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Can the subaltern dislike "The Rings of Power"?
In the confluence of identity and overwhelming economic control of media production by half a dozen of companies, is there any space for true critique?
It is a ludic and lush setting. Untainted. We see some elves at a prepubescent age, playing by the side of a stream, while one, studiously, crafts a paper boat. She carefully lays the boat into the waters, and the others, jealous of her creation, cast stones at it. She, enraged, viciously attacks another, before being interrupted by her brother, which later teaches her about good and evil, through a metaphor based on why ships float. They do so because it they are able to not let the darkness of the waters in, as they gaze upwards into the light. Thus, begins The Rings of Power, Amazon’s latest TV show, based on the lore created by J.R.R. Tolkien.
The show has an estimated cost of US$465 million for its first season1, making it the most expensive TV series ever, with an estimated budget of almost US$60 million for episode2 , around twice as much as its next contender, Netflix’s heavy hitter Stranger Things. This is without including the estimated US$ 250 million paid to Tolkien state, just for the right to use a less famous part of the the author’s intellectual work. Considering an already green lighted second season, Rings of Fire is sure to easily top the US$ 1 billion dollars mark. Jeff Bezos means business.
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In the beginning of the 21st century, a trilogy of movies based on Tolkien’s work, transformed The Lord of Rings and its universe from a popular fantasy writer to one of the most famous and financially successful products of popular culture of its time. J.R.R. Tolkien was not an obscure, alternative writer before the movies. He had been fairly successful, even before his death in the 1970s, and had a relatively large following. But he was still a writer. Very seldom writers become insanely popular to the level of superstars. The ones who do, almost always have cinema to thank.
Peter Jackson’s adaptations of Tolkien exposed his stories to a much broader population. From a series of novels and stories, mostly read by nerds (before they were cool) and hippies (when they were cool), they would become a multibillion industry and a widely recognisable brand through videogames, action figures, and Legos. There are Tolkien fans and specialists which bemoan the commodification of his intellectual property. It has, however, made everyone who descended from him extremely wealthy. Peter Jackson’s adaptations of the The Lord of the Rings, using cynical, marketing terms, gave the Tolkien state (and the brand it controls, based on his intellectual property), a huge increase on market recognition. It is that market recognition that US$ 250 million dollars spent by Amazon hopes to get, as they acquired the right to explore a relatively obscure part of the Tolkien mythology.
A behemoth of a company, Amazon started out as bookseller, then as a seller of all things possible. Along came the technological advancements as the Kindle and Alexa. As streaming became more and more the preferred way of consuming visual media, Amazon would try to carve a piece of the market through Prime Video, a part of Amazon Prime, which also offers free-delivery and other perks to their costumers. With a lower cost than that of Netflix, Amazon Prime is its attempt to turn regular shoppers into regular watchers as well.
The streaming market is around US$ 473 million in 2022 and is expected to grow to US$1,7 trillion by the end of the decade.3 Netflix, who once reigned supreme, now faces the competition of names such as Disney, HBO, NBC, Apple, who have all began their own streaming services instead of licensing their productions to Netflix. Just like Amazon, Furthermore, niche services such as Mubi and Crunchroll have also appeared. All those new services have meant that Netflix, once ominous after adapting from a mailing-dvd service, is now just one of possible players in a market that has taken over not only tv-shows and movies, but also reality tv and live sports. Amazon has seen the immense potential within the changes in media consumption, and wants a piece of the market.
The Rings of Power are not only their largest investment on streaming, but the largest investment in the industry ever. It takes a recognisable intellectual property and it showers it with money at a scale yet to be seen. As J.R.R Tolkien fans can be notoriously picky and conservative about adaptations of his work, the freedom afforded to the content creators to add new characters to the lore, and to change and adapt old ones to a certain permissible extent by his state, was already a point of concern to the author’s fans, right when the time the show was announced.
Tolkien fandom can be one of the worst and most toxic environments online. Just like, well, all types of fandom, really. This is not at all an assessment of the author’s work, but rather an assessment of online communities ever since the internet has become a ubiquitous phenomenon. The internet has an enormous potential of bringing people who share common interests together. It also has the side effect of building an insane amount of vitriol between people who love the same thing, but in different ways. People are more aggressive towards apostates than non-believers, after all.
Alternatively, Tolkien fandom can also just enjoy things. Most often, they do that.
The politics and the identities which populate the world created by J.R.R. Tolkien are still a point of discussions by people who are shockingly unimaginative. On the one hand, there exists a small, yet vocal army of people who range from just trying to be ‘politically incorrect’ to, outright nazis that dedicate an unhealthy amount of their times on discussing the racial make-up of Middle Earth. As European mythology and lore becomes more and more associated with far-right movements, Tolkien’s influence of Nordic and Anglo-Saxon folklore surely attracts some people who are absolutely and unequivocally vilely racist. Although a clear minority, they compensate by being loud, and a part of a strong online tradition of being trolling. They try to turn the work of a man, who has written thousands and thousands of pages, into a place-fodder for racists discussions based on fantasy. Ironically, they pervert the work of a same man who affirmed his disgust towards nazist ideology in the peak of Third Reich many times during the course of his life.
On the other hand, a branch of liberal, progressive people try to fit current notions of racial relations into a literary work that was written almost 100 years ago, and is, rather obviously, a reflection of its own time. There are many things that are wrong with the world. A perceived lack of diversity on novels written in the first half of the last century should not be a priority. They could, perhaps, write their own novels. Even if it would turn out bad, there is value and a social relevance in bad art.
Both are equally boring.
Aragorn (and other characters) can look like anything one is capable of imagining them, but only, of course, if one dares to imagine. The racial make up of their characters is besides the point. One could focus on the psychological, moral, and ethic aspects present in the body of work written by Tolkien, instead they seek to either justify their disgusting racism, or insert their incredibly obtuse political positioning.
The dislike of the show, however, is being framed as being, in itself, a racist act. A multitude of memes, tweets, videos, articles are written highlighting an allegedly connection between being intolerant, and disliking the show. This whole act starts with the assumption that the show is groundbreaking only by virtue of the racial makeup of its cast. Choosing a black and latino actor to play a valiant elf is framed not through his merit as actor, but as a positive and tolerant act of a socially conscious production, one that cannot be challenged, lest one opposes tolerance as a value. It becomes, thus, a self-fulfilling prophecy that anyone who criticises the show, is actually a person who cannot accept that Middle-Earth could also have had people of colour. One becomes twice shallow, one for being racist, and another for being unimaginative.
On this, the statistically small yet loud racist share of Tolkien’s fandom is an effective way of facilitating this operation. It becomes rather easy to find people saying racist things online. Anyone who has been online, however, knows that finding racists on the internet is the second easiest think to find on the internet, after porn. They become the face of whoever chooses to weave any criticism to the show. The much larger number of Tolkien fans who dislike the show for other reasons, or perhaps even larger share people who are not die-hard fans of his work, (such as I) and who think the show is just not that good (me again), are grouped together as tissues and organs inside an alt-right straw man.
No one has more to profit from this than Amazon in itself. Not only have they spent a vulgar amount of money on marketing and distribution, they are also able to money their way into controlling and creating a narrative on the show’s qualities. They made so that reviews of the first two episodes would only become available on their website, after three days of being posted on a claim that trolls would be tanking the show’s grades, thus, making the sample biased when it comes to an average estimation of the show’s qualities.
This whole dynamic leads to a rather suffocating state of affairs. Can one truly criticise Amazon’s hit series The Rings of Power? Can we, as subalterns in an economy of few giant content producers, truly and openly criticise something? Can we honestly like or dislike something? Is there a place for true and just critic, and by that, I mean, a type of criticism in which the writer is unafraid of the consequences of expressing their opinion? One in which they are unfettered and independent enough to call a spade, a spade?
Netflix, the first one to thread the waters of streaming content, has a rather opaque ratings system for their shows. They do not reveal how many viewers their shows have, as it is a considered a rather sensitive information. Their algorithm is also an industry secret. Other streaming producers also follow the same practices. In TV and cinema, we are able to know how many people are tuning in, or buying tickets. As streaming seeks to replace those two industries, it does not offer the same amount of openness. Add to that a shrinking industry of criticism and journalism, and we are progressively becoming each day blinder to both the public and the specialists reception to the audiovisual industry.
This gap is being filled, however, by marketing. As companies spend, collectively, each day more and more on content, they also increase the bill on trying to convince you that their show is a must-watch. And they do so through the usage of both old and new tools. One can easily see posters of new productions on most major cities. But one can also see them on online ads, and on how the discussion is framed around certain shows. On The Rings of Fire, we have seen a large part of the discussion being centred around moral values instead of aesthetic ones. It is almost as though as watching a multimillion show, from a multibillion dollar company, would be a relevant political act against the evils of a large mob of racists.
If one is cynical enough, one can wonder who would profit from focusing on the existence of those racists individuals.
If one is cynical enough, one could believe that identity and race has been commodified by a company that sells, well, almost everything…
Another example of this, the image below, showing extras being replicated on a scene of the show, was mocked as being lazy.
One could claim that it is merely a detail, that it does not distract from the enjoyment of the show (however, it did for the person who noticed it), it is merely the work of a nerd, with too much time on his hands, and who only wishes to hate on the production. All of those were given as explanations to the picture. Not rarely by people working in the film industry themselves. For example, Neil Gaiman has been a staunch defender of the show. Needless to say that, the more shows based on fantasy, the likelier it gets that shows based on his work are green lighted and/or renewed, such as Netflix’s Sandman, which is yet to be announced for a 2nd season. I am not sure what his motivations are, and I can only speculate. However, it is truly revealing his candidness on the matter. He only sees two possibilites for criticising the show: ignorance of Tolkien’s work or bad intentions.
However, is it so strange to demand more care from a show whose production costs were also a part of its marketing strategy? Is it so strange to demand that a work of art within the same universe of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, one of the most detailed Hollywood productions ever, is held to the same standards? Peter Jackson had people building chain-mails for months, with a budget smaller than the one available to this show. Is it so strange that people who love Tolkien’s work would be incredibly critical of this to the point of scouring through every frame? Well, that is also up to interpretation and to what one considers as a reasonable usage of one’s time. I would never do it (albeit I would write about it, quite obviously). Another thing I would not do is to affirm that this can only come from bigotry and hatred. It would be false, shallow and unfair.
The lack of criticism pointing out flaws in the show visually, but also in terms of narrative, character-building, storytelling is damning evidence of how critique as a trade is shrinking as a valid career choice, but also how free can one be to do so without being ostracized. No one is being forbidden by any company or state of saying the show is bad. Amazon does not have that power. Nor do they wish to have it. However, could it be that the social and economical costs of saying so are significant enough in order to make it less likely for someone to do so?
Is it too much of a conspiracy theory to think that one of the largest companies in the world, looking to expand its presence in the streaming business, would do all it can not to jeopardise it by having negative reviews of their most important production? Can it be that they would cynically use what passes as diversity and tolerance in a highly individualised neoliberal society in order to make it increase their viewership?
Perhaps I am overreacting, but perhaps we should ask ourselves. Is it possible to have cultural critique? Can one truly like or dislike something without it being a part of one’s political identity? Is it possible for us, subalterns, to just watch and dislike TV shows?