“Don’t the great tales never end?” Will this ‘new age’ of Middle- earth media change the way we see The Lord of the Rings?
“Do we really need all these tales of Middle-earth?”, asks Ben Child of The Guardian. That’s a complicated question: do we ever really need any story or any film? Strictly speaking, we don’t. But if its good then that’s all the “justification” it needs. But, beyond being good or bad in their own right, how do these stories contribute to the series being good as a whole, and can they actually detract from what had come before? One point made by Angela Watercutter from Wired is that “at a certain point, it just becomes too much.” That can certainly be the case: I’m thinking of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with its Lor-knows how many days’-worth movies and shows, but also of Star Wars. Even Harry Potter is approaching the point of oversaturation through three largely-listless Fantastic Beasts spinoffs (and possibly two more), and all that talk of shows and a possible adaptation of The Cursed Child, and I won’t even elaborate on those franchises that should never have been franchises to begin with like Jurassic Park or, a single sequel notwithstanding, Terminator, Predator, Alien and many besides.
Beyond sheer number of entries and screentime, there is a common thread to Marvel and Star Wars – and to lesser film series like Pirates of the Caribbean and The Matrix – which is that they are got extended beyond their natural expiration date. That is to say, they had all reached a point, an entry, in which the story climaxed into a big crescendo and was satisfactorily wrapped-up – Endgame, Return of the Jedi, At World’s End and Revolutions – and yet they ignored it and kept on chugging forward, not with prequels, but with more sequels. They don’t even necessarily have to be direct sequels: many would point to The Mandalorian as a separate story that just happens to take place after Return of the Jedi, but personally I take issue with that, too: I just think finality is important.
Example of a completely different sort are Toy Story or Indiana Jones, which didn’t have a story to wrap up, but which provided us with a very clear and satisfying farewell to the characters in entries like The Last Crusade and then…ignored it and did another sequel and now…yet another one, with the lead character in his 80s, no less! It seems all our dashing action heroes are dragged back in their old age for sequels and I more often than not just find it to be sad: I much prefer being left with just the youthful Jones in my mind’s eye. Certainly, there’s something to be said for letting a character ride off into the sunset…and staying there. After all, what can these late-in-the-game sequels ever hope to achieve other than to take what had come before and reduce it to a mere footnote?
Can one not imagine ways, similar to those undertaken by films like those, to continue the story from The Return of the King? Of course you can: Tolkien himself sets-up continuing wars between Aragorn’s realm and the Haradrim, and there’s the repopulation of Moria (now being used as the setting for a game) but, as Tolkien himself said, it was just “not worth doing.” Audiences aren’t stupid: they can feel the finality imbued into the big battle in Endgame or into the riding off into the sunset in The Last Crusade: the crescendo and cadence are already there, and its not like films like The Force Awakens or On Stranger Waters are some 85-minute denoument.
Now, as far as I know, there are no plans to make a sequel to The Return of the King: its just too final a resolution, too definitive and climactic, and any attempt at a continuation would be so far off-canon as to raise the ire of fans, and since roping-in fans is the whole point of IP to begin with, there’s little incentive to do a sequel to The Lord of the Rings in the forseeable future. Indeed, Tolkien himself had toyed with the idea only to decide against it on the very grounds I’m positing here: that it was anti-climactic and, for that reason, “depressing.”
The length issue is also not very imminent: earlier forays like Ralph Bakshi’s notwithstanding, there are currently “just” six Middle Earth films totalling “just” 19.3 hours. Admittedly, its coming up on its seventh entry with The War of the Rohirrim. Given its animated nature, however, not to mention the presence of a narrator, I’m assuming we’re not looking at another three-hour behemoth, so we’re probably looking at 21.4 hours, unless we want to be super-charitable by throwing in another 1.75-hour’s-worth of Dome Karukoski’s Tolkien. Ontop of that we have a projected 40-50 hours of The Rings of Power on streaming, which as far as we can gather is not a prequel to the films per se, but which had been designed to “not clash” with them. That’s all very hefty, but its nothing next to Star Wars and Marvel.
Of course, those other film series have also been accused of being formulaic, as has the James Bond series with the notorious “Bond formula.” So strong are these formulae that even entries that attempted to shake them up à-la Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, feel like too little too late: they’re trying to break-away from the formula by playing-up on formulaic tropes instead of just rising above them by ignoring them altogether, and it comes across cheap. That’s why Star Wars was already feeling tired by that point, even though it hadn’t actually ran any longer than Middle Earth had, except in the number of entries. That’s because Middle Earth had largely eschewed formula: yes, both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are quest narrative, and some of the characters and settings fall into similar archetypes, but I think its fair to say that its one of those cases where the differences are more important than the similarities: The Hobbit, as filmed, concludes on a much more overtly tragic note, whereas The Lord of the Rings is ironically more triumphant: they’re both quests, but they completely and totally contrasted in mode.
Likewise, The Rings of Power and The War of the Rohirrim could be accused from the outset of being formulaic, if only because their premises seem to resemble An Unexpected Journey and The Battle of the Five Armies, respectivelly. The Rings of Power starts at a time of relative-peace, with a few of the more outgoing characters (Gandalf in The Hobbit, Galadriel et al in The Rings of Power) trying to shake the others out of their complecency, believing (rightly, as it turns out) that evil had returned. The War of the Rohirrim has a less-than-wise ruler lead his nation into bitter conflict in which his life and those of his immediate heirs are perish, like in The Battle of the Five Armies. But this is a fairly superficial reading.
Certainly, The War of the Rohirrim stands a good chance of being distinct, not just for being animated but also for being a “one-off” film, and for being largely Rohan-centric and fantasy-free. On the face of it, The Rings of Power also stands to be quite distinct: after all, not only is it a long-form streaming series as opposed to a film, its also more of a Machiavelian thriller than a quest narrative. Nevertheless, it is here, I feel, that formula could rear its ugly head: we already have Hobbits in this because “does it feel like Middle-earth if you don’t have hobbits?” McPayne talk about how being Harfoots makes them different, and obviously there are differences like their nomadic lifestyle, but in this case I think the similarities at least seem to outweigh the differences, with the Harfoots living a life of secrecy, avoiding the “big folk”, having cute English names (I mean, “Marigold Brandyfoot”? Seriously?!) and containing within their community a callow, wide-eyed youth wondering what’s outside the cave, and her sidekick. Regardless of who Meteor Man turns out to be, he clearly serves the role of the obligatory wizard for the meanwhile. Arondir, too, is clearly made out to be our ersatz-Legolas, grabbing flying arrows and leaping-up Orc encampments, and with him and Bronwyn we have the requisite mortal-immortal love affair. Even some of the environments seem familiar: in some shots, Lindon looks like another Lothlorien, whereas Celebrimbor’s chambers in Eregion bring to mind Elrond’s study from Rivendell. It remains to be seen how many of these similarities are marketing playing on familiarity and how much of them are actually baked into the DNA of the show and to what extent, and so I won’t press the matter any further at this point.
Of course, in making sprawling series of films and shows, continuity problems start rearing their ugly heads: Star Wars and Fantastic Beasts are notorious for this, in particular. So much so, argues Stephen Barber (with who’s critiques of Star Wars‘ immediate sequel I disagree), that he would have preferred Star Wars to have remained a single film, an argument The Times made back in 1980. Often fans will come up with elaborate explanations to write-off continuity issues, but if the series were tighter and more well-constructed, they wouldn’t need to. Very often, even those explanations that are provided in interstitial entries – like how Obi Wan tries to explain why Old Ben calls Vader “Darth” – ring false. There are also structural issues: if all the entries in a series should strive to be like chapters in a novel, then one wouldn’t want that novel to become too front-loaded or imbalanced in any other narrative way: across the six Middle Earth films, we have a fairly nicely-balanced three-act structure, and I’ve already examined how The War of the Rohirrim might add or detract from that. Michael Kaminski argues that prequels can create inherent “redundancy” issues due to exposition in “later” entries that is no longer necessary to audience starting with the prequel entries, but I find that a fairly minor problems: sequels often take the time to re-explain or remind audiences of certain story elements, anyway. Heck, picking-up from The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers takes more time to setup all its plot than The Fellowship of the Ring does “after” The Battle of the Five Armies.
All that being said, prequels, in particular, can definitely inform and enrich the experience of the series as a whole. The most obvious way is by going into new places and situations, so that the palette of the piece as a whole becomes extended: The War of the Rohirrim is unlikely to do so being the scenario itself and its explorations of the Dunlendings: otherwise, its all set in very familiar territory: Rohirrim, Oliphaunts, siege battles, Edoras, etc… By contrast, The Rings of Power is showing us a lot of thigns for the first time, including the shores of Middle Earth, the oceans, the civilizations of Elf, Man and Dwarf all in their prime, Sauron in humanoid form, etecetra.
But they can also enrich the experience of what had come before: I always marvelled at how the early scenes with Gandalf and Bilbo – “characters we don’t really know yet”, says Jackson in the audio commentary – were filmed like we’re already supposed to care, as though we’ve spent a long time with them already. Well, now we have, and it helps. Its also nice to have Sauron rise to power rather than just have him there at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. Even in the less succesfull Star Wars case, I find that seeing the grandeur of the republic only accenuates the desolation and claustrophobia of those first three space Westerns. Both The War of the Rohirrim and The Rings of Power stand a good chance of doing so: seeing the grandeur of Moria, the glorious past of Gondor, but also seeing Elrond learning the ropes of leadership and Elendil coming to power could all inform the films.
Of course, some critics will lament the way this chips-away at the standalone film-viewing experience, but I daresay that if a film series to have any sense of unity, whereby its various chapters function like chapters in a novel rather than a series of picaresque adventures, than it must come at the expanse of the standalone quality of the individual entries. That’s not to say that every entry must end with an outright cliffhanger, which is something that’s important to say ahead of The Rings of Power: typically, there will only be one outright cliffhanger in a trilogy, because you can only jerk the audience around so much without giving them some temporary relief.
One word you’ll not hear me use is “fan service.” An entry in a long-running series having a similar formula as another entry is one (obviously problematic) thing, but an entry featuring callbacks to another entry is another. The fact of the matter is we expect callbacks in a series: when the imagery of Frodo grabbing Sam’s hand in The Fellowship of the Ring is mirrored in Sam grabbing Frodo’s in The Return of the King, its an éclair de génie. Even within a single film, when Rachel’s line to Bruce in Batman Begins “Its not what you are underneath, its what you do that defines you” is said back to her later on, its brilliant. So why aren’t we treating callbacks with enough good-faith and just deride them as “fan service”?
Of course, in the case of prequels the callbacks are a bit more complex because its set before a previous entry. But, of course, in that case, the callback works both ways: for alumini of the “original” film, they work as callbacks to it, and for new audiences, they’ll be callbacks to the prequels by the time they get to see the original. There’s a funny excerpt in the audio commentary to An Unexpected Journey where, over a shot of Narsil, Jackson says it “will come to have a great significance in the later trilogy.” Unlike Michael Kaminski’s assertion that all prequels are just “sequels that take place before the original”, in this case (and a few others) they are a genuine prelude. The exception to this is The War of the Rohirrim which, while set before An Unexpected Journey in terms of сюжет (order of events), has a framing device which will probably nestle it in the фабула (order of the telling) between The Two Towers and The Return of the King.
That is not to say, by the way, that all callbacks are equally effective, and obviously when they’re less-than-effective, the derisive “fan-service” terminology tends to follow. Its obviously in part a matter of sheer frequency: if it gets to be too much, it can turn into an outright distraction, as it does in films like Avengers: Endgame and The Force Awakens and as it nearly threatens to do in An Unexpected Journey. The latter is also partially saved by making some of its references rather tongue-in-cheek: we go to Rivendell and Bag-End again, but mostly for the Dwarves to unceremoniously trash the place. Its the satyr-play of the cycle, so to speak.
But callbacks are most meaningful when they actually set-up and pay-off something: When Bilbo spares Gollum in An Unexpected Journey, its a callback (again, in both directions) to Gandalf telling Frodo about it in The Fellowship of the Ring, but its also setting that moment up and, by extension, setting up the climax of the series as a whole in The Return of the King, and the similarities (mostly in the soundtrack) underline that. Its especially powerful because it means something in each instance – Bilbo sparing Gollum is a powerful moment on its own, we don’t necessarily need the context of The Lord of the Rings to “get it” – but also because its not just about the mechanics of the plot but actually anchored in the psychology of the characters and in the themes of the story.
That, however, is not to say that callbacks can’t be used just like a refrain in a song. Middle Earth, thankfully, doesn’t have “iconic” (read: tired) lines that get reprised in each entry like “I have a bad feeling about this” in Star Wars. But it does have little instances of repeated lines, visuals and other beats that aren’t necessarily all that meaningful to the characters and the themes, but which nevertheless tie the disparate entries together, and there’s nothing wrong with that so long as the filmmakers don’t totally overplay their hand. “Anything?” Thorin asks Dwalin. “Nothing!” he answers, a full 4.5 hours before Frodo and Merry have the same exchange.
Speaking of callbacks as refrains, they have sometimes been presented as being quite structured, although I tend to find that kind of rhetoric pretentious. Richard Wagner liked to think of his Ring tetralogy as a trilogy with a Vorabend (perliminary evening) precisely because it mirrored the structure of the closing entry, which had a prologue and three acts. More recently, one is reminded of George Lucas’ offhanded “poetry” remarks. Some of the similarities, like the mentor figure dying in the first entry (which is also mirrored in The Force Awakens) are probably just generic storytelling similarities, and I daresay the same applies to the parallels between The Hobbit entries and their corresponding Lord of the Rings entries. Nevertheless, in Star Wars there does seem to be a conscious effort to have certain aspects of the two trilogies mirror, but I think to talk about it in terms of rhyming stanzas or as “Ring theory” (where the parallelism is inverted, turning the first and final entries into bookends) is overstating the case: Revenge of the Sith probably references The Phantom Menace just as much as it does any other episode. Nevertheless, it does make one think about how callbacks make us compare and contrast beats in different entries and indeed add structural integrity to a piece: it would be pretty neat, for instance, for the pilot of The Rings of Power to strongly parallel the second half of The Return of the King to create bookends.
Speaking of bookends, one of the quirks of most “concluding” entries is that they attempt to strongly mirror the first entry: its as old as Return of the Jedi with its second Death Star, revamped Cantina and so forth. But its also appearant in The Last Crusade, in The Dark Knight Rises and many other trilogy cappers. Comparativelly, The Return of the King (easily the most satisfying resolution of the bunch) isn’t particularly preoccupied with that: the opening prologue brilliantly takes-us back to the very beginning, as does the denoument, but on the whole the film is more interested in driving the plot forward towards its roaring climax than to model itself on The Fellowship of the Ring. Perhaps something for The Rings of Power to remember come its final episode.
At any rate, The War of the Rohirrim is probably going to feature a fair amount of callbacks: Dunland, which plays a big part in the story, is mentioned by the Dwarves (who lived there while in exile) frequently, and Rohan and its key locales – Edoras, the Hornburg and Dunharrow – are very important to The Two Towers and The Return of the King. Even Helm himself is evoked in that film and we see his likeness in a statue, and there are lines like “Helm’s Deep has saved them in the past” that could certainly be seen, especially in retrospect, as referencing the events of the anime. Having Eowyn narrate is clearly also a major callback but, talking about how the best callbacks are rooted in character, having the unhappy situation of Helm’s daughter serve as an outlet for Eowyn’s own feelings during the events of The Lord of the Rings could be a fascinating window into her own psyche.
The Rings of Power is also going to feature callbacks: we already talked about the Hobbits being part of the “formula” but there are also several recurring characters in major roles, Moria returning as a major locale, Numenore and Durin (namedropped multiple times each in the existing media) featuring prominently and a new, extended depiction of much of the prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring. Sometimes callbacks can even be unintentional: I would be shocked if someone told me that having Bombur sprint past the rest of the company was intended as little more than a gag, and yet whenever I see it I chuckle, thinking “‘We Dwarves are natural sprinters’ indeed!” I bet people will see a similar parallel between, say, the deluge of Numenore in the show and the destruction of Mordor in The Return of the King, regardless of whether the showrunners intend them to parallel.
There’s another important aspect to callbacks and that is who is making them: in my book, Peter Jackson could get away with a ton of callbacks, because he’s the same filmmaker (writing, directing and producing), with the same production crew, facilities, resources and attitude – even some of the same cast – making further entries in due time, in the same medium and in the same filmmaking style: for all their differences, all the films feel of-a-piece because they’re infused with the same directorial sensibility throughout, and so using callbacks to unite them feels warranted. Whereas when other filmmakers like Kamiyama or McPayne will be making callbacks to Jackson’s films, they’ll be trying to tie into something that, inevitably, has a different directorial sensibility to their own. An illsutrative comparison here is Rogue One which features a large amount of callbacks to Episode III and to the original Star Wars, but has such a dramatically distinct directorial sensibility, that those callbacks ring a little bit false.
Another things that can strain the credulity of callbacks is when they’re not used to “string” the entries together or even as setup and payoff, but when they attempt to completely recontextualize and change the way we look at those entries which are already out. Again, Star Wars comes to mind but so do Prometheus and Covenant: they try to make us look at Alien not as the unpresumptous horror film that it clearly is, but as an installment in a series that deals, in part, with the origins and fate of the human race. When prequels try to do that I often find it a doomed enterprise. Thankfully, The Hobbit didn’t try to do it, and I don’t think The War of the Rohirrim is in a position to do so, either. The Rings of Power probably won’t, either, except maybe with characters that are close to blank-slates anyway like Isildur or Sauron. But consider, for instance, a scenario in which Meteor Man eventually emerges as Gandalf: suddenly we’ll be asked to have a completely different image of the wizard and about the nature of his attachment to Bilbo and Frodo. I can see the showrunners trying to pull-off something like this, but I don’t see it working.
Yet another things callbacks run the risk of is to violate one of the core rules of filmmaking: “Never remind me of a better movie or show while I’m watching yours.” If The Rings of Power simply does not measure up to The Lord of the Rings in the slightest, any callbacks it will make would only be a painful reminder that we could be watching The Lord of the Rings instead. This is true of more specific things, too: I’m reminded of the callbacks that SPECTRE and No Time to Die make from Madelaine to Vesper Lind who was arguably the best Bond girl in history, and these parallels don’t do Madelaine any favours. Likewise, if Helm’s sojourn at the Hornburg in The War of the Rohirrim sucks, any callbacks to the battle of Helm’s Deep from The Two Towers would sting all the more. The entries don’t even strictly need to be in the same audiovisual continuity for this to apply: many people find it difficult to watch Ralph Bakhi’s The Lord of the Rings without comparing it or aspects of it to Jackson’s corresponding entries.
But there’s another, much more meaningful issue with prequels and their use of callbacks, which is at what point, rather than informing and enriching the experience of entries that have come before, do prequel demystify those films? At what point is it better to tell, not show? Its as old as Stanley Kubrick who said that “you can’t show the face of god” in film, but this is not just true of depicting the undepictable, but also of certain aspects of prequels: Midichlorians come to mind as a textbook example of something that was so much more intriguing when explained sketchily by Sir Alec Guinness in 1977 than when actually thoroughly dissected by Liam Neeson in 1999. In screenwriting terms, its a classic example of overwriting, turning the ineffable into something mechanical and prosaic instead of leaving it be. It can also just be disappointing: again, the Star Wars example springs to mind where almost anyone’s “head-canon” of Darth Vader’s backstory was probably a lot cooler than “Oh, he’s in that suit because he couldn’t quite jump high enough over Obi-Wan’s head.” Its much better for the Millennium Falcon to just be the fastest ship ever, rather than to have Solo invent some convoluted plot point to make it so.
Again, I don’t think The War of the Rohirrim is particularly in a position to do that. But The Rings of Power may well: again, the example of Meteor Man-as-Gandalf comes to mind, but potentially also much of the story of Sauron and the Ring, as well as the Hobbits. We already know that within the opening episodes some of the storylines – like Galadriel’s and Elendil’s – will intersect, and so we can assume that eventually, the Harfoot storyline will intersect with the others, as well. When it does, and characters become aware of the Harfoots and their value, will we be able to take Elrond’s “I’ve heard that Hobbits are very resilient” remark at face value, if he will have met Poppy and Nori?
But it could potentially happen in other storylines, too. The shot of Valinor is of rapturous beauty, but in a way is it not better, in this particular case, that we should be left imagining the place that Frodo and Bilbo sail to at the end of The Return of the King? What about a potential appearance or at least premonition of Durin’s Bane: is that not more mysterious as an ominous line by Christopher Lee? Is the same not also true, vis–à–vis the recent reveal of the Orcs, of the story of how the Orcs first came to be?
This brings to mind an excellent essay, which should have been a post-morten of Star Wars, in which Tim Kreider laments that “The success of “Star Wars” has obviated a lot of its original virtues.” Pertinently, he goes on to say:
We’re kept watching not by plot but by novelty, curiosity. Subsequent sequels, tie-in novels, interstitial TV shows, video games and fan fiction have lovingly ground this charm out of existence with exhaustive, literal-minded explication: Every marginal background character now has a name and a back story, every offhand allusion a history. But Mr. Lucas’s universe just doesn’t have the depth of Tolkien’s Middle-earth; it was only ever meant to be sketched, not charted.
Kreider perhaps exaggerates the eliptical effect of the film’s opening reel here: most of the stuff that “Lucas refuses to explain” is all the Senate talk that’s mostly peripheral to the main plot anyway. Nevertheless, these elipses (mostly the unintended result of merciless, after-the-fact trimming of both the opening crawl and the film itself) give the film a certain mystique as well as a peculiar sense of realism: its as if the film we’re watching was made within the premises of its own world, thereby forgoing explainations much like a Japanese film is made for Japense audiences and doesn’t bother explaining itself to a Western audience, which gives us a “fly on the wall” feeling. This effect is not particularly appearant in The Fellowship of the Ring, although a new audience might find some of it in An Unexpected Journey, here the (again, unintentional) result of the filmmakers having spent so much time in this world that they don’t necessarily remember that they need to explain everything to the ‘nth degree. At the opposite extreme we have JK Rowling with her Fantastic Beasts spinoffs, which are set before Harry Potter, but which no new audience member could ever hope to make sense of without having seen at least a couple of Potter entries just prior. This is the result of those movies coming out so shortly on the heels of the last Potter, with Rowling still so totally immersed in her creation, as to forgoe any explication of anything. Presumably, The Rings of Power will not fall into that trap, but it can allow the existing entries to retain their sense of novelty?
This isn’t just a question of maintaining an air of mystery, though: its also about scope. I used to think that I wanted that “bridge film” Jackson used to talk about between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, spelling out the fall of Saruman, the travels of Aragorn, Gollum coming out of his cave and so forth. Now, one Obi Wan later, I’m glad I don’t have it. One of the curious phenomena of perception of time in film is that when we take a break from watching, either due to an intermission or a break between entries, we assume that time has past in the world of the film while we were away. This sounds silly, but dramatists have always used this effect to add scope to their stories: the fact that months elapse during the intermission in Lawrence of Arabia adds a lot to the film, and its the same with the time lapse that happens between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and nestling another entry to spell-out all the major events that happened in that time (which naturally involves condensing them to a compact time-scale) does away with that illusion of grandeur. If The Rings of Power ends with the Harfoots setting-out on the journey that will lead them to the Shire, and perhaps with Durin’s Bane pushing the Dwarves into looking for Erebor, the illusion of time-lapse and important events happening in that offscreen timespan between the show and The Hobbit would be obiviated.
There is another sub-issue here which is so synoymous with Star Wars that I’ve made it into a verb: “to Death Star“, which, if you dutifully check in your dictionary, translates to “to trivialize through over-use.” The Death Star was pretty neat in 1977, but since then we’ve seen so many other Death Stars, “Death Star tech” and – mostly thanks to Rogue One – so much more of that original Death Star, that its screen-presence has been obliviated. Indeed, screen-presence is often directly proportional to the paucity of screentime: Dr. Hannibal Lecter is only onscreen for sixteen minutes in The Silence of the Lambs, the Xenomorph in four minutes of Alien and, for that matter, Smaug in twenty minutes of The Hobbit trilogy.
Although The War of the Rohirrim is absolutely centered around a couple of iconic Rohan locales, I don’t think this is an issue that would particularly afflict it; largely because given its presumed length it won’t be able to showboat those locales all that much, anyway. The scenario and the concept art also promise that the Hornburg, at least, would feature under lots of snow and ice, which adds a little variation to the look, thereby helping to keep things fresh. It may also be, as Nerd of the Rings had suggested, that Helm’s Dike won’t be in-place at the time of the film, and will be built during its runtime.
The Rings of Power is in a different position. At the moment, we have no returning locales except Moria which will look radically-different anyway because its not a ruinous mine. But we do have a lot of places that look similar to places we’ve seen before: the dense, gilded foliage and tall trunks of Lindon, with the forest floor often seen lit by lanterns, suggests a strong similarity to Lothlorien; whereas Celebrimbor’s chambers in Eregion resemble Elrond’s study in Rivendell. Could this “cheapen” the appearance of Lothlorien in The Fellowship of the Ring, which is wholly designed around its ethereal mystique?
This issue can be somewhat mitigated by the way things are sequenced: for instance, you could technically say that seeing Gollum in An Unexpected Journey removes the gratification of seeing him revealed in The Two Towers, but there’s so much screentime past between those entries (especially compared with Gollum’s limited screentime in An Unexpected Journey) without seeing Gollum that the effect of the reveal in The Two Towers is retained, if only because a new audience will accept that his appearance might have changed in the intervening years (not to mention a session of torture in Mordor), which it indeed does. So, if Lindon should feature a lot less prominently in the closing seasons of The Rings of Power, and with The Hobbit and the first two hours of The Fellowship of the Ring sandwiched between it and Lorien’s first appearance, the effect of trivializing Lorien’s look could be mitigated.
This, however, opens up yet another overlooked issue, which is at what point do prequels start to overshadow the pieces for which they serves as backstory? I’ll use the Star Wars example yet again, because its the best: if the point of the prequel trilogy, The Clone Wars, Obi-Wan, Solo, Rogue One and the upcoming Andor is, largely, to build-up towards the original 1977 film, is it sacrilege to say that the film can’t stand-up to that much buildup? That isn’t to say that those installments into the Star Wars series are better than the 1977 film – they are not – but nevertheless they have the effect of dwarfing it.
But, returning to the Star Wars comparison… I mean, lets be frank here, the outdoors desert cinematography in the original film was never going to make David Lean or John Ford blush, but coming after so many films that feature Tatooine and which had the time and the money (not to mention the ability and desire) to showcase the expansiveness of the desert locations, it now looks that much more dull and unimpressive: shots which were supposed to underline the Droids venturing into an unknown and possibly-dangerous territory, now come across as repetitive because Tatooine had become a known quantity to us. That’s even without mentioning ersatz-Tatooines like Jakku in other entries, or some of Tatooine’s antecedents like Barsoom or Arrakis getting their big-screen debut. Likewise, the swordfight between Ben and Vader was always lackluster, but coming on the heels of so much high-budget, frenetic action (absurd though so much of it may be) in the various prequel films and shows, it now looks really lame, and much the same could be said for some of the shootouts and brawls.
Can The War of the Rohirrim – or, more to the point, The Rings of Power – do the same thing to The Fellowship of the Ring or, for that matter, to An Unexpected Journey? It might, but to be fair, there is a distinctions to be made here, one which doesn’t derive strictly from the fact that both The Fellowship of the Ring and An Unexpected Journey were bigger-budgeted movies, entrusted to a much more capable director with much more advanced tools at his disposal than did Lucas in 1976 (which again, does not necessarily make them better movies). Rather, the distinction is that we can’t take either Fellowship of the Ring or An Unexpected Journey and examine them in isolation in the way we just did the original Star Wars: those two films were concieved of, intristically, as part of a trilogy and so this quaintification is less likely to occur since the impact of The Rings of Power must be measured not against any single film of yore, but against entire trilogies, if not against the entire sextet. Nevertheless, its a concern that dogs at me.
I think part of the way to judge these topics is to look at a series, line-up its entries narrativelly, and try and think it through, rigorously, from the point of view of a brand-new audience: will it work? Will the dramatic structure be easily-followable and flow-naturally? Or will there be continuity hiccups, plot twists spoiled ahead of time, entries that presume too much pre-existing knowledge to even be inteligible to a new audience? Star Wars and, following it, Fantastic Beasts and the Alien prequels, fail this lithmus test. Middle Earth, thus far, had been able to largely clear it. But will it continue to work after The War of the Rohirrim and The Rings of Power?