Issues with adaptation: ‘House of the Dragon’ and 'The Rings of Power'

Since “Game of Thrones” reached its tumultuous conclusion with its final season, several shows in the larger fantasy and medieval drama genre have popped up, seeking to assume its mantle. From Netflix’s “The Witcher” to Amazon Prime’s “Wheel of Time,” many are attempting to follow in the wake of “Game of Thrones” and capture the acclaim and popularity of the seminal series. Now, there are two new claimants to the “Throne” of the “Game of Thrones,” released to differing degrees of success. 

HBO’s “House of the Dragon” and Amazon Prime’s “The Rings of Power'' both premiered in August 2022, with the former garnering glowing reviews and record view counts and the latter seeing a more tepid response from critics. Both shows are adaptations of prequel source material written to expand their fantastical worlds, yet why has the reception to “House of the Dragon” been more positive than that to “Rings of Power,” and what do these differences say about the larger world of fantasy adaptations?

“House of the Dragon” is immediately familiar to viewers of “Game of Thrones,” with its setting approximately 200 years in-universe before the events of the initial show. The stories adapted for the new show mostly originate from “Fire and Blood,” a sourcebook on the history of the Targaryen family (the monarchs of the main kingdom of Westeros) written by George R. R. Martin from the perspective of an in-universe historian collating different accounts of events. 

The particular time period of “House of the Dragon” sees Westeros bracing itself as a looming succession crisis grows. While I will avoid large spoilers for both the book and the show’s first four episodes, I must say that the world pioneered by “Game of Thrones” has been rediscovered. The intentional narrative ambiguity of the source material means that the showrunners, Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik, can choose which events they wish to portray and the ways that certain characters’ motivations are expanded upon. 

An example of this choice of portrayal can be seen in certain romantic interactions between some of the show’s main characters in the most recent episode, “King of the Narrow Sea.” While “Fire and Blood” offers several conflicting accounts of the interpersonal relationships of its large cast, the show can choose if a particular character spurned or welcomed a certain advance and which other characters were privy to the “true” events. This process of selective adaptation is aided by the source material, but Condal and Sapochnik as well as each episode’s writers deserve praise for their consistency and care in assembling the events.

Following in the cinematic footsteps of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy has proven to be a tall task for many aspiring directors. Even Jackson himself was unable to recapture the enormous success of the original trilogy, as his adaptation of The Hobbit stretched the charming and child-friendly novel into an obtuse trilogy far beyond the original scope of the book. In seeking to recapture the grand scope of his first series, he lost sight of what makes “The Hobbit” appealing.

A different issue has arisen with “The Rings of Power.” The setting and scale of the first three episodes certainly fits the source material (and the nearly $500M budget is visible in every frame — the series is certainly gorgeous). No, the adaptation issues here lie with the rights to the source material itself. The Tolkien Estate licensed the rights to “The Hobbit'' and “The Lord of the Rings” in the 1970s for animated adaptations of the books, but has never licensed the rights to any of the other works of “Middle Earth.” This means that the entire plot of “The Rings of Power” has been based on the Appendices from “The Lord of the Rings,” and not on “The Silmarillion” or any of Tolkien’s “Unfinished Tales,” which explore the time period the series has been set it with much greater depth than the appendices. 

This lack of access to the core intellectual property has necessitated the invention of new material, which is not inherently an issue — “House of the Dragon” has done this very well, as have many other cinematic adaptations. While it is still too early to say for sure how all of the creative decisions made will pan out, there is a certain weight and poetry that is missing in the show thus far. Sans spoilers, the time compression and liberties of character thus far have jumbled the thematic core of Tolkien’s work. Of course, the efforts of the showrunners to cast diverse actors in lead roles are not at fault and enhance the scale and believability of the world, but I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the world at play that might have been avoided had there been more direct material to adapt. 

Fantasy, especially high fantasy like “The Lord of the Rings” and “A Song of Ice and Fire,” can be very difficult to translate from book to screen. Still, the process of translation is made even harder when there is not a deep grounding of the cinema in the text. One need only look at the last few seasons of “Game of Thrones” to understand some common reservations critics have with “Rings of Power.” As the show caught up and eventually passed the events it was adapting from the books, the outline for the resolution was provided by Martin but much of the connecting work had to be completed by the show’s creatives. These creative choices led to a fierce backlash from fans, who felt that the life and “truth” of the adaptation had been lost to spectacle and poor creative decisions. As stated previously, it is too early to say how “The Rings of Power” will pan out — as of writing only three episodes have been released–but we can only hope that the essence of Middle Earth is found and that things improve from here.


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