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‘The Rings of Power’ Is Visually Jaw-Dropping. Does It Need to Be Anything More?

For fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing, seeing his world brought to life will be a dream come true. But the question is whether Prime’s big bet for the next ‘Game of Thrones’ can bridge the gap for fantasy skeptics the way that series did.

Amazon Prime Video/Ringer illustration

HBO would certainly like you to compare The Rings of Power to House of the Dragon. The company timed the release of its blockbuster bet so that it would premiere a good two weeks before Rings and then overlap for the entirety of its initial run. (House of the Dragon will have 10 episodes in its first season, The Rings of Power just eight.) So would Jeff Bezos, who reportedly demanded Amazon’s own version of Game of Thrones mere months before the company acquired the global TV rights to Lord of the Rings for close to $250 million. Even to outsiders, the shows have undeniable similarities: Both are expensive prequels to beloved works of high fantasy, and both are expected to achieve the scale needed to sustain an international streaming service in an increasingly cutthroat media landscape.

But as big as Thrones was—and, based on initial ratings for the already-renewed House of the Dragon, continues to be—this framework may be thinking too small. Before The Rings of Power (or The Witcher, The Sandman, The Boys, Foundation, Dune, The Wheel of Time, and soon, The Three-Body Problem) tried to be the next Game of Thrones, author George R.R. Martin and his peers were trying to be the next J.R.R. Tolkien. Every fantasy writer since 1937 has been riffing on or reacting against the archetypes Tolkien set up in The Hobbit, then expanded in The Lord of the Rings and companion texts like The Silmarillion. That places The Rings of Power within a much older, and maybe even higher-stakes, effort than the current content arms race: following up one of the most widely known and influential stories of all time.

Tolkien’s story has largely sat out the aggressive expansion of franchises over the past several years. Where Marvel, Star Wars, and DC are now out in full force, Rings hasn’t had a high-profile adaptation since 2014, when director Peter Jackson closed out his trilogy based on The Hobbit. Jackson’s dual film series represent two potential outcomes for The Rings of Power and its showrunners, high school classmates Patrick McKay and J.D. Payne. The first, released over three years in the early aughts, are modern classics that introduced the books to a new generation of fans. (I first read The Lord of the Rings in a then-new edition covered by a still from the movies.) The second, though still wildly lucrative, is remembered as a bloated mess that valued technical showmanship over storytelling. The Return of the King still co-holds the record for the most Academy Awards bestowed in a single night. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies received a single nomination for sound editing.

In the episodes provided to critics, The Rings of Power hews closer to the latter than the former. The nearly half-billion dollars Amazon allegedly spent filming the show in New Zealand hasn’t gone to waste: The Rings of Power looks incredible, with a hyper-saturated, almost psychedelic feel that instantly sets it apart from the dark and gritty aesthetics of shows like Thrones. Battle scenes are expertly choreographed; vistas and cityscapes pulsate with detail. But the most beautiful backdrops in the world still need compelling characters and dynamic story lines to complete them. The Rings of Power will likely be a boon to Tolkien superfans, who can see obscure corners of lore brought to life. Except Amazon didn’t make the show for diehards. The Everything Store wants a four-quadrant hit, and The Rings of Power doesn’t offer much of an entry point for newcomers, or even casual admirers. For that, they’re better off watching Jackson’s original trilogy—which is streaming on HBO Max.

The Rings of Power is set during Middle Earth’s Second Age: after the mythical events that make up most of The Silmarillion, but before Frodo and the Fellowship set out to destroy the One Ring. (Three thousand years before, to be precise.) As we (or at least most of us) know, a human warrior named Isildur (Maxim Baldry) will eventually cut the Ring from Sauron’s hand in a battle at the foot of Mount Doom. But when The Rings of Power starts, the titular objects haven’t even been forged yet. That gives Payne and McKay plenty of space to fill, and it looks like they’ll get the time to fill it: a second season is already underway.

Isildur may be a name fans have heard before—he comes up in the film prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring—but thanks to some characters’ immortality, The Rings of Power has familiar faces as well. Aloof, cryptic Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) is recast here as a plucky young (that is, relatively young) warrior, convinced evil is on the rise again after the defeat of Sauron’s master, Morgoth. Elrond (Robert Aramayo) is also on hand, though not yet Lord of Rivendell. An aspiring politician, he’s been tasked with assisting Celebrimbor (Charles Edwards), the smith who will go on to forge the fateful rings. These elves are literal holdovers from The Lord of the Rings. They’re surrounded by characters, new to the show, who more indirectly echo their forebears—or technically, successors. Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) is an elf stationed in the Southlands who shares a controversial bond with human healer Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), a species-swapped version of the Aragorn-Arwen relationship. Speaking of Aragorn, Galadriel encounters a human named Halbrand (Charlie Vickers) who shares his haircut, as well as a mysterious destiny he seems to be running from. Elanor Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh) and Poppy Proudfellow (Megan Richards) are nomadic harfoots, the evolutionary ancestors of hobbits. Their cheery, innocent whimsy recalls Frodo and Sam, or Merry and Pippin.

Writing for this website, critic Emma Stefansky observed that Payne and McKay enjoyed “a ton of creative freedom” in fleshing out Tolkien’s mythology, including its protagonists. (Since Amazon holds only the TV rights—Swedish company Embracer Group now owns the film and gaming rights—to the original trilogy and The Hobbit, The Rings of Power is largely drawn from an appendix to The Return of the King.) But in its minimal tweaks to the original heroes, The Rings of Power declines to exercise that freedom. Instead, the show is reluctant to trust the audience with anything that strays too far from what they already know, or what’s too obvious to deny. It’s an instinct epitomized by the otherwise great Bear McCreary’s score, which is at once omnipresent and oddly generic. Every emotional beat is cued within an inch of its life, yet there’s nothing that sticks in the brain like Howard Shore’s odd, elegiac theme for the first set of Jackson films.

Like many fantasy offshoots, The Rings of Power works better as world-building than a story in its own right. Yet world-building can mean many things. The Rings of Power excels as a kind of visual aid, taking us to spectacular locales like Númenor, an island city ruled by Queen Regent Míriel (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), or the mines of Khazad-dûm, where Elrond meets with the dwarf Prince Durin (Owain Arthur). In The Lord of the Rings, Khazad-dûm lies in ruins, while Númenor has sunk into the sea. “Much that once was is lost,” Galadriel’s opening voice-over to Fellowship tells us. The Rings of Power shows us exactly what has faded from memory, and helps us feel that loss more acutely.

But when exposition is told rather than shown, that magnetic pull starts to weaken. The Rings of Power struggles to convey dense backstory through dialogue, either alienating the viewer with long, unwieldy speeches or confusing them with unclear information. At one point, Elrond all but recites his own father’s Wikipedia page, while the episodes I watched left me without a firm grasp on some basic geopolitics. Actors wage an uphill battle against these awkward constraints and few emerge victorious, though Joseph Mawle stands out as an antagonist I am barred from describing in detail. (I’ll simply say that, unlike most orcs, his character can talk and thus articulate his intentions at length.)

Here, at last, the flying reptile in the room must rear its head. As an extension of Tolkien, The Rings of Power takes a fundamentally different approach from Martin, and therefore House of the Dragon. Game of Thrones cast itself in shades of gray, both literal and metaphorical; The Lord of the Rings depicts a dualist, Manichean struggle between good and evil, a contrast in stark black and white. It’s no surprise that The Rings of Power takes the latter approach, which has its own virtues. Tolkien wrote his original books in the shadow of creeping fascism, then released The Lord of the Rings in the aftermath of World War II. His saga’s conflict has a primal, evergreen appeal, one that could resonate with viewers living through another age of global unrest. It’s also an easier sell for families with kids who otherwise avoid the sex and violence of HBO prime time, Thrones included.

But moral absolutes are also hard to cultivate into long-term drama. Tolkien’s appendix and Martin’s Fire & Blood may both be dense tomes of raw data, yet Martin’s conflicting interests and complex motivations make a better fit for both an extended format and the mass audience Amazon is looking for. Fantasy occupies a paradoxical place in culture: It’s incredibly popular, yet widely considered a niche. Game of Thrones broke out of that niche by filling its unreal setting with all-too-real emotions, closing the distance between fantasy skeptics—or even agnostics!—and the genre they resist. For all the money in the world, The Rings of Power can’t bridge the same divide.