Lord of the Rings is famous for its density. J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved books describe a relatively straightforward quest — bringing the One Ring to Mordor in order to destroy it right under the nose of its creator, the dark lord Sauron — in thousands of pages that mix swords and sorcery with detailed history and appendices. A filmed adaptation was long deemed impossible, in part because of the scope of the novels. But 20 years after its release, Peter Jackson’s trilogy of movies, each roughly three hours long, remains a towering triumph.
Still, the sprawling source material’s denseness has historically proven challenging to adapt. After the mediocre Hobbit film trilogy in the mid-2010s, it was hard to know what to expect when Amazon announced that it had purchased the television rights to Tolkien’s estate and was planning a TV series back in 2017. After watching the first two episodes of Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, out on Friday, I can report that it’s a qualified success: The show is a remarkably effective re-creation of Middle Earth with plenty to engage fans, but, at least for now, it lacks a solid core.
The Rings of Power reportedly cost a billion dollars, the highest budget in TV history, and it shows.
Developed by showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, the series takes place in the Second Age, over 3,000 years before the events of the trilogy. Based on the first two episodes available to critics, it will likely follow the creation of the Rings of Power, as well as the One Ring. The forging of these rings is a coup by Sauron, one that effectively sets into motion the battle for Middle Earth. All of this is based on material from Tolkien’s expansive written work set in the same world as Lord of the Rings, especially the posthumous short story collection The Silmarillion.
More than anything, The Rings of Power is a feat of worldbuilding, or at least in world rebuilding. Partly, that’s just because it’s wildly expensive. The Rings of Power reportedly cost a billion dollars, the highest budget in TV history, and it shows. Streaming frequently means “made on the cheap,” even for the flushest industry players — but not here. It’s clear that everything has been filmed on location instead of in front of a green screen, and those locations look and feel like Jackson’s Middle Earth. (Of course, it helps that, like the movies, the series was filmed in New Zealand.)
Executive producer J.A. Bayona does an admirable job directing the first two episodes, even with the weight of expectations set by the Jackson trilogy. The budget has been used to re-create the look and feel of the Lord of the Rings movies you know and love, without slipping into parody. The cinematography is gorgeous. There are cool-looking scenes of elves climbing mountains with ice axes. There are a few flashy battle scenes (and a couple of smaller-scale fights against classic fantasy monsters) that look as good as anything in the movies. Bear McCreary’s fantastic score evokes the iconic Howard Shore music without feeling too derivative and readily conjures the feeling of something epic happening as the camera flies across some grass, showing off the scope of Middle Earth.
If there’s one central character, it’s Galadriel, the elven queen played by Cate Blanchett in the Jackson films. Here, she’s a highly motivated warrior played by Morfydd Clark. Clark is one of the highlights of the show so far, channeling the off-putting intensity of Blanchett’s version of the character without ever slipping into an impression — and hinting at the darkness that characterizes Galadriel’s biggest moment from Lord of the Rings, when she contemplates taking the One Ring for herself.
Galadriel is also the locus of the series’ first major departure from Tolkien’s work, or at least its first major interpolation: By the time The Rings of Power begins, Galadriel has spent centuries trying to hunt down the seemingly vanquished Sauron in order to avenge the death of her brother, a quest that isn’t in the source material. With a cast scattered across Middle Earth, Galadriel’s singular drive is at least an attempt at giving the series a spine, something that can unify a story with many distinct strands and give one of the main characters a reason to travel.
Galadriel crosses paths with the other character who will be familiar to longtime fans: Elrond, the elf who will later become the lord of Rivendell, played by Hugo Weaving in the Jackson films. Here, he’s an earnest up-and-comer in elven society played by Robert Aramayo. Though the older Elrond is a stern recluse, emerging primarily to give counsel to the active players, Rings of Power depicts him as an active citizen of the world, one who even has a sense of humor. The characterization is a bit jarring, but hints at what could potentially be an engaging direction for the character. (And while there’s nothing wrong with Aramayo’s performance, he is unfortunately one of a few actors on the series with faces that know about texting.)
While The Rings of Power is a lot of fun to watch on a moment-to-moment basis, it at times feels like there’s something lacking in the center.
The rest of the cast is broadly divided into two categories. There are major players in Tolkien’s history, like Gil-galad, the High King of the elves (played by Benjamin Walker), Celebrimbor, the ambitious artificer who eventually crafts the Rings of Power (played by Charles Edwards), and Isildur, the human king who defeats Sauron, but succumbs to the temptation of the Ring. (Isildur is played by Maxim Baldry, but does not appear in the first two episodes.)
Other characters have been invented to essentially round out the numbers and show a bit more how the ordinary people of Middle Earth experience these events. Nori Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh) is a harfoot, a sort of precursor to the hobbits of Lord of the Rings, who don’t quite exist at this point in the timeline. Nori wants to break free from her community and experience adventure — clearly inspired by the restless Bilbo Baggins of The Hobbit. And there are star-crossed lovers Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) and Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), an elf and a human developing an uneasy and forbidden relationship at the tail end of what is essentially an elven military occupation.
But while The Rings of Power is a lot of fun to watch on a moment-to-moment basis, it at times feels like there’s something lacking in the center.
Think about it this way: The Rings of Power is certainly swinging for the fences, trying to take on the same massive storytelling challenge as the Lord of the Rings movies. And Lord of the Rings truly does take on an epic, world-spanning scope — anyone who has seen the movies will remember how dizzying it can be to jump from Frodo and Sam to Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli to Merry and Pippin and so on, as the adventure grows to encompass all of Middle Earth. But the movies don’t actually get to that point for a while.
The Fellowship of the Ring is, all things considered, a pretty focused movie. We’re more or less in Frodo’s point of view the whole time, starting with his innocent life in the Shire and running through the breaking of the Fellowship. And since we’ve already spent so much time with the rest of the Fellowship, it’s not only easier to follow them in their distinct stories in The Two Towers and Return of the King, but it’s also clearer how their individual missions fit into the broader arc of the War of the Ring.
Though the first episode of The Rings of Power mostly focuses on Galadriel, it still tries to lay partial groundwork for Nori, Bronwyn, and Arondir, diluting a bit of the strength of the storytelling in the process. It’s clear that we’re expected to care about these characters immediately, but there’s just not enough heft to them yet, especially when there’s such an imbalance of scale between Galadriel and everyone else.
It’s not hard to understand why these new characters are being given so much time at the outset. The beginning of Fellowship helps to establish stakes for the epic fantasy by showing the hobbits’ idyllic lives in the Shire, giving a sense of what Frodo wants to protect — an atmosphere The Rings of Power tries to evoke with its scenes with Nori’s family. And while the show’s depiction of harfoot society is fun so far, the closest it gets to a warm, emotional core — and to having some levity amid the seriousness — is Durin IV, prince of the dwarves, played by Owain Arthur as equal parts pompous and tender.
The scenes in the dwarven kingdom of Khazad-dûm are, in contrast to Galadriel’s grim resolve, funny. They recall some of the Jackson trilogy’s odd, smaller moments that feel lived-in and goofy, like the infamous “looks like meat’s back on the menu” scene. Lord of the Rings is epic, but its sincerity can also be a bit corny, which is part of the whole appeal. Hopefully as The Rings of Power goes on, it becomes more comfortable being itself. Whatever that means.
The Rings of Power fully embraces the rich, dense lore. This is a show for the real Rings-heads.
Even outside of its relationship to the movies, it’s impossible not to compare The Rings of Power to the other ridiculously expensive fantasy prequel airing right now. And while Tolkien and Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin are doing very different things with their work, there is one useful point of contrast between these series, specifically. Where House of the Dragon works on its own as a story about the scheming members of the Targaryen family, it’s much harder to imagine a casual fan dropping into The Rings of Power. (I’ve seen Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy more times than I care to count and have read The Silmarillion, and I still felt lost some of the time.) Befitting a book series that gleefully communicates important information in a series of appendices, The Rings of Power fully embraces the rich, dense lore. This is a show for the real Rings-heads.
Accordingly, assessing The Rings of Power on its own terms is practically impossible, and probably not even very helpful. The series is so intentional about setting itself in the broader context of both the books and the movies that treating it as a distinct show would be missing the point. (That context isn’t limited to the lore of Middle Earth: It’s clear that everyone who worked on The Rings of Power harbors a deep love for the source material, but it’s hard to ignore the irony of Jeff Bezos professing his affection for a story about a cruel overlord who surveils everything around him and threatens the survival of the planet.)
But there are pieces of that lore that haven’t quite gotten the cinematic treatment, and that seem poised to blossom in a longer, more patient series. The Rings of Power seems interested in more fully exploring the differing perception of time between the immortal elves, long-lived dwarves, and candle-in-the-wind men, something that, out of necessity, only ever really hinted at in the movies. In another major change from the source material, the series has to be more thoughtful about the passage of time: The events of the Second Age will be greatly compressed in order to avoid mortal characters dying every other episode, an instructive tension between the scale of epic fantasy and the realities of episodic television.
Having several more hours to tell its story after these first two episodes sets high expectations for The Rings of Power. Everything is so enjoyable on a textural level, but there’s a nagging sense that the show could collapse under its own weight. Hopefully it doesn’t, because The Rings of Power is truly a triumph of high fantasy vibes, with only a couple of narrow breaks in the spell. (In particular, there are a couple of moments that awkwardly reference the events of Lord of the Rings — like when a human character loudly proclaims that one day the “true” king of men will return. Get it? The return…of the king?)
That’s all to say that, like House of the Dragon, The Rings of Power is a pleasant surprise, ably returning to a beloved fantasy world in a serious way without fully giving off the whiff of a cash-in. Will The Rings of Power be able to win the wider audience it needs in order to justify its budget? I’d say it’s impossible, but Lord of the Rings finds a way.●