Can you spend your way to the next Game of Thrones? Jeff Bezos — the world’s second-richest man and, incidentally, the owner of The Washington Post — certainly appears to have tried.
According to some news reports, the Amazon founder and J.R.R. Tolkien fan had his company plunk down an estimated $250 million just for the rights to make a TV show based on The Lord of the Rings. The resulting series, which debuted Sept. 1, will be the most expensive ever made.
But you already know what I do: If money were all it took to make the next fantasy monoculture phenomenon, it would’ve happened by now.
Amazon Prime Video’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power arrives 21 years after the first film in Peter Jackson’s theatrical trilogy — and less than two weeks after HBO’s own attempt to milk whatever goodwill Game of Thrones has left through its prequel series, House of the Dragon. Whereas the Westeros drama plays up its parent show’s penchant for shock, pulp, and gore, the Middle-earth saga, in line with Jackson’s adaptations, is far more family-friendly.
Though the eight-part debut season portends an imminent war between Elves and orcs — with Dwarves, humans, and a precursor to the Hobbit race called the Harfoots in the mix — the copious and choppily edited action in the first two episodes (those screened for critics) is bloodless and computer-effects-driven. Its defining influence isn’t Game of Thrones’ epic scale but Marvel’s neuteredness. If the production design weren’t so spectacular (and the characters and settings bought up by Amazon), The Rings of Power wouldn’t be all that out of place on Disney Plus.
To be fair, The Lord of the Rings franchise was meant for all ages. But it’s not clear who The Rings of Power is for. Based largely on the appendixes (the appendixes!) to The Lord of the Rings novel, it takes place some 3,000 years before the events of that book. Already given the green light for five seasons (with a possible spinoff in the works), inexperienced showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, who have only uncredited writing work on Star Trek Beyond to their name on IMDb, have said their goal is to make “a 50-hour show” from material covered in just a few minutes in Jackson’s movies. In total, the series’ budget is expected to top $1 billion. That should be fairly easy to surpass: The first season alone cost $465 million, according to the Hollywood Reporter, and that’s without factoring in the initial money to secure the IP.
Thus far, I’ve spent this review focusing more on The Rings of Power’s development than its contents because there’s so little of note in the actual show. The characters — including Elves Galadriel and Elrond, played by Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving in the films — are phyllo-dough thin, and the plots not much more substantial. Exiled from her childhood home of Valinor by a centuries-long war that claimed her older brother, this younger Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) won’t give up the fight despite the lack of orc sightings in years. (Outside of combat, Elves tend to live forever.)
There’s also a boisterous young Harfoot seeking adventure named Nori (Markella Kavenagh) — an anomaly among her insular, nomadic community — so archetypal her refrain might as well be “I want to be where the people are, there must be more than this provincial life!” She soon gets her wish when an ailing stranger (Daniel Weyman), tall and angular of face, is found nearby spent, amnesiac, and strongly implied to be the story’s antagonist.
Many miles away, a human healer, Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), and an Elven sentry, Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova), entertain a probably doomed cross-species flirtation. Elrond (Robert Aramayo), a member of the Elf king’s court, has his own challenges maintaining a friendship with the Dwarven Prince Durin (Owain Arthur), who could prove a crucial ally in the battle against the orcs. Despite Jackson’s claim that the Rings of Power creative team ghosted him, they borrow from and build on the character designs, fairyland aesthetics, and musical landscape he created for the films. (Expect singing.
A lot of it.)
The Rings of Power seems to be banking on dazzling Tolkien fans with soaring sights of exotic lands they may not have seen before: Middle-earth, of course, but also Valinor, a holy land where the immortals reside, and the island kingdom of Númenor, whose fall is written in the books. (Like Jackson’s films, the series was shot in New Zealand.) But for audiences not already invested in the comings and goings of the pointy-eared folk, the series doesn’t provide much reason to care.
The performances are serviceable but unremarkable, while the dialogue is particularly corny and inartful, with too many intoned monologues about the search for “the light” or the ever-vague nature of evil. The fate of many worlds hangs in the balance, but the uninspired opulence on screen sparks in the imagination only visions of bills going up in smoke. Rarely has danger felt so dull.