Given that Tolkien is widely considered the Father of fantasy, it’s not hard to see why his works are revered by so many. Not content with the success of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien spent the rest of his life fleshing out the world of Middle-Earth, creating lore, characters, and even an entire language, which makes his legendarium feel almost as rich as the real world. Given the success of his books, and the success of Peter Jackson’s excellent film trilogy, it’s hard to think of many other franchises that have been beloved by so many for so long. In 2017, Amazon announced it had acquired the rights to begin developing a streaming series based on The Lord of the Rings, and controversy has followed the series ever since. Now it’s finally here, and, we’ve seen the first two episodes, how does the show compare to the high bar set by Tolkien and Jackson?
One of the few controversies worth considering is the fact that a beloved book series, which warned of the dangers of industrialism, excessive wealth, and devices capable of listening to you (Alexa!), it’s understandable that some fans felt uncomfortable that one of the richest companies in the world, founded by the richest man in the world, was producing new Tolkien content. All the same, it wouldn’t be completely fair to judge a show based on the actions of a few people in the upper echelons of Amazon’s management, and no doubt the vast majority of those who worked on the show did so with the best intentions. Indeed, it has even been reported that founder Jeff Bezos was personally involved with the acquisition of the rights to the show, given he has claimed to be a big fan of Tolkien, and stated his son sagely advised him not to “f**k this up” when he heard the news.
Those who were eager to see the earlier parts of Middle-Earth’s vast history explored (the War of the Ring is just the tip of the iceberg) were no doubt thrilled when Amazon announced the show would be set thousands of years prior to the events of Jackson’s trilogy, and cover the major events which took place during Middle-Earth’s Second Age, much of which is chronicled in The Silmarillion. The first images Amazon shared of the series looked absolutely stunning, and it was hard not to get excited at the prospect of returning to Middle-Earth. Then, as Amazon began revealing the cast of the show, controversy once again reared its ugly head when, horror of all horrors, it was announced the cast would be made from a diverse group of actors from different ethnicities. As is usually the case with such toxic behaviour, it was a small but vocal part of Tolkien’s admirers who expressed outrage at the idea of non-white actors portraying characters in Middle-Earth, but it was no less ugly to behold. Forgetting that Tolkien was actually quite liberal for a straight, white man born in the late 1800s, and that many of the characters featured in his works are technically immigrants to the land of Middle-Earth, these sensitive souls were particularly angry about the fact Sophia Nomvete, a British actress with Iranian and African heritage had been cast as a Dwarven princess. Apparently, they can accept a world in which magic and dragons exist, but draw the line at the existence of non-white characters. While we can hopefully agree such ‘controversies’ are not worth exploring further, it was still a shame to see the upcoming show get targeted by idiots. It was at this point, despite being a huge Tolkien nerd, I decided to check out of the hype leading up to the show’s premier, and just wait until I could watch it before I judged it. I wonder if any show has had so many fans declare it either an absolute triumph or an absolute failure before an episode has even aired?
After years of build up and speculation, the first two episodes have been released on Amazon Prime. So, does the series live up to the bar set by Tolkien and later matched by Jackson, or is it a shameless cash-in from a soulless corporation trying to fill the void left by Game of Thrones while at the same time trying to indoctrinate our children with woke ideas? As a die-hard Tolkien fan who spent many a long day as a child pretending to be off on an adventure with the Fellowship, I’m pleased to report that, so far, I’m impressed by what the show has to offer, and optimistic about its future as the series builds.
Given how beloved the source material is, there were many fans who were anxious the finished product simply might not be very good. With Rings of Power reportedly being the most expensive TV show ever made, one could almost forgive Amazon if it opted to make the show as broad as possible in order to attract as many viewers as possible. The writers might’ve decided to try and ride on the coattails of recent popular dark fantasy shows such as Game of Thrones or The Witcher, and include scenes of over-the-top violence or gratuitous nudity. Perhaps the worst case scenario would be that the show would simply be neither good nor bad, just a bland fantasy world devoid of Tolkien’s vision that feels more like a soap opera with the occasional Orc than a show based on the most popular fantasy books of all time. I am pleased and relieved to report that neither is the case. While I have certain criticisms of the show, which I will touch upon, I was overall very impressed by the first two episodes, and can safely say I’ll be tuning in regularly to see how the story unfolds.
Arguably, the show’s main character is the Elf Galadriel, who you may remember being played by Cate Blanchett in Jackson’s films. Given the immortal nature of Elves, she and a few others, such as Elrond, are the few who appear in both the show and films, and I was sceptical at the idea of having these roles played by new people. Fortunately, I need not have worried. Stepping into Cate Blanchett’s shoes is no doubt a daunting task for a young star, but Morfydd Clark does an excellent job, and I completely buy her as a younger, less sure, and more reckless version of the character we see in the films, it also doesn’t hurt that she could easily pass for a close relative of Blanchett. Our new Elrond may not look much like Hugo Weaving’s version, but I’m convinced Robert Aramayo spent time studying Weaving’s portrayal, as he moves and speaks in a manner almost identical to the one seen in the movies. While the Elves may be the focal point of the series so far, there are many supporting races who are equally intriguing, and who I hope to see expanded upon as the show develops.
Fans of Hobbits will enjoy meeting the Harfoots, Hobbit precursors whose antics are fun and comical, but who also posses the same spirit that made the likes of Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin the real heroes of the War of the Ring. Fans of Gimli and his ilk will be pleased to learn that the Dwarves are present, and at the peak of their power during this period in Middle-Earth history, so expect to see lots of beautiful shots of their mountain kingdoms, as well as their somewhat cruder mannerisms that make for excellent viewing when they come into contact with the ever graceful Elves. Then we have the humans, who are yet to rise to power in the way they have by the events of Lord of the Rings, and who understandably feel a certain frustration at being stuck in a world where they are more or less at the mercy of races and forces much more powerful than themselves. Not seen so much in the first two episodes, but shown often in the trailers are the Orcs and the Numenoreans, both of whom have the potential to be every bit as interesting as the other factions, but time will tell whether they enjoy the same treatment as the Elves, Dwarves, and Humans. It’s also interesting to see there’s a certain friction between the different races, even if they are technically at peace with one another. Much of Tolkien’s writings revolve around people from all backgrounds learning to work together, and I appreciate that the show’s writers have been sure to point out that not all Dwarves are happy to see Elves, that some humans feel threatened by races that are physically superior, and that the Harfoots have adapted to a dangerous world full of big people and creatures by going to lengths to remain unnoticed. Dark lords and Orcs aside, there is tension in Middle-Earth, and this help makes the world feel alive. The show features compelling characters in each faction, though no doubt some will quickly become fan-favourites, and I already feel a certain investment in the fates of these people we’ve only just met. To be clear, there is nothing so far that reinvents the genre or breaks new ground, but it’s perfectly competent and, with some care, I could see these characters revealing hidden depths over the course of the series.
If there’s one aspect of the show I don’t believe anyone can criticise, it’s how absolutely stunning it looks. Jackson’s films were visual feasts, and Rings of Power appears to meet this level of quality with ease. It’s said this is the most expensive series ever produced, and I can easily believe that judging by the visuals alone. I had to keep reminding myself this was not a movie, but essentially a TV show, though it blows the competition out of the water with its stellar effects and gorgeous cinematography. I would almost go as far as to say the show is worth watching for the visuals alone, and each frame could be paused, printed out, and make for an epic poster to hang on your wall. If shows were scored purely on visuals, Rings of Power would make The Sopranos look like Keeping Up with the Kardasians. When we’re not being treated to wondrous panning shots of Elvish and Dwarven cities, set to rousing music, we’re exploring dark, cavernous crypts that could be hiding any manner of evil. Like the first three films, the show uses a nice mix of both practical effects and CGI, and the effects department seem to understand which is most effective for what’s on screen. It was also shot on location in New Zealand, just like Jackson’s films, so it’s very much at home. When it comes to looking pretty, this show is second to none.
The show’s main title music was composed by Howard Shore, who created the excellent soundtrack for both the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, while the rest of the score was composed by Bear McCreary. While the music, excluding Shore’s main theme, may not hit quite as hard as the tracks featured in the movies, it’s still a strong score and I can imagine it will grow on me as certain refrains are repeated throughout the show. There’s certainly the sense of majesty, awe, and power that was present in the films score, there’s nothing quite as instantly iconic, and Game of Thrones still holds the title for best music in a fantasy TV show, for now at least.
While Rings of Power may be coming out swinging on several fronts, that’s not to say the show doesn’t have some issues. First thing’s first, if you’re a Tolkien purist who hates the idea of the show straying from the lore put down by Tolkien, then you might be disappointed by this. It’s said that, like Jackson’s trilogy, Rings of Power only has the rights to certain chunks of Tolkien’s material, meaning there are some places, names, and characters who ought to be present but aren’t. I was disappointed to find Ungoliant, the enormous spider, who was convinced by Melkor to help him destroy the Trees of Valinor, was omitted from the tale of their destruction. I also noticed the word Hobbit was not used among the small folk. They are instead known as Harfoots, though it’s possible Harfoots are simply precursors to traditional Hobbits at this point in Middle-Earth’s history. It’s also worth noting that the main character of the show, Galadriel, performs deeds and has motivations that are never mentioned by Tolkien, the same going for many of the other major characters. It could be said that, while the broad strokes are more or less the same, much of the content of Rings of Power consists of what could be described as fan-fiction, though it’s very high quality fan-fiction. I can appreciate that some hardcore Tolkien fans will feel uncomfortable watching Amazon playing fast and loose with the world and events of Middle-Earth, but if you approach the show with the mindset that this is just one interpretation of Tolkien’s story, rather than the last word, then you’re bound to have fun as you return to the world of Middle-Earth.
It could also be argued the pacing of the first two episodes is slow, though given how much lore the writers have to get viewers up to speed with, I struggle to imagine how this could’ve been avoided. Lets not forget, our beloved Rings film trilogy opens with five minutes of narration. Tolkien’s lore is seriously dense, and not every viewer is going to know their Minas Tirith from their Minas Morgul. The show definitely needs to pick up the pace as the show progresses but, given how much we saw in the trailers that didn’t appear in the first two episodes, I’m optimistic that the best is yet to come in terms of plot. It could also be said that some of the dialogue can feel a little clunky at times. There’s nothing too cringe-worthy, but it did occasionally feel it was on the verge of turning into Shakespeare, particularly during certain interactions between the Elves. That said, Tolkien is very much high fantasy, not the gritty, dark fantasy we’ve come to know from Game of Thrones and The Witcher. If you want your characters to swear like sailors and engage in graphic violence and hedonism, you may want to check out House of the Dragon.
Lastly, it’s understandable that some viewers will struggle to get over the fact a Lord of the Rings TV show is being produced by a company as rich and controversial as Amazon. Based on interviews with the cast and writers, it’s clear to see many involved have a genuine love and admiration for the world Tolkien created, but it’s also hard to shake the feeling there are some at the company who see this as their own money printing machine designed to rival Harry Potter and superhero movies. Time will tell which side wins out, but I’m relieved to report the former appear to have the upper hand currently.
It’s impossible to say what the overall quality of Rings of Power will be based on the first two episodes. Amazon is reportedly looking at five seasons for the show, and no doubt looking into opportunities for spin off shows and films. There was a time when Game of Thrones was seen as the apex of television, and then the final seasons quickly saw the show’s quality nosedive. Equally, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been introduced to a new show and told that if I can get through the first season, then the quality begins to really shine. Rather than try and predict the future, I will say that I’m pleased to report Rings of Power is off to a strong start, but with room for improvement. There is certainly potential here for a show that could grow to be truly great, provided viewers are willing to accept this is not a page-by-page retelling of what Tolkien wrote. If you’re looking for an excuse to return to Middle-Earth, then the show will certainly scratch that itch. More reluctant viewers may need further episodes to draw them in, and some Tolkien die-hards may always struggle to accept new versions of events from Amazon, but, for now at least, this is far from the disaster many predicted it would be.