And so it came about 21 years after the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring – and eight years after The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, the conclusion of its predecessor trilogy – that a prequel-prequel in form a television series mounted on Amazon’s Prime Video: “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power”. And even before its substance was revealed to the populace, other than in teasers and trailers and various con panels and promotional videos, there was plenty of disagreement around the country over whether it would prove to be a force for good or evil.
Judging by the vlogosphere, “power of evil” is the prevailing opinion. Titles of the videos published on YouTube include “The Rings of Power is DOA”, “Why Everyone Hates The Rings of Power… Already Now”, “The Rings of Power Is Going to suck”, “How ‘The Rings of Power’ Should Have Been Written” and “Rings of Power is a PARODY of ‘Lord of the Rings'”, all based on a touch of evidence.
Well, I’ve seen six of the eight episodes of the first season, and The Rings of Power is neither a disaster nor a triumph, just television of a visibly expensive, restlessly inspired variety. It’s good looking, has some charismatic performances that sell the characters, and overall it’s worth watching, if less than compelling – predictable even in the suspense parts, occasionally exciting, and at times kind of boring. Action scenes, which kept the movies alive and catch your attention here, are relatively common, perhaps because they’re expensive and the season is long.
Some might find it disqualifying, but I don’t care how much the series deviates from the source material, which is sketchy at best – it takes place for a while well before Frodo set out for Mt Doom, and is largely based on the novel Appendices – or even if it’s in the “mind of Tolkien,” whatever that means for each individual reader. That male elves don’t all have long hair like they do in the books and movies didn’t even occur to me. While many enjoy digging into the details of Tolkien’s cosmological, historical, and anthropological appendices, it matters if the series tells a good story – or stories, as there are several whose cuts tend to take a bit of the narrative’s power. And my verdict on this point is… every now and then it does. Every now and then. Some storylines work better than others.
At the same time, the appeal of Peter Jackson’s six films, which adapted Tolkien’s entire pre-posthumous work, lay not just in the narrative but in the production itself, in the unprecedented effort that went into transforming a fantasy world into an intricately rendered life to awaken, be it through special effects or remarkable craftsmanship. Like the Lord of the Rings films, The Rings of Power acts as a sort of imaginary travelogue, imagining the viewer through different environments and settings and cultures and color palettes, including here the Atlantis-like island of Númenor, in a Greco-Roman setting -Egyptian style that is new to the franchise. And in that regard, The Rings of Power is a fun ride.
The series is entirely conventional, but LOTR itself is conventional. For all their narrative digressions and the wayward progression of their characters, separated and reunited, Tolkien’s two novels are fairly straightforward: small creatures go on a quest while larger creatures work to protect them, and a wizard comes and goes. It’s The Wizard of Oz with fight scenes when the lion tries to kill Dorothy and steal the ruby slippers.
So what’s going on in the second age of Middle-earth, thousands of years before the exploits of the third age of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings? Things have been quiet except in the mind of Galadriel (Morfydd Clark), who will grow into Cate Blanchett; Contrary to popular belief, she is convinced that Sauron, that shadowy embodiment of evil, is growing in strength, and as commander of the army of the North she obsessively pursues him to the frosty ends of Middle-earth – even as the current Elven administration is ready to withdraw their defenses and to proclaim peace in their time. Out in the woods and fields, a roving band of Harfoots (like hobbits but not hobbits or not yet hobbits) live lives of Irish brogue comic relief under the tutelage of Sadoc Burrows (Lenny Henry).
Arondir (Ismael Cruz Cordova), a sort of elf sheriff, a taciturn classic western guy, has his coy crush on human healer Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), a single mother with a teenage son, Theo (Tyroe Muhafidin). (Elves are not well received in these parts.) The half-human elf Elrond (Robert Aramayo), who is later to run the business in Rivendell but is not up to much at the moment, is sent to work with the ambitious master blacksmith Celebrimbor (Charles Edwards), who dreams of a vast forge with “a flame as hot as a dragon’s tongue and as pure as starlight.” In order to get the work done “by spring” (it feels random), Elrond sets off to enlist the help of the dwarves, only to find that his old friend Prince Durin IV (Owain Arthur) upset that it took Elrond 20 years to stop by and meet his wife (Sophia Nomvete).
The series is very much the stepchild of the films shot again in New Zealand, borrowing its look, its Howard Shore composed theme, its “Carmina Burana” style musical cues. (Bear McCreary is the series’ composer.) Fortunately, there are maps. The tropics are familiar. Nori Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh), a young Harfoot with a sense of adventure, more or less represents Bilbo or Frodo, a small person fate has chosen for great things. The forbidden love between an elf and a human, represented by Arondir and Bronwyn, is a bit of Aragorn and Arwen. Halbrand (Charlie Vickers), whom Galadriel meets shipwrecked in the middle of the divided sea, is, like Aragorn in his ranger garb, a monarch in disguise; As soon as he says, “My people have no king,” you know 100% that he is. (There’s also a bit of Viggo Mortensen via Vickers.) Theo encounters the hilt of a broken sword that possesses some dark magic and is believed to eventually possess him, reflecting Sauron’s master ring, which as of this writing does not exists . And as in The Lord of the Rings, a theme is the necessary cooperation of the mutually distrustful virtuous races of Middle-earth – humans, elves, dwarves and harfoots – to combat a rising evil. (No wizards appear in the episodes awaiting review, unless the man who fell to earth in a meteor – Daniel Weyman as the Stranger – turns out to be one.)
With a five-season price tag expected to be $1 billion ($250 million for the rights alone), it’s expected to be the most expensive television series of all time. It’s true that Jeff Bezos could pay for the whole thing out of pocket without the slightest disruption to his lifestyle, but it’s safe to assume Amazon isn’t in it to lose money and win its nuts back — or just not be counted as a failure – “The Rings of Power” will not only have to attract fans, but also people who have never read the books or even seen the films. It needs to be understandable to the less informed, which means smoothing out the plot, cutting out superfluous detail (although some would consider no detail superfluous), and keeping the relationships between characters and kingdoms at least a little obvious and easily readable. Showrunners JD Payne and Patrick McKay did, and you can hardly blame them.
The thing about intellectual property is that it’s property controlled by whoever paid for it last. If they want to tear down a nice old house and build a McMansion, no one can stop them, much as the neighborhood may protest. Tolkien sold the rights to adapt The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as early as 1969; In 2017, Amazon paid its estate for the rights to the appendices and all references to the second age in the trilogy. (The Estate is a production partner.) It is left to the legions of fans to defend the works on the social media planes, like Éomer and Aragorn in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. That will do them so much good too.
And sometimes (some) fans defend the wrong things, like attacking the production for emphasizing female roles and casting actors of color where Tolkien (and Jackson, following his lead) only saw white. Evidence has been presented that Tolkien was anti-racist in life, but there’s no escaping the fact that in his books, northern European guys save the day from dark-skinned guys from the south and east, who come with giant elephants and (as in Jackson’s The Return of the King”) quasi-Arab robe. To be honest, I was a little concerned that the series would continue in this tacky way, and I was glad to see that wasn’t the case; Some would say Tolkien was just a man of his time, but these are different times. (I flatly reject any arguments using the word “awakened” or “diversity” in a negative sense.) “The Rings of Power” in some instances adopts the language of modern American prejudice too obviously to make a point , but that’s more a question of bad writing than a bad idea.
And as for the women in The Rings of Power – and Jackson, remember, in The Fellowship of the Ring, memorably put a sword in Liv Tyler’s hands and invented a female elf warrior, Tauriel, for his Hobbit -Movies – Galadriel is by far the most compelling character. Clark makes her driven yet centered, elegant yet badass. She seems natural to belong to the time and place and looks good dismantling a snow troll. The series never gets boring when it’s on screen.
What bothered me is the fact that the characters seem to cover great distances effortlessly and in a very short time. This just feels like cheating.
“The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power”
Where: Amazon Prime
When: Anytime, starting Thursday
Valuation: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under 14 years old)
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/tv/story/2022-08-31/lord-of-the-rings-the-rings-of-power-review-amazon-prime-video ‘Lord of the Rings’ series isn’t the disaster many predicted