Staring down the trolls: What's really behind the battle over The Rings Of Power?

·7 min read
Morfydd Clark as Galadriel
Morfydd Clark as Galadriel

If some of that negative discourse surrounding Amazon’s  The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve been here before. So. Many. Times. While backlash campaigns to revivals of popular franchises have been growing in the past few years, particularly when those projects touch on inclusivity, the digital trolls seem to have dialed up their intensity in the lead-up to The Rings Of Power, which finally arrives this week after years of development. The good news? Outside of that small subset of the fandom (or, in some cases, of people who had their own more nefarious agendas) the effort doesn’t seem to be making much of a dent in the high expectations for the series.

It might be tempting to chalk up these social media skirmishes to a fight between loyal fans who simply want to preserve the integrity of the thing they love and a multinational corporation looking to cash in on that devotion with little understanding of the work that inspired it. To be fair, that’s partly true. By all accounts, The Rings Of Power will be the most expensive series ever made. Amazon didn’t commit an estimated $1 billion (literally, that’s not hyperbole) on a five-season order without expecting to see a return on that investment. What former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos wanted was his own Game Of Thrones. As if one massive fantasy franchise is the same as any other. Let’s not pretend the primary goal of this production isn’t to add to the company’s bottom line. To think any differently would be naive.

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A tall order for the showrunners

It’s also true that Amazon Studios put the show’s creative team in a tough spot. They were charged with making a Lord Of The Rings series that appealed to the widest audience possible without alienating die-hard fans. Meanwhile the show had to be at least somewhat faithful to Tolkien—who famously resisted all attempts to adapt any of his writing in his lifetime—despite having limited rights to his works and a limited time period in which to tell stories that take place over millennia. That’s a tall order by anyone’s standards, but showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay came up with the idea to mine the appendices at the end of The Return Of The King for stories from the Second Age of Middle-earth.

Sophia Nomvete as Princess Disa in The Rings of Power
Sophia Nomvete as Princess Disa in The Rings of Power


Sophia Nomvete (center) as Princess Disa

Despite Payne and McKay proclaiming their fidelity to Tolkien in interviews, some fans seemed wary from the start. And with each new publicity hit the divide between those who are excited about the new show and those who have already decided it’s going to be a disaster grows wider. The criticisms have been all over the map, with varying degrees of integrity. Tolkien fans with deep knowledge of his works have picked up on quite a few changes in the characters and history of Middle-earth. What they’re essentially wrestling with is the Ship of Theseus question: How many elements can you swap out in Tolkien’s text and still claim that it comes directly from Tolkien? The discussion is further complicated by the fact that the author died nearly 50 years ago, so how can anyone presume to know what he would have thought or wanted today? These are legitimate, rational debates and there’s nothing wrong with having them in good faith. There are other critics, though, whose motivations are murkier.

Some not-so-veiled hate speech

Predictably, some have used their criticisms as a smokescreen for their own racist and sexist reactions. From the moment in February when Vanity Fair dropped the first images from The Rings Of Power—a series of lavishly shot and detailed character portraits and posters—there’s been a steady stream of grumbling about the inclusion of actors of color, and the portrayal of the elven Lady Galadriel (one of the few characters carried over from the stories adapted in Peter Jackson’s films) as a warrior in a suit of armor. These critics may not believe labels like racist and sexist apply to them, but their opinions give them away. “I’m all for diversity in media,” they assert, “I just don’t think Black dwarves or dark-skinned elves belong in Middle-earth.” Or, “Galadriel should be the pinnacle of feminine energy, why do they have her acting like a man?”

What’s really telling is that those in this group often take any condemnation of the more openly prejudiced members of the fan community as an attack on them personally. When Morfydd Clark, who plays Galadriel in the new series, stood up for her “black cast mates” in a post on Instagram she was widely excoriated for it by these same folks. And when producer Lindsey Weber told Time that she and the rest of the creative staff were up for criticism but, “We’re not up for racism,” those concerns were dismissed as an attempt to shut down the show’s detractors with unfounded accusations. Yet these statements weren’t made in a vacuum. All you need to do is scroll through the comments of these critical posts or videos to see that toxicity runs rampant through a certain segment of the fanbase.

Orcs in The Rings Of Power
Orcs in The Rings Of Power


An image of orcs for no particular reason

Inflammatory statements and ulterior motives

And then, at the far end of the spectrum, there are the outrage brokers who use emotional manipulation to boost their channels or promote their own agendas, ranging from mainstreaming alt-right ideologies to the monetization of anger for clout. They get more than enough attention as it is, so the less said about them the better. There’s some cross-pollination between this group and the previous one, but the true hucksters are easy to spot. Look for inflammatory statements in ALL CAPS and words like “woke,” “SJW,” and “normies” used in the pejorative sense. That’s a pretty good sign there are ulterior motives behind the rant you’re watching and that it has nothing to do with The Lord Of The Rings. The content creators in this space aren’t just rooting for the show to fail, they need it to. “It’s going to be a train wreck,” one YouTuber gleefully predicted. “And I just can’t wait.”

There are signs that these attempted takedowns are becoming less influential with each new project they set out to sink. Despite similar complaints against Netflix’s adaptation of The Sandman for casting actors of color in the roles of characters portrayed as white in the comics, the series shot to the No. 1 slot in the streamer’s Top 10 list soon after its premiere. It holds the No. 4 position as of this writing. Campaigns to denigrate Marvel projects like Captain Marvel and Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings have proved similarly toothless.

Ironically, these critics have become hindered by the same algorithm that allowed them to thrive in the first place. Originality is not rewarded within this ecosystem, so all the social media accounts that operate in a similar fashion start blending together after a while. And the impact of individual trolls diminishes when everyone’s channels look and sound the same.

A still image of a banquet in The Rings of Power
A still image of a banquet in The Rings of Power


Left to right: Owain Arthur as Prince Durin IV, Robert Aramayo as Elrond, Charles Edwards as Celibrimbor, and Benjamin Walker as High King Gil-galad

What does all of this mean for The Rings Of Power?

There’s no evidence that this campaign of negativity has done anything to lessen the enthusiasm of the fans who are actually looking forward to The Rings Of Power. At this year’s San Diego Comic-Con panel, moderated by Tolkien superfan Stephen Colbert, eager attendees packed the cavernous Hall H to hear from the cast and creators about the show. And if last week’s record-breaking House Of The Dragon ratings are any indication, there is still a massive appetite for fantasy storytelling on television.

Reactions to preliminary screenings of the first two episodes of Rings Of Power have already started pouring in and they’ve been pretty overwhelmingly positive, with journalists praising it as “spectacular,” “a total joy,” and “big, bold, and beautiful to behold.” Early positive buzz like that usually translates to healthy ratings, at least early on when viewers tend to tune in just to see what it’s all about.

We’ll have to see what happens when the show premieres for the rest of the world on September 1, and beyond as more episodes air, but it’s looking like Amazon’s big gamble might just pay off, despite the efforts of the usual toxic suspects.