It began with the forging of the great films.
Three of them, in fact. Made by a Hobbit from New Zealand who, with his fellowship of craftsmen, actors, and trusted confidants, defied expectation at every turn. After six years of production, The Lord of the Rings trilogy redefined fantasy for the mainstream and created the definitive alphabet for how we saw J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic story.
One film to rule them all.
Film history became internet legend. Legend became a meme. And for two decades, rights for the book passed out of all knowledge. Until chance came, and The Tolkien Estate ensnared a new bearer. It came to the creature Bezos, who took them deep into the Amazon fulfillment center. There, it consumed him.
The Estate brought with it an unusually long pre-production time, and in the gloom of Bezos’ cave, it waited. Streaming services crept into the living rooms of the world. Rumors grew of a new adaptation, whispers that we’re just paying for cable all over again, and the Tolkien Estate knew, its time had come.
Are the theatrics necessary? Perhaps not. Is the comparison to a genre-defining cinematic triumph entirely fair, especially for the first season of any show? Again, maybe not.
But The Rings of Power did this to itself. Over the last five years, especially leading up to its premiere on September 2nd, Amazon’s gargantuan investment has worked overtime to distance itself from Peter Jackson and his films.
Well, to a point. They’ve hired John Howe, one of the major influences on Jackson’s style, to lead the visuals. Howard Shore, Jackson’s court composer, who crafted the soundscape for Middle-Earth, wrote the theme. Bear McCreary, the new composer, incorporates Shore’s melodies into his work. The cinematography copies the eclectic stylings that helped Jackson’s film stand out. The first episode mimics the structure and style of The Fellowship of the Ring. Even the font bears uncomfortable similarity, the same way you see off-brand products attempting to sucker those in a hurry.
Wait a minute, I hear you cry, that’s just continuity. Of course, they want to make things look like one of the most famous films of all time. Absolutely, I say. That just makes sense.
But Amazon and the show-runners have consistently denied that this is the case. According to them, The Rings of Power is Middle-Earth as you’ve never seen it before. Except, it really isn’t. This is so familiar that every once in a while I had to check if certain shots were repeats of the Jackson films. There is a cave troll attack in the first episode that I could swear features a replicated frame from the Shelob attack in Return of the King.
What makes this even more frustrating is that had Amazon just said they’re going to replicate the Jackson films, I’d be happy as a clam. More of a good thing is a good thing. But their constant chest-thumping focuses entirely on how we’re in for something completely different. And, in a way, we are, but not really. It’s like looking in a foggy mirror at a funhouse.
We have Lord of the Rings at home, as the meme would say.
I think the series knows it, too. There are singular glimpses into another show that’s completely different from what the other half is doing. The story of the Harfoots, a kind of precursor to Hobbits, is particularly engaging. It has elements of Willow and the looseness of Tolkien’s more whimsical writings. Even the visuals here feel different. Freer to do their own thing. Less John Howe or Alan Lee and more Tove Jansson.
I love these parts of the show. It’s just a shame that based on the few early episodes, they feel like an afterthought. As if inserted at the last minute, woefully stuck with a bizarre B-plot involving a visitor crashing into Middle-Earth like a blazing comet. Based on the episodes screened for critics, there’s no clue yet who this person is, but I have my theories, none of them promising.
Then there’s the pacing.
You would think a TV series is a perfect home for Tolkien’s expansive and meticulous lore. In an ideal world, it is. But The Rings of Power falls into a weird rhythm of hurrying up to get nowhere. By the time the first two episodes are out, the series has barely gotten introductions out of the way.
That’s not inherently a bad thing, but hardly anything worth noting takes place, either. The opening monologue, which slavishly follows Jackson’s template, only serves to remind us just how finely tuned the scripts from twenty years ago really are. There’s a myriad of characters, yet despite charismatic acting and beautiful design work on clothes and sets, it would be impossible to tell them apart. This is probably why everyone keeps addressing each other with their full name and title.
These issues extend to the locations as well. Despite juggling a similarly large scale, Jackson’s films never let their audience lose sight of where they were at any time. The Rings of Power, on the other hand, repeatedly returns to an overview of Middle-Earth to showcase transitions. Each place gets a handy subtitle to distinguish it from the others. Watching the series, I realized the addition was a welcome one, but only because, unlike Jackson’s films, most locations in The Rings of Power lack a spirit and feel of their own.
But those that do feel like their own. Goodness. They’re amazing. An elven grove with graves carved into ancient trees is astounding. A warm living room beneath the earth feels lived in and lovingly crafted. A desperate struggle on the Sundering Seas is tremendous.
The Rings of Power has the capacity for wondrous and epic storytelling. But in the first hours of the series, those that matter so much, it adamantly refuses to aim for them.
A part of me wonders if that’s because the series plays everything remarkably safe. This is a major gamble for Amazon, and they’ve publicly stated its success will determine how they approach streaming services in the future. That’s a huge pressure to put on any series, let alone one that has to carve out its own identity in the shadow of an iconic classic.
But it’s precisely that trepidation that keeps the series from soaring. The moments that break out from the established mold are by far the best ones. Family life within Khazad-dûm crackles with intimacy and charm. The nomadic life of the Harfoots feels exciting and inviting.
By contrast, watching a talented actor try to replicate Cate Blanchett’s performance as Galadriel in yet another quest to stop Sauron isn’t just bland; it’s boring. Mostly because so far it follows the structure and style of Gandalf’s quest in The Hobbit films. Galadriel is thousands of years old. Her dominion and conquests reach almost every aspect of Middle-Earth. Surely there are better things to do than repeat the adventures of others? Especially since the series already takes liberties with the material.
I say go nuts. Make whatever. Explore the unexplored parts of Tolkien’s imaginative mythology. It’s rich beyond measure. Have fun with it. The teaser footage I’ve seen for the rest of the season does promise that. I just hope it delivers. Any reservations I have would fly out the window at that point.
So far, it’s too early to pass judgment on the series as a whole. I’ve only seen the first few hours. Others might have seen more. With six more episodes left in the season, The Rings of Power has all the opportunities to make a name for itself as a unique addition to Middle-Earth.
But to do so, it has to first find out what that uniqueness really is. Even if it’s just a visual style. Because right now, it’s too much of another person’s film to stand out. Especially when it tries to tell the grand story of the second age, where the world of men and elves fell apart for thousands of years. That kind of myth needs a vision of its own. It cannot tell itself as a hand-me-down from decades past.
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power streams on Prime Video starting Friday, September 2nd.