The first question I got after seeing the first two episodes of Amazon’s new Lord of the Rings prequel series The Rings of Power was, “Is it like Game of Thrones?” It’s a fair question; in the age of streaming services, high fantasy has been practically synonymous with the epic HBO franchise, which now has its own prequel, House of the Dragon. But from my female friends who asked it, I knew exactly what they meant: “Is this version of Middle Earth going to be one where women are routinely assaulted, degraded, and objectified?”
The Lord of the Rings, while never as gratuitously graphic as GoT, has always had a complicated relationship to its women. In a 1969 essay for the Columbia University Press, feminist scholar Catharine Stimpson published a scathing critique of the women of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. “The most hackneyed of stereotypes,” she described them. “They are either beautiful and distant, simply distant, or simply simple.”
Yet for her sake, I hope that Stimpson watched Peter Jackson’s adaptations, which, despite centering mainly on the male characters just as the source material does, greatly expand the roles of Middle Earth’s most famous women. This was thanks in large part to Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, the two screenwriters who, alongside Jackson, wrote the scripts for all three films. Beyond fleshing out the duties of Galadriel, Arwen, and Eowyn, Walsh and Boyens were also responsible for the trilogy’s most poignant moments, adding emotional depth to characters that in the text appear flat or one-note.
All of this is to say that despite The Lord of the Rings books’ reputation as a coming-of-age series for boys, when they were released in the first few years of the millennium, the films found an enormous fan base among young women. “It is technically an epic fantasy adventure, but I don’t think it hews to the same kind of ideas of masculinity and power that a lot of these stories traditionally do,” the writer Karen Han told the New York Times for a story on LOTR’s millennial female fans. In fact, it is the stereotypically male-coded vices of greed and power that are the overarching foes of Tolkien’s works, while the humble Hobbits and unspoiled countrysides and forests of Middle Earth are the heroes.
For women like me who grew up loving LOTR, the news that Amazon was producing a prequel was both exciting and slightly worrisome. Had Game of Thrones cast such a shadow over the entertainment world that a high fantasy series without sex and gore was considered unprofitable? (For context about what happens to the women of GoT, in the first two episodes of House of the Dragon, there’s a brutally graphic childbirth scene in which both mother and infant die, and in the second, a grown man almost marries a 12-year-old girl.)
Co-showrunner Patrick McKay has previously said publicly that The Rings of Power will eschew graphic violence and sex scenes and will be appropriate “for kids who are 11, 12, and 13,” though the concerns were widespread enough that more than 50,000 fans signed a Change.org petition to keep nudity out of the series. Anonymous sources told the fan blog The One Ring that while there will be nudity in the series, it would be “sparse and not sexualized.”
To answer the question: The Rings of Power is not like Game of Thrones, at least not in that way. In short, it explores Middle Earth’s Second Age, which takes place thousands of years before the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and is not based on any of Tolkien’s novels, but rather the information gleaned in their appendices. We know broadly what happens during the Second Age; much of its main plot is described in the opening flashback of The Fellowship of the Ring: The evil lord Sauron distributes the rings of power to humans, elves, and dwarves, keeping the secret all-powerful One Ring for himself, which Isildur eventually takes by cutting off Sauron’s finger in battle.
But because Tolkien never dedicated a book to the Second Age, showrunners McKay and J.D. Payne have taken creative liberties with the characters who fill out the story. Happily, many of the most important ones are women: Amazon’s series centers on a younger Galadriel, played by Morfydd Clark (Cate Blanchett in the films), a warrior elven princess intent on avenging her brother’s death by Sauron. Though we see zero dwarf women in LOTR, The Rings of Power introduces Disa (Sophia Nomvete), the wife of dwarf prince Durin IV, who seems to wield meaningful power in Khazad-dûm. Among the hobbit-like Harfoots, we see the spunky young Nori Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh), and in the world of men, there’s the healer and single mother Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), who strikes up a romance with a warrior elf Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova). None of these characters aside from Galadriel were created by Tolkien himself, which again, could be exciting, but could just as easily end up falling into the stereotypical tropes of high fantasy women written by men. The truth is we simply haven’t seen enough of these characters yet to say for sure (it does, however, pass the Bechdel test).
Though The Rings of Power, at least in its first few episodes, doesn’t seem to rejoice in the suffering of its characters the way Game of Thrones tends to, I remain skeptical about the other ways in which it mirrors the HBO series — namely, in its story structure. Like many shows in the age of prestige TV, The Rings of Power regularly leaves its audience with mysterious cliffhangers as we jump from scene to scene. It is action-packed, and it is beautiful to look at, but rather than hinging on one strong storyline, we’re strung along on several that remain frustratingly unclear. And just as I often felt nervous while watching Game of Thrones whether it had a coherent endpoint in mind as it weaved and bobbed through Westeros, I worry that The Rings of Power will be stuffed with too many invented subplots and side characters that ultimately don’t have anything to do with the story besides adding more run time. (The entire series will consist of 50 hours of television over five seasons, quadruple the length of all three extended LOTR extended editions.)
Despite the complexity in its language, its geography, and its plot, LOTR is, at its core, a quite simple story, one in which there is good and there is evil. We don’t get a lot of these kinds of stories anymore: As Polygon’s Susana Polo has written of the two decades after the film’s premiere, “Blockbuster film didn’t embrace the sincerity of the Lord of the Rings movies — the way they elevated deep and pure emotions to the level of an adult epic — in the same manner.” Instead, we’ve grown accustomed to cynical, self-deprecating heroes and antiheroes from our big-budget franchises. That hasn’t always been a bad thing; action and fantasy films embracing the nuances of morality and subverting the logic of cinema have led to some of the 21st century’s best filmmaking. But LOTR doesn’t aim to toy with its audiences’ expectations; it doesn’t have to. Its themes are timeless.
My hope for the rest of the series is that it resists the urge to inject this sort of postmodernism into Middle Earth and remains relatively escapist, not just so that viewers don’t have to think about current events while watching it, but so the women in the audience who view LOTR as comfort consumption can get a reprieve from seeing our oppression reflected back to us. I don’t need Jeff Bezos’s billion-dollar vanity project to show me why being a female elf sucks.