Pausing Nowhere and Back Again this week for some words on this Amazon thing. We’ll be back with Lake-town next week.
Well, that was inevitable, even if knowing what to call a show is apparently a spoiler these days. It’s a less Tolkienesque title than Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age, but it scans, even if the existence of a series title with a subtitle is a moral atrocity.
As The Rings of Power is a prequel show, the title indicates a focus on the Three, Seven, and Nine rings. Showrunners J. D. Payne and Patrick McKay (let’s hope they won’t be the next Benioff and Weiss) give the impression The Rings of Power will cover the Second Age, from “the forging of the rings, the rise of the Dark Lord Sauron, the epic tale of Númenor, and the Last Alliance of Elves and Men.” Akallabêth stans rejoice, I suppose.
The period Payne and McKay describes lasts anywhere from 1941 to 2231 to 3409 years, depending on where The Rings of Power starts. That could be the founding of Númenor, Sauron’s time in Eregion, or the Rings of Power’s creation. It seems unlikely that the series would depict any events that happen after the siege of Barad-dûr or Isildur’s death.
The Rings of Power apparently sticks to Tolkien’s overarching story and filling in the blanks, per the Tolkien Estate’s guidelines. It has unprecedented licensing to adapt portions of The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, so the Tolkien Estate is clearly pleased with the series. This raises some concerns, as it may mean The Rings of Power is more traditionalist than its predecessors, Peter Jackson’s double-trilogy. At the same time, adapting Tolkien’s conservative mythology in the tedious Marvel Cinematic Universe era should be an interestingly strange sight.
I’m almost wholly unfamiliar with the show’s creative team, so I can’t predict their approach to Middle-earth. The job they’ve inherited, however, is fascinating. They have to work with Tolkien’s plots (outlines, really), which span millennia and contain scarce details. This will give the team ample room to concoct new stories within Tolkien’s framework. I wonder if each season will cover a particular era. Certainly there will have to be an almost anthology-like approach to it: characters will inevitably die between seasons. Maybe we’ll get The Lord of the Rings as True Detective. There are worse ideas than “Nic Pizzolatto writes elves.”
If the tone of this piece can accurately be called “cold,” there are a couple reasons for that. The rampant spoilerphobia of contemporary pop culture is a killer on enthusiasm. Before I watch a series or a movie, I like to know something of its story. As of now, we know basically nothing about The Rings of Power‘s creative approach. I’m not going to go ga-ga over this stuff unless Amazon lets its creators show they have an interesting story to tell.
There’s also Amazon’s involvement. If you’re reading Eruditorum Press, or if you’ve paid any attention to the world these past few years, you know Amazon is one of the most evil and destructive organizations in the world. In the first year of the pandemic, Jeff Bezos’s wealth increased by $24 billion. Amazon’s union-busting is notorious. The warehouse and worker conditions of its labor force is atrocious. And Amazon’s carbon footprint would undoubtedly make Tolkien splutter in rage. So let’s just say that I am not overjoyed by Amazon’s involvement with this show.
Of course, blockbuster media doesn’t get made without conglomerate involvement. Franchises are a staple of late capitalism. They’re a symptom of corporate monopoly. I’m not singling out Amazon, although they’re particularly noxious even in their field. All corporate media is produced through exploitation. The Hobbit trilogy’s production had atrocious effects on New Zealand, but it was a product of the capitalist blockbuster machine that The Lord of the Rings was also part of.
The infamous “Hobbit Law,” wherein Warner Bros (and other studios, including Disney) successfully lobbied to change New Zealand’s labor laws and make that sovereign country a contractual partner, of course led to situations like Amazon in New Zealand.
One of the most disastrous effects of that process was to prevent “independent contractors“, basically film workers employed by a production but not belonging to its staff, from unionizing or receiving employee benefits. For The Rings of Power‘s first season, Amazon employed 1,200 workers, with about 700 additional workers “providing services to the production.” Doubtless Amazon reaped the Hobbit Law’s benefits here, even as they broke the news of production moving to Britain just 20 minutes after informing the crew.
Amazon also benefited from the Hobbit Law’s increased subsidies and grants for overseas film productions. Before that legislation passed in 2010, New Zealand’s Large Budget Screen Production Fund gave productions a 15% subsidy. Warner Bros negotiated a deal that included participation payments to any studio with a $150 million film production. When Amazon produced The Rings of Power Season 1 in New Zealand, it received a 20% subsidy, with an option for an additional 5% (Amazon declined the 5% increase upon leaving New Zealand, as it failed to meet the discount’s criteria).
The production’s move from New Zealand to Great Britain has of course been controversial, but the details are particularly grotesque. Amazon apparently resented New Zealand’s border restrictions during COVID, which kept actors in New Zealand for two years and prevented executives from visiting the set. Even in the midst of a global health crisis, Amazon pampers its surplus value fetish.
Yet New Zealand is still footing Amazon’s bill: as of 2020, every NZ$1 of each $20 its government spent went to film subsidies. In 2021, New Zealand’s Treasury predicted spending $1 billion on film subsidies over five years for productions like Avatar and The Lord of the Rings. Out of its $3 billion 2020/2021 allowance, $185 million were set aside for film subsidies. Meanwhile, single parent benefits were barely half that, the country underwent a record trade deficit, and the New Zealand Government slashed funding for Māori broadcasters.
God knows what The Rings of Power is doing to England. We already know it’s hurt the people of New Zealand. It seems these fictional rings possess their rights holders as much as the characters in Tolkien’s novels. Will I watch The Rings of Power? Yes. Will I review every episode? Almost certainly, although you’ll probably have to pay me to do it. Will I squeal over a young-ish, penitent Galadriel in exile? You bet your ass. But my geeky pleasure matters not one jot when weighed against living conditions and economic justice for a single person, much less millions of people.
Many who die deserve life. Often we cannot give it to them, but we must fight to do so. And any media produced by government subsidies for one of the most dangerous companies in the world must be tempered by a vigilant eye, and solidarity with New Zealand’s working class, its single parents, and the Māori broadcasters who deserved better.