fair to say there are some mixed reactions from members about what they’ve seen,” says Gunner. “Some of them are saying it’s amazing, beautiful, spectacular. Other members are not so sure.”
Gunner says the show’s creators have taken great pains to engage the Tolkien community, and was among 100 fans who went to the star-studded premiere in Leicester Square, London, graced by Bezos. His verdict? “I’m excited to see more,” he says. “Very few people are just writing it off … I would say cautious optimism is probably where most people are at.”
The Rings of Power – which the Guardian review called so astounding it made the rival HBO series House of the Dragon “look amateur” – covers the Second Age of Middle-earth. It is set around 2,000 years before Frodo Baggins sets out on his fateful journey from The Shire in Lord of the Rings and introduces the dark lord Sauron and the story behind the forging of the Rings of Power.
Unlike the Peter Jackson adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, the Amazon Prime series is not based on a novel, explains Dr Dimitra Fimi, a lecturer in fantasy and children’s literature and specialist on JRR Tolkien at the University of Glasgow, but on the appendices of The Lord of the Rings trilogy – the rights of which cost a cool $250m (£216m).
“They have the bare bones of a story, but they don’t have the detail,” she says. “They have to invent characters, they have to invent storylines, but keep it within that skeleton. It’s an interesting creative challenge.”
Some have taken umbrage at the fact that there are “Hobbit-esque” characters – called harfoots – in the show, as Tolkien wrote that hobbits did nothing noteworthy before the Third Age. Other less savoury criticism has focused on the diverse casting, because, as Lenny Henry, who plays the harfoot elder Sadoc Burrows, put it: “They have no trouble believing in a dragon, but they do have trouble believing … a black person could be a hobbit or an elf.”
In the farther reaches of the internet there was a “really awful backlash”, says Fimi. “Scholars were rushing to say, well, [Tolkien’s world] wasn’t as white as you think. But we were attacked, it was quite serious. That shows the strength of feeling here but, at the same time, how it can go a bit extreme.”
Andrew Higgins, a Tolkien scholar and fan, argues the move is important – not only because, he argues, Tolkien never wrote that all elves should be white, but because it helps bring new fans to the writer.
“If someone sees a character that they can relate to, that’s a great way to get into Tolkien,” he says.
Away from the so-called culture wars, the grumbles are more likely to increase if the show’s writers – the relatively unknown writing duo Patrick McKay and JD Payne – create a world that does not feel authentically Tolkienian, says Dr Mark Atherton, a lecturer in English language, Old English and medieval English literature at Regent’s Park College, Oxford.
“It’s all in the detail,” says Atherton. “If you don’t get that right […] then you should do something else, you should make your own fantasy, not base it in Tolkien’s world, it seems to me – but I might be biased, I teach medieval literature.” Atherton is reserving judgment as he is yet to see the show, but has – Bezos will be no doubt pleased to hear – subscribed to Amazon Prime in order to watch.