Twenty-one years after the release of “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” and eight years after the conclusion of the prequel trilogy, “The Hobbit,” Prime Video takes on the franchise to deliver another adventure into Middle-earth with “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.” This pre-prequel series takes place long before Mr. Frodo took the scenic route to Mordor — 5,000 years in the past, in the Second Age of Middle-earth.
In this Middle-earth, all is quiet and well, yet storm clouds loom in the distance. The Elves are at the height of their power and splendor, enjoying the supposed end of a centuries-long war against the forces of evil. Sauron (yes, the big fiery eye — but this time in human form) remains the enemy in power but is forced into hiding where some believe he is conniving to strike again when the forces of light are least expecting it. Something is brewing in Middle-earth — yet many choose to look the other way.
The show introduces a new palette of characters but brings back some familiar faces to connect “The Rings of Power” to the original trilogy. Among the new characters is Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova, “The Undoing”), a classic Western sheriff type, who is an Elf soldier stationed on the outskirts of the land of Men with a forbidden love — a human healer Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi, “Bombshell”). Together they discover the first hints of Sauron’s planned return.
Hundreds of miles away, the Harfoots — little forest and field-dwelling creatures — return our beloved hobbits to the screen, with the rambunctious Nori (Markella Kavenagh, “My First Summer”) taking a page out of Bilbo’s book by getting in over her head as she deals with the arrival of the Stranger (Daniel Weyman, “The North Water”). The likes of Galadriel (Morfydd Clark, “Saint Maud”) and Elrond (Robert Aramayo, “Behind Her Eyes”) are reprised as daring younger versions of their regal counterparts in “The Lord of the Rings” (LOTR). Despite the widespread belief that Sauron’s reign of terror is over, Galadriel, commander of the Elven Northern Armies, remains vigilant, relentlessly pursuing Sauron to the far-reaching corners of Middle-earth, searching for a hint of his return. Elrond, on the other hand, remains his wise and clever self as he is tasked with aiding the Elven master smith Celebrimbor (Charles Edwards, “The Crown”) with the construction of a forge like no other with “a flame as hot as a dragon’s tongue and as pure as starlight.” Elrond’s task leads us to a place that we have seen before, but in a much different fashion: Kazad-dum, known in the original trilogy as the long-abandoned Mines of Moria. Here we are introduced to the Dwarf Prince Durin (Owain Arthur, “The One and Only Ivan”) who, after Elrond missed his wedding and the birth of his two children over the last 20 years, is vexed with the elf.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s work is often invested in the spectacular: magical adventures focused on the grand and dire. While the show most assuredly offers adventure, it is also concerned with the more intimate and personal side of Middle-earth and its many creatures. Durin’s conflict with Elrond illustrates the implications of a significant difference between the different races of Middle-earth: life span. Although Dwarves may live for centuries longer than humans, Elves are even more invulnerable to the toll of time. 20 years is the blink of an eye for Elrond, but Durin has lived a life all without a dear friend paying him any mind. The longevity of the Elves has been commented on in the past, but the personal and quite substantial implications such a difference entails were never properly examined. “The Rings of Power” remedies that by offering a heartfelt and fresh look into the dynamics of such interracial differences.
For fans more interested in the world-building and the rich lore of Tolkien’s work, “The Rings of Power” has plenty to offer as it gives us a look into the famed glory of old Middle-earth. With incredible depictions of ancient Elven cities styled after the likes of Rivendell and the strength and beauty of Kazan-dum (that sharp-eared fans may recall Gimli assured the Fellowship of in “LOTR”), “The Rings of Power” is a visual masterpiece. Notwithstanding the fact that he has no involvement with the show, “The Rings of Power” is much the stepchild of Peter Jackson’s trilogies. Despite being shot digitally instead of on film like the original trilogy, the show has a recognizable albeit crisper look and feel, and a somewhat familiar story. Just like the trilogies, the show is shot in New Zealand with Howard Shore returning to compose its theme, and it plays with familiar tropes. As in “LOTR,” a small handful of players are thrown into the middle of conflict much larger than themselves — an adventure against all odds to fight a big, bad foe, where the cooperation of the various mutually suspicious races of Middle-earth is necessary. The series also makes use of parallel plot elements to the original, like the sickening allure and temptation of an evil artifact akin to the Ring as well as the resourceful, rugged lost monarch reminiscent of Aragorn. As “The Rings of Power” adopts much of the same plot, it feels familiar. For some, its lack of originality could be a critique of the show, while for others this familiarity could be a comforting bit of nostalgia.
However, the switch from film to digital isn’t the only difference wrought by a transition to a contemporary filmmaking landscape. One change that has definitely received the most backlash — but a change that is most welcome — is that in casting choices. Although Peter Jackson is more often than not applauded for his ability to stay true to the books in making the films, in the realm of casting this meant going with an almost entirely white cast. The unfortunate reality is that Tolkien’s books have always consisted of white characters from the West of Middle-earth saving the day against the dark-skinned forces of the South and East, whether they be the literally monstrous orcs or evil-aligned populations of Men. “The Rings of Power” offers a change to that metanarrative, bringing forth a more diverse Middle-earth. In a similar vein, Tolkien’s original works were overwhelmingly (though not without exception) male-dominated. But with the limelight on Galadriel this time around, Morfydd Clark brings needed feminine badassery to the Tolkien universe — there’s never a dull moment when she is on screen.
Considering the show’s extravagant cost, it may be safe to assume that Amazon isn’t just here for a cash grab. This first season reportedly cost Amazon a mind-boggling $462 million to produce, becoming the most expensive season in television history, outpacing Stranger Things season four ($30 million per episode) by nearly double. The rights alone to the “LOTR” appendices and any related material to the Second Age of Middle-earth on which the series is based cost Amazon $250 million. With five seasons planned, the total cost of this show may come out to over a billion dollars to produce.
All in all, it seems that Amazon has put its money to good use. The show looks good — really good. It is familiar and nostalgic, yet introduces some key differences that Tolkien fans should welcome. It is a fantastic representation of adapting source material to remain accurate yet adding its own flavor of originality.
Daily Arts Contributor Noah Lusk can be reached at email@example.com.