It’s safe to say Amazon is pretty serious about “The Lord of the Rings”. The mega-company forked out $250 million for the television rights to the J.R.R. Tolkien classic following the successes of two Peter Jackson-helmed movie trilogies. Even more, Amazon has committed $1 BILLION to their new Prime Video streaming series, “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power”. In unison with the Tolkien Estate, Amazon is eyeing five seasons and around fifty episodes to tell their massive story set thousands of years before Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”.
Regardless of the amount of money spent, venturing back into Middle-Earth, the place that Peter Jackson envisioned and visualized so well, was going to be a massive undertaking. And while I don’t hide my preference of the movie trilogy format over a streaming series, Amazon and their showrunners J. D. Payne and Patrick McKay presented a pretty compelling vision of their own. That didn’t remove every question/concern I had, but it did encourage me with its potential.
Based on Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” novel and its appendices, “The Rings of Power” sets out to cover all of the key points of Middle-Earth’s Second Age (basically the period and events summarized in the five-minute prologue in “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”). Episodes 1 and 2 are all about introducing (and in some cases reintroducing) us to Tolkien’s vast and sprawling world. There are plenty of new places and even more new faces. But we also get some familiar locations and a few names fans know by heart.
Episodes 1 and 2 are directed by J. A. Bayona whose first two feature films were the dramatically different yet equally well made “The Orphanage” (2007) and “The Impossible” (2012). He later made “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” (but let’s not talk about that one). With “The Rings of Power”, Bayona seems to have a good grasp of his critical task. It’s up to him to lay the enormous groundwork for what’s to come, and do it in a way that not only captivates audiences but leaves them hungry for more. Even more challenging, Bayona has to evoke those feelings of returning to Middle-Earth, recapturing the magic of the Jackson movies while presenting it a fresh new way. In a nutshell, he succeeds.
The eight-episode first season kicks off with two shows dedicated to table-setting and world-building, not unlike the first half of “The Fellowship of the Ring”. The big difference here is the series is much broader in scope meaning more characters and more time spent introducing them. Bayona and the team of writers do a good job putting faces and voices to these characters who undoubtedly will have pivotal roles to play going forward. But with so many players to ground in the world, we get a lot less action. Some might call it slow, and it occasionally is. But it’s also crucial to locking in our investment.
Among the many inhabitants of Middle-Earth we meet are a young Galadriel (played by Cate Blanchett in the Jackson movies and by a fabulous Morfydd Clark here). She’s an Elven warrior, driven by the death of her brother to root out a gathering evil that she believes is on the horizon. There’s also Elrond, a High Elven architect and politician (played by Hugo Weaving in the movies and in the series by Robert Aramayo). This young Elrond is optimistic and outgoing – much different than the cynical and world-weary leader he would become.
We also meet Durin IV (Owain Arthur), Dwarven prince of Moria (known here as the flourishing city of Khazad-dûm). And Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova), a Silvan Elf and soldier who has a forbidden love for Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), a human healer in a small Southlands village. Then there’s also the adventurous young Nori Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh), a Harfoot who are this show’s hobbits. These are just some of the characters we meet in the first phase of this journey.
The performances are uniformly excellent with everyone feeling at home in their uniquely defined regions of the world. Much of Middle-Earth is still settling itself in the aftermath of war, and that weighs heavier on some races than others. This alone allows for a variety of stories to be told and an interesting range of performances. It’ll be fun watching these different experiences change and eventually meld together as this rebirth of evil once again plunges Middle-Earth into darkness.
Back to the world itself, everything looks magnificent, including the stunning production design, the exquisite costumes, the breathtaking locations, and the spectacular special-effects. You can tell Amazon tapped into the talent pool behind the Jackson movies, bringing back several people who helped to so vividly bring Middle-Earth to life. There’s still a long way to go with the series, but if it keeps this level of visual quality, we’re in for a treat.
A fundamental part of what made “The Lord of the Rings” movies so special was the sheer wonder of the creative vision combined with how beautifully it flowed from start to finish. My biggest concern with “The Rings of Power” is in its ability to maintain that same creative cohesion. Can such an massive story with so many moving parts and even more directors flow as gracefully as the movies did before it? Time will tell, but I love what they’ve given us so far. The first two episodes of “The Rings of Power” are a visual feast, and the character-building helps lay a solid foundation for what’s to come. I don’t know how it will all come together, but I can’t wait to find out.
“The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” is streaming now on Prime Video.