“After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes with palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (CSB – Read the chapter)
There are some stories that were told so well, the first time, the only people who try to tell them again, are either very brave, or very foolish. We generally call these kinds of stories. “the Classics.“ The thing about working with a classic is that nearly everyone has heard it presented in one way. What’s more, everyone expects it to be presented in one way. If you decide to work with a classic, you had better get it right or else you risk incurring the wrath of the fans. Recently, Amazon Studios has taken on a classic story universe, and incurred no small amount of fan wrath along the way. Let’s talk today about The Rings of Power.
In college, I was a member of an accidental cover band. Let me explain what I mean. The campus ministry I was a part of began a new service that was designed from the ground up to be outreach-oriented. It was intentionally part of the seeker movement popular in the church at the time. Calling it, Damascus Road, we wanted this event to be as welcoming and comfortable for unbelievers as we could make it. As a result, when it came to choosing music for the event, we intentionally chose songs that we knew were going to be popular with just about everyone.
Over the course of four years, a group of super talented musicians—and me—assembled a pretty significant library of songs we had covered over the years. As a result, by my senior year, we had begun playing concerts around campus for big events. It was a ton of fun. And we got really good at putting together covers of popular songs that were just nearly perfect.
When you work with a song or story, everyone knows, you have one of two choices before you. You can cover it exactly, or you can do it in an entirely new and creative way. While there is smaller risk to the former, if you don’t get it exactly right, everyone will know, and they probably won’t like it. The second approach comes with much more risk, but if you do it well, there is much greater reward.
A couple of years ago, Amazon Studios announced their intention to make a Lord of the Rings—universe series for their streaming platform. Not only were they going to make a Lord of the Rings series, but they signaled their intention to do it well by committing upwards of a billion dollars to produce it. This announcement was greeted at one and the same time with great fanfare, but also great suspicion. After all, the Lord of the Rings trilogy had already been put on screen a few years earlier, and it was hard to imagine that anyone would be able to do it the justice that Peter Jackson did it.
This series, though, was going to be based on a much less known Tolkien work, The Silmarillion, which tells the story of Middle Earth’s history in the Second Age (The Lord of the Rings takes place in the Third Age). The Rings of Power series was going to be about how the seventeen rings of power had been created that Sauron created the One Ring to control.
And yet, given the amount of extra…junk…most modern, big budget streaming series have added to them these days, many fans feared Amazon would take Tolkien’s wholesome story and make it something entirely less savory. A number of announcements made during the production process only served to add fuel to the fire of these fears. As a result, when the series premiered at beginning of this month, it did so under a cloud of doubt and mistrust. The biggest fear of most critics, was that the series would be so focused on incorporating various modern woke values (something the director himself indicated in interviews during the production process), that it would sacrifice its ability to tell a good story for this effort.
Well, when it comes to a big media venture like this, when everyone is talking about your show, even if much of the talk isn’t positive, everyone is nonetheless talking about your show. When the series premiered, it was the largest audience Amazon Studios had ever reached. That audience included me. And after watching the first episode shortly after it’s release, I was…bored. After a rather exciting opening sequence, in which the elven warrior, Galadriel, leads a small unit of elves in search of Sauron, only to have to battle a cave troll, the rest of the episode moved so slowly it was two weeks before I could bring myself to try to watch the next three. From various social media postings, I saw after the first episode, I wasn’t alone in my assessment.
As far as the criticisms about the series being too woke go, I have so far found them to have more bark and bite. Also, the series has so far had nothing in it that would make me uncomfortable, watching it with any of my boys. The action sequences have so far been bloodier, but otherwise right on par with the action sequences in Peter Jackson’s trilogy. And, other than two characters who clearly have romantic feelings for one another touching hands briefly, there has been no sex at all. Who knows how long that will hold, but for a series like this today to take that particular route is delightfully unusual. I will even say this: Having finally forced myself to watch through the second, third, and fourth episodes of the series, bringing me fully to the halfway point (I will watch today’s fifth episode later this evening), the story has picked up very well, and I am excited to see where they go from here.
The one fear critics had before the series premiered that does seem to have had some meat to it was the amount of diversity present among the leading cast. Tolkien’s story universe was basically Northern European such that everyone was white. In Peter Jackson’s big screen version everyone was white. Now, I totally understand the desire for a big fan of a particular story to want to see it reproduced on screen in a manner as close to the author’s original literary vision as possible. For someone who greatly enjoyed the Lord of the Rings trilogy as well as The Hobbit, but who isn’t so well-versed in the lore of Middle Earth, the diversity issue just doesn’t register for me when watching it so far. This is particularly true given that this is a relatively original story rooted in a classic.
Perhaps the one thing that has stood out to me so far is that every single couple in the show is biracial. All of them. I have absolutely zero problems with biracial couples. Past opposition to those from the church was sinfully rooted in cultural preferences and not the Scriptures. Period. But at the point every single romantic relationship in the entire series is biracial, it starts to feel like the production crew was more interested in making a cultural point than telling a realistic story (granting its based on a fantasy novel and not actual history).
This, though, simply allows for a bit of an observation on where our culture is at the moment. Our culture today values diversity for the sake of diversity. In other words, diversity is treated as an end in itself. That does not include ideological diversity, mind you, but just about every other kinds of diversity imaginable is included.
Now, from the standpoint of the Scriptures, there’s nothing wrong with diversity. At all. Full stop. God created a world rich with diversity that reflects the full and beautiful spectrum of His character. John’s vision of the end of the world in Revelation imagines this wonderfully diverse group of people from every nation, tribe, people, and language all gathered around God’s throne singing the praises of the Lamb. God’s kingdom will be a beautifully diverse place.
But as good a thing as diversity is (something, by the way, that is far too often not reflected in our churches), it is never an end in itself. When diversity is treated like an end, we wind up losing sight of what is most important (the Gospel), and giving our attention to checking cultural boxes as if we could justify ourselves somehow by packing a sufficient amount of diversity into our lives. It becomes little more than an attempt at self-righteousness and arrogantly so at that when we allow a certain level of diversity we have achieved in our lives to give us permission to look down on others who are not so enlightened.
That, I think, is the real flaw of The Rings of Power series so far. It sets it sights on the wrong things. This is too bad because in all of Tolkien’s masterful storytelling, he tended to find ways to keep a vision of the Gospel fairly central to his efforts. In a world that has no sense of the Gospel, though, we still need things to give our lives meaning and do give us a sense of righteousness. Unfortunately, while some of these things might be good in and of themselves (at least, they are in the larger context of the Gospel), they are not strong or good enough to serves as ends to which our lives can be pointed for the true fulfillment we need and which only the Gospel can give. For that we need, well, the Gospel. If you’ve got that, you’ve got everything. If you miss that, the reverse is true. Don’t miss it.