Note: This article reveals plot points from the first two episodes of The Rings of Power.
Within its first ten minutes, Amazon’s new fantasy series, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, does Tolkien purists the courtesy of revealing exactly what it is, adaptation-wise. After a brief prelude confirming that even the luminous, regal Galadriel of The Lord of the Rings was once bullied as a kid by her bratty peers, the series settles in for an introduction familiar to anyone who watched Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring.
In voiceover, Galadriel (now played by Morfydd Clark) recounts the history that will orient viewers within the epic narrative that’s about to unfold. The Elves, living peacefully in a paradise called Valinor, see their home violated by the dark lord Morgoth (not to be confused with Lord of the Rings’ Sauron, who is merely Morgoth’s second-in-command). They leave Valinor to pursue Morgoth to Middle-earth, beginning a centuries-long war that is eventually successful, but not before decimating generations of Elves. At the end of the First Age of Middle-earth, Morgoth is vanquished, Sauron is driven into hiding, and here we are in the Second Age.
As presented, this prologue will elicit one of two reactions from the hardcore Tolkien faithful. Some will harrumph at its perfunctory nature, which lacks the cinematic dynamism and textual fidelity that graced Jackson’s prologue. In their rush to set the table for the story to come, showrunners/writers J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay gloss over an integral part of Tolkien’s mythos, at least as far as the First and Second Ages are concerned: the existence and immanence of the divine. The Elves’ departure from Valinor is Tolkien’s version of the Eden story: a tragic act of rebellion that results in the creatures’ estrangement from their Creator and from one another. The Valinor of Payne and McKay is merely an idyllic fantasy utopia, a geographical location to be homesick for rather than a lost paradise to yearn for. The divine Valar who live side-by-side with the Elves in Tolkien’s Valinor are not present here. Such an omission will immediately signal to some fans that Amazon’s series is not worth their time.
Another option is open to these viewers, though. Having dispensed with the expectation that The Rings of Power will work as a 100% faithful translation of Tolkien’s sensibilities to the screen, they are freed up to consider the next question: how well does the show work as a Tolkien-adjacent take on the Second Age of Middle-earth? Do Payne and McKay forge their own compelling vision of Middle-earth?
Judging from the two episodes made available for review, the components for such a show are present. Galadriel makes an excellent choice for series protagonist, with Clark’s flinty performance drawing heavily on Galadriel’s characterization in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion as a headstrong rebel. If Galadriel’s motivations for playing Captain Ahab to Sauron’s Moby Dick draw more from modern screenwriting conventions than from anything Tolkien ever wrote, they are nevertheless dramatically sound. The gulf between Clark’s portrayal of the character and Cate Blanchett’s austere performance in the Jackson adaptations opens the door for some fascinating possibilities: how might Clark’s obsessive, loose-cannon warrior have grown into Blanchett’s gliding, One Ring–rejecting queen?
A similar strategy is apparent in the characterization of Elrond, the only other Lord of the Rings character to appear here (so far). Payne and McKay conceive of him, not as a stern sage, but as a consummate politician, managing alliances and personal relationships with equal deftness. His portrayal is the only aspect of The Rings of Power that clearly shows a Game of Thrones influence, yet it feels right. Robert Aramayo (who, incidentally, played a youthful Ned Stark in Game of Thrones) brings a slyness to the material that lightens the extreme gravity of the Elf-centric scenes without puncturing it. He has little to do in the first two episodes, unfortunately (more on that later), but his presence is welcome.
Payne and McKay use these unfamiliar takes on familiar characters as a subtle way to buttress the most interesting thematic element of their entire project: the way that long spans of time can weary and change people, especially those who, like the Elves, are immortal. Galadriel rejects a chance to return to Valinor because it would be torture for her to live eternally with the knowledge that she failed to root out Sauron’s evil. Elrond’s friendship with the Dwarven prince Dúrin is strained because the passage of twenty years affects them each differently. Loss, entropy, and death’s mingled awe and sorrow are, not coincidentally, of great importance across all of Tolkien’s writings. It’s heartening to see that The Rings of Power may give those themes the serious attention they deserve.
Less heartening is much of the rest of the material that makes up the first two episodes. Adapting material as full of gaps and sketches as the appendices in The Lord of the Rings gives Payne and McKay freedom to flesh out the story as they see fit, but it’s difficult to patch these gaps with invented material without the seams showing. The seams are especially obvious in episode two, which strands Galadriel and Elrond in busywork subplots while it attends to its other narrative threads. Director J.A. Bayona (A Monster Calls, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), working with editors Bernat Vilaplana and Jaume Marti, can’t find a cross-cutting structure that builds and sustains tension among the various subplots. This problem has always bedeviled Tolkien adaptations (Jackson’s latter two Lord of the Rings films occasionally suffer because of it), but it has a noticeably deflating effect here.
The situation isn’t helped by how relatively ill-fitting the two other main plot threads seem at this early stage. One, in which a young member of a nomadic tribe of Harfoots (i.e., proto-Hobbits) encounters an enigmatic “giant” who arrives via meteor crash-landing, has the pleasurable mystery-box allure that powered six seasons of Lost; it also is, by design, a thread that likely won’t pay off for many episodes to come. The other thread, in which an Elven soldier (Ismael Cruz Cordova) navigates a star-crossed romance with a Human woman (Nazanin Boniadi) whose ancestors were allies of Morgoth, allows Bayona to exercise his talent for blending high emotion with high fantasy and horror; it also saddles him with the clunkiest dialogue in Payne and McKay’s script. If you’ve ever been curious about how Tolkien’s Elves would banter about which one of them is smelliest, wonder no longer.
These storytelling threads aren’t poorly executed, exactly, but they raise questions about how well The Rings of Power will manage the balancing act required of a straight-faced fantasy story that also seeks to climb to the top of the “prestige TV” heap. For years Christopher Tolkien, as steward of his father’s artistic legacy, shielded as much of the Middle-earth mythos as he legally could from entertainment corporations, rightly understanding that the spirit of literary works aptly described as “Herodotus meets the Elder Edda” stood little chance of being honored by big-budget screen adaptations. The younger Tolkien has now passed on, and such concerns seem increasingly quaint in the age of extended cinematic universes and IP-ravenous streaming platforms.
It remains to be seen which of the Rings of Power this new series from Amazon will resemble most. Will it function like an Elven Ring, enhancing, embellishing, and nourishing an already good creation? Or will it meet with the fate of the Dwarven Rings, which killed contentment and fueled a never-ending appetite for more riches before being lost forever to dragons?