The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is starting to release more and more details about its first season after leaving fans fighting over scraps for months. We dissected every moment of the first action-packed trailer, analysed off-hand comments from the showrunners about the line of Durin and the show’s time compression, and wistfully whiled away the hours wondering if they’ll include Numenor’s canonical flying ships. Some high-profile Tolkienists have also seen sneak peeks at what we’ve got in store.
What has caused the most discussion, however, is the characters. Many people don’t like the fact that the Elves have short hair (despite the fact that only Cirdan canonically has long hair in the books) and some people don’t like the idea of people of colour being included in this fantasy world. The former group have watched the Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens trilogy more than they have read the books (that’s okay), and the latter group are plain old racist (that’s not). The latest characters to be revealed, however, have pretty much united the fandom.
The Rings of Power will have Orcs, and they’re different to any we’ve seen before. They’re relatively smooth and have a youthful look about them, which Jamie Wilson, head of The Rings of Power’s prosthetic department, tells IGN is a deliberate choice.
“If you go to past films about them, you'll see them and they're quite battle damaged and scarred and all that kind, because there's been lots more battles,” he explains, clearly referencing the deep wounds and rugged features portrayed in the Jackson film trilogy. “[The Rings of Power] is kind of before the next range of big battles. So there's a lot more smooth texture. There's still wrinkles, and lines, and shape, and form, but they're not so battle scarred, but they are dealing with some skin conditions because of their exposure to the sun. They're coming back out for the first time again.”
Wilson also explains that the Orcs have a wider range of skin tones, and are generally paler than those in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy because they’ve been hiding underground for years. While I’m not sure I’m on board with the smoother faces until I’ve seen them in action, the most important thing is that they are mostly real actors wearing prosthetics, rather than the CGI abominations we see in The Hobbit trilogy. There’s also another sin The Hobbit trilogy commits, one that goes under the radar more often, and that’s the fact that the Orcs speak in Orc tongues instead of English.
We know that in-universe, Orcs would speak their own language rather than that of Men, but that doesn’t necessarily create a better experience for the viewer. It’s not about reading subtitles either – granted I went to see the final Hobbit movie in Moscow, and the Orc parts were subtitled in Russian rather than English like the rest of the film, so my understanding of their intentions was somewhat limited – it’s about creating characters.
Who knows why Uruk-hai know what a menu is? (I do, I’ve explained it here). That iconic exchange, mostly voiced by Andy Serkis, has left its mark on Lord of the Rings fans through jokes and memes, and has likely extended outside of the fandom and to the wider world. The only other Rings quote to have similar impact outside of fans is Sean Bean’s reading of, “one does not simply walk into Mordor.” He was literally reading that, by the way, he had the script on his lap due to last minute changes and additions; it’s why he looks down halfway through the line.
It might take hardcore fans of Tolkien’s work out of the moment – I get it, it’s not realistic for Orcs to speak English – but if you wanted to be really accurate then none of the film would be in English, it would be in Westron and Sindarin. Tolkien acted as a ‘translator’ of Bilbo’s and Frodo’s tale, and a historian of the wider universe. Directors of films and TV series, whether that’s Ralph Bakshi, Peter Jackson, or Patrick McKay and JD Payne in the Amazon series take on the same role.
That brings me back to translating the Orcs’ speech. As well as being antagonists, grunts, villains of the story for our heroes to cut through, they are characters in their own right. The reason the Orcs and Uruk-hai in the Lord of the Rings are so successful, the reason they star in so many memes? They’re relatable. They’re just dudes being dudes. They haven’t had nothing but maggoty bread for three stinking days. Even if you’ve never eaten gross bread or stolen a couple of Hobbits for your Wizard overlord, on some level you relate to this rabble of foot soldiers just doing their job. You don’t get that in The Hobbit. Part of it is the writing – the Orcs are never given any lines that don’t directly relate to the plot or their plans – but part of it comes from the fact that they speak in Orcish, too. It’s harder to relay jokes, or sarcasm, or even annoyance when you’re focused on nailing the pronunciation of an alien language.
Lindsey Weber, The Rings of Power’s executive producer, says that “it was really important to them to treat them [the Orcs] as their own culture and explore their world on its own two legs in its own right.” I think this could point towards them speaking Orcish, for the sake of authenticity, but we don’t know yet. I hope that’s not the case, because I can’t handle any more maggoty performances, let us feast on some English-speaking Orcs.
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