Consider this two reviews of “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” — one for casual fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books and the movies based on them, and one for deeply invested fans.
For casual fans • “The Rings of Power” is … OK. Sort of promising. Gorgeous to look at. Rather intriguing. In the two episodes screened for critics, there are hints of better things to come.
For deeply invested fans • There are some fundamental storytelling problems that violate not just the spirit of the books, but directly contradict that narrative. And that will bother, annoy, perhaps aggravate you.
“The Rings of Power” is the most expensive TV series ever. Between paying for the rights and the production, Amazon Prime spent a reported $465 million on the 10-episode first season. That’s more than three times what HBO spent per episode on the final season of “Game of Thrones.”
But, clearly, a lot of that Amazon money ended up on the screen. The series looks spectacular. From Valinor to Khazad-dûm, it’s utterly amazing. Everyone is going to be pleased with how the series looks.
Not everyone is going to be pleased with what is actually happening onscreen. And everyone is going to have to be a bit patient.
There’s a reason Amazon changed its plans to stream the 10 episodes one per week. The first two start streaming on Friday because Episode No. 1 is, quite frankly, pretty slow. Even ... dare I say it ... boring.
For the casual fans
Episode 1 is filled with an enormous amount of exposition, explaining the history of Tolkien’s mythical Middle Earth. Obsessed fans may be interested in the Two Trees, Morgoth, the events of the First Age and so on … but, if this was a book, casual fans would end up scanning or even flipping pages.
Episode 2 is better. There’s more going on in the series “present,” which is the Second Age — thousands of years before the events in “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.”
Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) is a military commander of sorts, hunting for Sauron, the future Lord of the Rings. Gil-Galad (Benjamin Walker), the elven high king, is trying to put Middle Earth back in order after the ferocious wars of the First Age. He sends Elrond (Robert Aramayo) to mend fences with his dwarf friend, Prince Durin IV (Owain Arthur).
Meanwhile, there is evil afoot, affecting elves, men and Harfoots, who are one of the ancestors of Hobbits. A young female Harfoot, Nori (Markella Kavenagh), is one of several characters created for the TV series — a list that includes the elf Arondir (Ismael Cruz Cordova) and the woman Bronwyn (Nanzanin Boniadi).
And it’s not a spoiler to tell you that Sauron has not been vanquished, given that we know he’s still afflicting Middle Earth for thousands of years to come.
It’s unclear exactly when “The Rings of Power” takes place. Best guess is between years 500 and 1500 in the Second Age, which would place it roughly 5,000 to 6,000 years before Sauron’s downfall in “LOTR.” But events depicted in the first two episodes indicate they may be condensing or just fudging the timeline.
It’s worth giving this TV series a chance. The first two episodes are setting up the story. And, from what we know of the events of the Second Age, there’s a lot of excitement to come.
For deeply invested fans
The first two episodes of “The Rings of Power” are good enough to prompt hope for the series at it moves forward, but there are reasons to be concerned.
Here’s the thing. Doing a “Lord of the Rings” series set in the Second Age of Middle Earth is genius. There are some great stories to be told in the outlines Tolkien gave us in his timelines and the additional stories published in “The Silmarillion” and “Unfinished Tales” — but that’s all fragmentary enough that there’s plenty of room to maneuver.
“Rings of Power” is “based on the appendices” of “LOTR,” said executive producer/co-showrunner J.D. Payne, as well as “poems and songs and stories and half-whispered rumors and histories that are found sort of scattered throughout the text.”
The plan is to portray much of the Second Age — from before the three rings for the elven kings, the seven for the dwarf-lords, the nine for mortal men and the One Ring itself were forged until the Last Alliance of Elves and Men battled Sauron almost 2,000 years later. Along the way, we’ll see kingdoms rise and fall, the founding of Gondor and Arnor, and more.
It’s incredibly exciting. So why would the producers start out by directly violating Tolkien canon? In “The Rings of Power,” Galadriel vows she’ll stay in Middle Earth until she hunts down Sauron, and she resists efforts to send her back to Valinor. In the books (and at least implied in the movie trilogy), Galadriel — who was one of the leaders of an elf rebellion that turned violent and deadly — is in exile in Middle Earth. In Tolkien’s later writings, he implies that her exile was self-imposed, but in any case, she didn’t stay in Middle Earth to gain revenge against Sauron.
No “Rings of Power” spoilers here, but what happens to Galadriel on the orders of Gil-galad is dumb. And what happens to her next is even dumber.
So when executive producer/co-showrunner Patrick McKay told critics, “This is Tolkien’s Middle-Earth and regions beyond Middle-Earth. And the more we worked on this, the more we just wanted to be true to that,” his words rang a bit hollow.
And if the producers are so quickly willing to turn this part of the Tolkien narrative on its head, what else are they going to do?
In addition, giving Harfoots a prominent place in the narrative feels like pandering to “Hobbit” fans — although I’m willing to wait and see how this plays out.
But, as far as we know, Hobbits and their ancestors didn’t play a significant role in the history of Middle Earth until roughly 4,500 to 5,500 years later, when Gollum found the One Ring. And then not again until Bilbo Baggins found the ring 478 years after that.
A TV show is not a book
I’ve read “The Hobbit’' and “The Lord of the Rings” more times than I can count. I’ve also read “The Silmarillion” multiple times, and other Tolkien books. I’ve obsessed over encyclopedias of Tolkien lore.
However … I realize changes have to be made to translate books onto screens. I loved “The Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy because it was so true to the books in spirit and deed. I could’ve obsessed over the fact that there were too many blond elves. Or that Gandalf and Aragorn swapped lines in “The Two Towers.” Or that Mordor’s geography was … compressed.
But that would’ve ruined great movies.
On the other hand, while there are certainly things I liked about the three “Hobbit” movies, the additions to the plot did not capture the spirit of the book. And some — including the addition of an elf-dwarf love story — were absolutely ludicrous.
I hope the twisting of Galadriel’s story in “Rings of Power” is an aberration. I’m fear it might not be.
“The Rings of Power” debuts Friday not just in the United States, but in 240 countries and territories around the world. Amazon is betting that it will be its own “Game of Thrones” — a show that appeals to vast numbers of viewers, who will pay for the streaming service in order to see it.
I’m confident that plenty of people will complain about “Rings of Power.” But, despite my reservations, I’m confident “Rings” will succeed.
“When you’re doing something that has kind of [the] pressure of expectation, the other side of the coin is that it’s beloved,” Clark said.
She’s right about that.
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