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Amazon Prime's The Rings of Power & The Challenges of Biblical Adaptation

Updated: Jun 1

Since the release of the trailer for Amazon Prime's The Rings of Power, social media has been host to a heated debate between Tolkien fans with strong objections to the Rings of Power and Tolkien fans who were willing defended it. Although I normally focus on adaptations of the Bible like The Chosen, the current conflict within Tolkien fandom over The Rings of Power has a lot of parallels with the types of reactions elicited by Bible adaptations. I suppose that shouldn't be a surprise, however, given the significant overlap between Tolkien fandom and Christian culture, the high regard for the written text of The Lord of the Rings among Tolkien fans and for the Bible among Christian, and the similar challenges that filmmakers face when trying to adapt The Lord of the Rings and when trying to adapt the Bible. I'm not particularly interested in either defending or attacking The Rings of Power myself - instead, we'll be using the reaction to The Rings of Power as a case study to highlight some of the challenges faced when adapting a work like the Bible or The Lord of the Rings.

Note: my thoughts on adaptation have been heavily influenced by Dr. Corey Olson, the Tolkien Professor, who recently launched a new podcast, Other Minds and Hands, dedicated to exploring adaptation, Amazon's The Rings of Power, and Tolkien. His first episode (below) lays out a helpful framework for thinking about the way that fans often react to adaptation and some of the specific reactions that people have had to the trailer for The Rings of Power. Many of my thoughts below are admittedly drawing on some of his ideas and distinctions.

Challenge 1: Who Owns the Story? (Authorial Rights & Creative Authority)

When there's an on screen adaptation of the work of a living author (e.g. JK Rowling's Harry Potter books), fans are sometimes disappointed but they rarely react as strongly as fans of Tolkien are reacting to The Rings of Power trailer. Creators are not always the most accurate interpreters of their own works - they often impose later ideas and concepts that don't have a basis in the actual text (again see Rowling). Even so, the presence and approval of a living author gives fans a kind of emotional reassurance that the adaptation is "authorized" and in keeping with the vision of the creator.

When there's an on screen adaptation of the work of a deceased author (like The Rings of Power - an adaptation of the appendices of JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings), the question of continuity and creative authority creates a lot of anxiety among fans. Yes, Tolkien has an estate that has legal authority over the rights to adaptation, but there's a difference between owning the rights to a story and holding the almost spiritual authority that fans ascribe to the original creator. This difference was less pronounced while Christopher Tolkien remained alive, due to his significant role as the editor and compiler of his father's posthumous work and because of his extensive knowledge of the whole of his father's writings and mythology. Without the direct approval of either JRR Tolkien or Christopher Tolkien, however, LOTR fans naturally feel more doubtful that The Rings of Power will remain in keeping with the creative vision of Tolkien.

On screen adaptations of the Bible (like The Chosen) can raise an even greater anxiety among Christians. In the case of Tolkien's works, there continues to be a Tolkien Estate that can exert a fair amount of influence to guard the vision of The Lord of the Rings. But the Bible is in the public domain. There is not a legal gatekeeper who can guard the original vision of the biblical authors by controlling who has the rights to produce Bible Art and adaptations. Anyone can make an adaptation of any biblical story - even creators who are diametrically opposed to aspects of the original vision of the biblical authors (like, for interest, Darren Aronofsky, creator of Noah).

Challenge 2: Who Owns the Story? (Conflicting Fandoms & Ideological Diversity)

While, legally speaking, the author (or his literary estate) owns the creative rights to a story, there's another sense of "ownership" that's worth considering in the context of adaptation. Narratives are often "claimed" by identity groups, ideologies, or fandoms, and (what's perceived as) the popular will of such groups can play a significant role in shaping adaptations. One of the challenges of adapting a work like JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is that it is claimed by a diverse assortment of fandoms and identity groups with conflicting ideologies. Christians, Environmentalists, Fantasists, Peter Jackson fans, Medievalists, and political groups across the entire spectrum all feel like The Lord of the Rings belongs to them and are willing to protest loudly against the story-world becoming a vessel for messages that violate their viewpoints or standards.

For example, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals lay claim to The Lord of the Rings as a Roman Catholic or, more broadly, Christian work. So, when it came out that Amazon had hired an intimacy coordinator for The Rings of Power, there was a strong pushback from Christian fans against what they saw as the defilement of their narrative. Of course, The Lord of the Rings is also read by many fans with worldviews that do not object to on-screen sex or nudity. Indeed, for fans who come to The Lord of the Rings by way of other modern fantasy works like The Game of Thrones, it might seem "backwards" or contrary to contemporary expectations for Amazon's The Rings of Power to not include depictions of sexuality. Both groups - Christians and post-GOT fantasists - claim The Lord of the Rings for themselves. As a result, adaptations like The Rings of Power almost inevitably disappoint one or more groups that feels like its claim to the world of The Lord of The Rings is being denied.

The stories of the Bible are also claimed by a broad assortment of groups including multiple religions (e.g. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism), multiple theological and ecclesiastical traditions within each religion (e.g. Roman Catholics, Conservative Evangelicals, Liberal Protestants), and general citizens of Western Culture who feel entitled to make use of biblical narratives because of their historical prominence in the West. Because these various theological groups are often fundamentally incompatible, not only in their worldview but also in their interpretation of the biblical narratives themselves, any biblical adaptation will almost inevitably draw the ire of one, if not many groups. The recent controversy generated by Season 2 of The Chosen is a good example. While most theological traditions recognize the back-and-forth struggle with the flesh that believers face after salvation, Mary's "relapse" into drinking violated the beliefs of a fringe-group of spiritual perfectionists who felt entitled to the New Testament stories. As we've seen, when an adaptation like The Chosen violates the "claim" of a group that feels entitled to the biblical narratives, it often creates a firestorm of negativity.

Challenge 3: What is the Story? (Source Material & Imaginative Palimpsests)

As Dr. Olson pointed out in his first session of Other Minds & Hands, fans of The Lord of the Rings can very easily read ideas and imagery from Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings films back into JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. For example, fans have come to accept as "cannon" that elves have long hair, that hobbits are devoted to second breakfast, and that dwarf women have beards. On closer examination, however, these fictional "facts" are not firmly grounded in the actual text of The Lord of the Rings. Some are indirect inferences based on The Lord of the Rings or Tolkien's posthumously-published (and never integrated) other writings. However, because Peter Jackson's use of these concepts in his film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings worked really well, readers often retroactively integrate these details into their picture of the text of The Lord of the Rings. As a result, when another adaptation (like Amazon's The Rings of Power) ignores or contradicts these extra-textual concepts (e.g. with short-haired elves and beardless dwarf women), unreflective readers often mistakenly view it as a violation of The Lord of the Rings text itself and react violently.

Linda Hutcheon, in her A Theory of Adaptation, uses the image of the palimpsest to describe this phenomenon. In times when paper was not as easily produced and obtained as it is today, scribes would take a previously used manuscript, remove the earlier writing, and reuse the same manuscript to write something else. These "palimpsests" - manuscripts in which earlier layers of writing have been erased and over-ridden by later layers - can now be analyzed using modern techniques in order to discover the earlier layers that were "lost" but only with difficulty. Applied to adaptation theory, the palimpsest is an image for the reader's understanding or imagined vision of a story. An initial layer (based on, say, the textual version of the story) can be erased and overridden in certain areas by a successful adaptation like Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings. Although the original layer is still there for those who are willing to dig deep and analyze, few have the insight to look beyond the surface level of what they are imagining. As a result, when future adaptations contradict earlier adaptations, they are often mistakenly viewed as violations of the original work itself because of how the original and its successful adaptations exist in a kind of imaginative perichoresis in the minds of unreflective readers.

Just as Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings has successfully over-ridden many aspects of JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings in the popular imagination, the artistic tradition of Bible Art and past adaptations of the Bible (not just movies but also, significantly, Children's Bibles) have over-ridden many aspects of biblical texts in the Christian imagination. The most well-known example is how people often believe Matthew describes "three kings" visiting Jesus at his birth. The actual text only mentions an unspecified number of "magi" visiting Jesus - most likely around when he turned 2. However, visual depictions of the event and the popular Christmas song, "We Three Kings," have been so successful that people unconsciously read these details into the original text. Other examples of how biblical narrative are imaginatively over-ridden by subsequent adaptations abound: Jesus being born in a barn, Mary Magdalene being a prostitute, Jonah getting swallowed by a "whale," the innkeeper not giving the Holy Family room because he was mean - the list could go on.

Jesus' physical appearance in art and adaptation is also often very contentious in spite of how the Bible gives us almost no details about what Jesus looked like. Because the Christian artistic tradition has left a powerful imaginative imprint on the minds of Christians, they often read a certain picture of Jesus back into the biblical text. As a result, when a depiction of Jesus (like Jonathan Roumie's) runs contrary to the physical details or social mannerisms popularized by prior art and adaptations, it can be experienced by viewers as a violation of the Bible itself and rejected as heresy. In reality, it is nothing of the kind.

Challenge 4: Beyond Pictures (Different Mediums, Different Capacities)

The Lord of the Rings includes a variety of phenomenon that are easy to describe in words but are difficult to depict in a visual medium. This difficulty often applies to what is popularly referred to as "magic" (Tolkien didn't like to use the term, especially as a reference to the powers of "good" characters). What makes "magic" in Tolkien's works difficult to translate into a visual medium is that it is often tied to spiritual (i.e. invisible) realities and manifests in ways that aren't always obvious. For example, an elven character explains that the "magic" cloaks of the fellowship "have the hue and beauty of all these things under the twilight of Lorien that we love; for we put the thought of all that we love into all that we make" (FOTR, p361). This is certainly describing something that transcends normal human experience, but how would one actually show this concept on screen? Peter Jackson's solution in his adaptation of The Lord of the Rings was to make the cloaks of the fellowship magical in a more obvious sense, as we see in the scene at the Black Gate where Sam's cloak takes on the appearance of a rock. Still, though his scene makes it very clear that the cloaks are "magical," it fails to capture an essential element of "magic" in Tolkien - namely, that it involves investing a bit of ones thoughts or spirit into an object. That said, I don't quite know how Peter Jackson could have successful communicated that idea on screen.

Sauron's presence and power, as they're described in The Lord of the Rings text, are also quite difficult to capture visually. In Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, "the eye of Sauron" is a metaphor for a spiritual reality, but how does one depict a malicious mind attempting to gaze spiritually into the hearts of his enemies? In a stroke of creativity, Peter Jackson chose to literalize the spiritual metaphor by making Sauron into a giant, visible burning eye floating on the top of Barad-dur, with a visible gaze that looks like a spotlight. While this move helps viewers more easily understand the conflict between Frodo and Sauron's Eye, particularly in the final stretch of The Return of the King, I wish more had been done to communicate the struggle between the Eye and Galadriel and other heroes of Middle Earth. But, again, I don't necessarily know what The Lord of the Rings films could have done to convey such a spiritual conflict.

Like The Lord of the Rings, the Bible contains many phenomenon that are easy to describe in words but hard to visualize in an on-screen adaptation. For example, the Gospels suggest that Jesus had a kind of spiritual aura that made people aware of the "authority" of his words (Matthew 7:28-29, John 7:46). In traditional devotional art this spiritual reality is often visualized by giving Jesus a halo. While some early screen adaptations attempted to mimic this artistic tradition in the way Jesus was lit, most modern adaptations are more interested in providing a "realistic" depiction of Jesus. They forego the use of halos or unearthly lighting for Jesus. Instead, the "authority" of Jesus has to be conveyed primarily through the charisma of the actor depicting him. I doubt that the phenomenon that the Gospels are referring to is something quite as simple as social charisma, however, and so it's no wonder that modern depictions of Jesus tend to err on the side of his humanity and struggle to convey his divine authority.

Biblical concepts like spiritual blindness and regeneration can also be difficult to convey in a visual medium. I sometimes wonder if this is why Christian movies and shows tend in the direction of melodrama. On screen, conversions are often depicted as a highly emotional, exaggerated moment. In real life, conversions are rarely so dramatic. The change from belief to unbelief often happens quietly and goes completely unnoticed by others. Such quiet, internal moments are hard to capture on screen in a way that audiences will find interesting and understandable though, so filmmakers amp up the emotion and lean on music or lighting to make the significance of what is happening more obvious. Unfortunately, while many Christian viewers find this kind of melodramatic conversion moving, it strikes many non-Christians (and some Christians) as unnatural.

Did you also notice similarities between the reactions to Amazon's The Rings of Power and reactions to The Chosen and other biblical adaptations? Are there any of these similarities that I missed? Please feel free to comment below or send me a message or tweet!


Contributing to The Bible Artist

Have my posts about Bible adaptation helped you learn more about the Bible and explore it with your ministry or family? I offer my work for free and rely on the generous support of readers like you. Your contributions mean so much. Thank you!


A New Resource for Engaging Scripture Creatively

Have you ever felt inspired to create your own work of Bible Art or biblical adaptation? Read Scripture Like an Artist is a Bible journal that will help you engage with Scripture through your imagination and respond to what you are reading through art and/or creative writing. For each passage that you read, you will still take notes on important literary features like plot and theme, but you will also have space to respond by sketching, doodling, or writing something inspired by the passage. There's also a separate area for you to draw and take notes on your favorite biblical characters. By engaging with Scripture creatively, you'll allow your imagination to be unconsciously shaped and formed by the images, metaphors, and patterns of the biblical story. And, who knows? Perhaps your quiet time will generate an idea that you can turn into something beautiful!

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