By now, everyone knows that Amazon has invested over a billion dollars in The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, making it the most expensive TV series of all time. With that comes a lot of expectations, and a lot of questions.
Will Amazon give Tolkien’s legendarium the Game of Thrones treatment, i.e., upping the sex and violence to make it more “appealing” to modern audiences? The series is clearly pulling out all the stops in terms of effects and visuals, but how faithful will it remain to the spirit of Tolkien’s seminal fantasy? And how will the series compare to Peter Jackson’s beloved Lord of the Rings film trilogy?
The first two episodes — there will be eight episodes total in season one, with four more seasons planned after this one — were screened early for some critics, who have weighed in all of the above issues, and then some. Read on for their reactions to Amazon’s attempt at a Middle-earth epic.
The Rings of Power has the advantage of being set so long before the events of The Lord of the Rings trilogy that it has a hope of standing on its own. Its connections to the events of the movies and books, as well as the inclusion of a few familiar characters from the original trilogy, certainly help, but the fantasy series indeed has a life of its own. With so much potential, The Rings of Power’s biggest obstacle is overcoming its semi-slow pacing at the start. If episode 2 is any indication, however, the rest of the season’s episodes will follow suit in balancing character development with action and suspense.
What made Jackson’s trilogy so engrossing was that the filmmaker managed to make the world feel lived-in, and more than that, real. It didn’t feel like fantasy in the literal sense; it was instead like some form of reality — a living, breathing world full of real characters who just happened to be fantastical. That’s not easy to replicate — in fact, Jackson had trouble replicating it himself with his lackluster Hobbit trilogy. And despite seemingly all the money in the world, The Rings of Power can’t quite recapture the magic bottled up in Jackson’s three films. I enjoyed what I saw here, but I also kept thinking that what I really wanted to do was rewatch the movies.
Early fears about The Rings of Power taking a raw Game of Thrones approach — or recapitulating the gilding-the-dragon excesses of Peter Jackson’s misbegotten Hobbit trilogy — aren’t borne out in the opening chapters, at least. Where will the series go from here? Will it build to the War of the Last Alliance? Will it end with Isildur’s failure at Mount Doom, his death, and the disappearance of the One Ring? Or will the showrunners find a way to end in Tolkienesque eucatastrophe — a “sample or glimpse of final victory”? The Rings of Power has my attention, at least for now.
Ultimately, though, The Rings of Power does a good job of keeping you apprised of the rising evil to come and feels as if it is moving toward assembling a potential Fellowship all its own, with Galadriel at the lead. Although the titular rings are not playing a role so early on in the show, there is more than enough to keep audiences entertained — mysterious figures, political plots, dire survival situations, and more. The series marries what we’ve learned to love about contemporary fantasy, like Game of Thrones with its multiple main characters, with the depth and detail of Tolkien’s universe. While there’s still a whole season to watch, The Rings of Power is off to a successful start in delivering on its promise of quality and firing on all cylinders.
These storytelling threads aren’t poorly executed, exactly, but they raise questions about how well The Rings of Power will manage the balancing act required of a straight-faced fantasy story that also seeks to climb to the top of the “prestige TV” heap. For years Christopher Tolkien, as steward of his father’s artistic legacy, shielded as much of the Middle-earth mythos as he legally could from entertainment corporations, rightly understanding that the spirit of literary works aptly described as “Herodotus meets the Elder Edda” stood little chance of being honored by big-budget screen adaptations. The younger Tolkien has now passed on, and such concerns seem increasingly quaint in the age of extended cinematic universes and IP-ravenous streaming platforms.
That’s not to say that The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power doesn’t evoke Tolkien. Certainly, there are plenty of Tolkienesque plot beats littered throughout these first two episodes. Sinister, soul-corrupting McGuffins? Check. Forbidden interspecies love? Check. Hobbits swept up in world-changing events, the full significance of which fly well over their 3-foot-6-inch-high heads? Check. We’ve seen it all before, and frankly, seen it done better, too — especially the scenes involving the Harfoots — so why aren’t we diving into some other, unexplored corner of Middle-earth lore instead?
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power might have a strong start, but its plot is laden with so many moving parts and far-flung heroes, it’s easy to see the story cratering much like the mythic utopian civilization of Númenor. Without watching beyond the two episodes provided for review, we can only be cautiously optimistic — and skeptical of what’s next.
Regardless of whether it’s streaming or airing on traditional networks, it’s rare that a series lives up to its studio’s dreams of it simultaneously feeling like a bingeable TV show and like a big, expensive cinematic event. Between a slate of strong performances, an eye for impactful minutiae, and a solid sense of its own ability to grow beyond the canon that it’s not technically a part of, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power definitely seems like it could be just that.
Prime Video’s The Rings of Power is a kindred aesthetic spirit to Peter Jackson’s film trilogies, even as it charts an all-new prequel path designed to play out over multiple sprawling seasons. It’s fantasy writ exhilaratingly large, although at the start, what’s so impressive about showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay’s streaming effort (September 2) is its balance between the glorious and the vile, the romantic and the brutal, the euphoric and the despairing, and the grand and the intimate.
It’s clear that everyone involved here understood that one couldn’t tell this kind of epic story on a typical TV budget or it would have felt like a shadow of the films instead of being on the same tier in terms of craft. And so these two episodes pull out all the stops in terms of tech elements, scattering characters across Middle-earth in way that shows off the range of their design choices from a regal Elven city to a farmland community to a Dwarven underground society. It’s the most expensive show on TV and it looks like the most expensive show on TV.
The similarities between The Rings of Power and Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films create an interesting visual bond between the projects. After watching The Rings of Power, it’s easy to imagine how the Middle-earth depicted in the Amazon series could eventually transform into the decaying, almost post-apocalyptic world featured in the Jackson films. That’s an undeniable accomplishment, but it’s far from the only impressive feat that The Rings of Power pulls off across its first two episodes.
Prime Video’s new prequel series, The Rings of Power, has managed to achieve the impossible in rekindling the feeling of seeing those lavish first steps into Middle-earth two decades ago and, with the almighty power of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, spent the budget to make such a thing happen with the most expensive television show in history (so far), dying gasps of the streaming wars be damned.
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power’s first season will begin streaming on Amazon Prime Video on September 2, 2022. Watch the trailer below.