The Rings of Power: billion-dollar fan-fiction

Though it begins to grow into itself in the third episode, Amazon Prime’s mega-budget series has largely felt like a retread, with disappointing action scenes to boot.

15 September 2022

By Andrew Osmond

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (2022)
Sight and Sound

Early in Amazon Prime’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, a shipload of voyagers approaches Valinor, heavenly realm of the elves. A celestial light shines through the clouds. From it comes the song of a choir; the linen-clad voyagers start singing too, except for one. The cloud curtains part, the glow grows brighter. Our heroine, the sole figure refusing to sing, can bear it no longer. As the light takes her companions, she backs away, then dives into the ocean.

To haters of fantasy, it sounds like hogwash, but it’s the one time that the first three episodes of The Rings of Power match the best of the cinema franchise they emulate so extravagantly, Peter Jackson’s two Middle-earth trilogies (2001-2014). Beyond that scene, these two episodes merely prove what anyone might have guessed: that a corporation with Amazon’s resources could create a streaming series that convincingly resembles Jackson’s blockbusters. The money is most obviously on screen in the fairy-tale landscapes, which often feature waterfalls cascading over mountains or into the abysses of dwarf mines. But while the quality of the visuals sets The Rings of Power apart from rival fantasies such as Netflix’s The Sandman (2022-) and HBO’s House of the Dragon (2022-), it’s not clear what this win is worth, creatively or commercially.

So far, The Rings of Power appears to be a prequel in name but a remake in spirit. The story starts essentially the same way as the Jackson saga: Middle-earth is apparently peaceful, but an ancient evil is stirring. It’s the same evil as in the films – Sauron, the dark demigod who’ll come to be the Lord of the Rings, presented again as a barely seen, impersonal malevolence. He’s sensed by a fabulously long-lived savant character – in this series, it’s the elf warrior Galadriel, our heroine, who refuses to give up hunting Sauron, much like Gandalf in the films.

Galadriel was in the Jackson films too, played by Cate Blanchett; here, she’s played by Morfydd Clark. Galadriel’s elf friend Elrond is also present, with Robert Aramayo replacing the films’ Hugo Weaving. Another elf, Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova), nurses a forbidden love for a human woman, Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), recalling Arwen and Aragorn in Jackson’s films. There’s a new hobbit (technically, a hobbit-related ‘Harfoot’): the perky, adventure-seeking Nori (Markella Kavanagh). The third episode brings in characters we’ve glimpsed in flashbacks in Jackson’s films.

The series initiates three or four plotlines with only the vague linking thread of ‘evil returning’. For the first two hours, there’s little sense of what the overall story is about. This is more acceptable in a streaming series than it would be in a movie (the ambitious 2007 fantasy film The Golden Compass, planned as the first in a trilogy based on the His Dark Materials books by Philip Pullman, foundered for that reason); but, cinematic appearance aside, The Rings of Power doesn’t compare well with other modern TV series. Just within the fantasy genre, Arondir and Theo’s romance feels laughably makeshift next to, for instance, Jaime Lannister and Brienne’s story in Game of Thrones (2011-19). When the humans’ town is threatened by tunnelling monsters (namely Sauron’s bestial orcs), the underground action feels like a rerun of similar scenes in Season 2 of Stranger Things (2017). The action scenes ought to be a strength of the show, but have proved disappointing so far: two early battles with fantasy creatures – a giant troll and a monster wolf – are brief, clumsily shot and unconvincing.

The performers are well cast; Owain Arthur and Sophia Nomvete, who play a royal dwarf couple, and the actors playing Harfoots, including Lenny Henry, are certainly likeable. But no actor has the mythic, distinctive presence that Viggo Mortensen and Ian McKellen brought to Jackson’s films.

Though The Rings of Power begins to grow into itself in the third episode, the show’s biggest problem so far is that it can’t conceal the fact that it’s driven by a brand. It may be visually and nostalgically pleasurable, but it’s essentially billion-dollar fan-fiction. If the series can’t shake this feeling, even Middle-earth devotees may abandon ship like Galadriel, swimming away from the light.

► The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is available to stream on Amazon Prime now; new episodes are available weekly, with the fourth being released tomorrow.

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