The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power Review

TV

This Rings of Power review contains no spoilers and is based on the first two episodes.

The most expensive television series of all time is finally about to premiere – but was it worth all that money?

Prime Video’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power certainly looks the part. The series is visually stunning, from the set design to the costumes to the very high quality special effects. One of the biggest advantages of this no-expense-spared approach is that it makes the series feel like it genuinely belongs in the same world as the big-budget Peter Jackson movies based on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

This new series is set during the Second Age of Tolkien’s invented mythology. This means that, although it’s a prequel to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, set many centuries earlier, we still need to be filled in on the essentials of the history of the First Age, which is not being adapted. We get hints of this history, and a prologue showing us the major conflict in the same way as the prologue for the film of The Fellowship of the Ring did, and we will probably learn more in bits and pieces throughout the season. 

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The series clearly and consciously echoes the Jackson films in various ways, aiming to draw audiences back into a familiar world. No one will surprised to learn that the series opens on a monologue from a familiar character, in a clear call-back to The Fellowship of the Ring, or that it makes copious use of panning shots across beautifully drawn maps of the lands it covers, which go beyond the main continent of Middle-earth itself to encompass the Sundering Seas and will eventually take us to the island of Númenor.

By drawing on the Peter Jackson films, the series aims to position itself clearly in a familiar screen version of Tolkien’s world, and it succeeds. The main title theme is by Lord of the Rings composer Howard Shore, and the rest of the music is written by Bear McCreary (who also composed for Outlander and Battlestar Galactica, among other things) and neatly expands the film scores while remaining firmly in the same mood and drawing on familiar sounds and snatches of melody to place us back in this world.

The costumes also place us well within the same world – in fact it’s only surprising that fashions didn’t change more in the centuries between the setting of this series and the start of The Hobbit! The only people whose clothing is significantly different to their later descendants are the Harfoots, and since they are the ancestors of, but not entirely the same as, the Hobbits, that’s only to be expected.

There will, of course, be fans of Tolkien’s books who are not fans of the Jackson films, or who feel that they do not properly represent Tolkien’s invented world. For those fans, the show is extremely unlikely to change their minds. It is based primarily on some fairly brief notes and a timeline in the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings, so most of the series is the invention of its writers, filling in those gaps and filling out that story.

The Rings of Power has also simplified or modified even the bare bones of the material from Tolkien that it’s adapting in order to create a stronger narrative for audiences to follow. This puts more focus on the key players – in particular, Elrond and Galadriel. The showrunners had already explained that the series would be compressing thousands of years of Middle-earth history into one human lifetime, and there are further, more minor changes to events and relationships as Tolkien outlined them that crop up throughout the episodes. 

Suffice it to say, fans of Tolkien’s books who do not like screen adaptations to deviate from the source material will not be happy. But for those who don’t mind a bit of creativity in the adaptation as long as the story, characters, and world feel like the world they love from the books, this series should be a satisfying dive into an earlier period in Middle-earth’s history.

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What about those who haven’t seen the earlier movies or read the books and have no knowledge of Tolkien’s world? It’s certainly a lot to take in, that much is true! But the series doles out its exposition in chunks, breaking it up to allow new viewers to follow along. We know that the series will eventually introduce us to at least 18 core cast members from four different peoples (Elves, Dwarves, Men, and Harfoots), and at least six different cultures (Ñoldorian Elves, Silvan Elves, Men of the Southlands, Númenorean Men, Dwarves from Moria, and the Harfoots). We only meet four out of the six in episode 1 and by episode 2 there’s still one group and some significant characters we haven’t yet met, so viewers can get to grips with the interlocking storylines and the lead characters of each slowly. The downside to that, of course, is that much of the first two episodes is dedicated to set-up and exposition, with a bit more to come.

Episode 1, “Shadow of the Past,” suffers from that expositional nature in particular. It’s a rather sweet sort of tribute to Tolkien’s Chapter 2 of The Lord of the Rings, “The Shadow of the Past,” which was also very heavy on exposition, and it carries it off pretty well, but there’s no denying it’s largely an hour of getting to know everyone. Episode 2 weaves in a bit more action while also continuing to introduce characters and cultures. Having said that, episode 1’s climax is especially strong and combines emotion and foreboding to great effect, while episode 2 finishes on an intriguing but less exhilarating note.

The series has a romanticized tone that suits Tolkien’s world very well. It’s really nice to see epic, high fantasy in the Tolkien style – there’s romance but not explicit sex; there’s war and violence and tragedy, but not masses of gore. The whole thing is a dramatic story aimed at adults and taken seriously, but it doesn’t throw in “adult” content for the sake of it, and it’s suitable for younger teens and families to watch together. That’s not meant as a criticism of Game of Thrones or House of the Dragon, both of which we love. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of sex and violence in adult entertainment, it’s just nice to have options!

The acting is all-round excellent, mostly from a not particularly well-known cast, with the obvious exception of Lenny Henry, and even he is not well known outside the UK. He is brilliant as ever, playing a lively but wise Harfoot leader. The series really rests on the shoulders of Morfydd Clark as Galadriel though, who does extremely well playing a character who could conceivably be a younger version of Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel without imitating Blanchett’s performance. 

Whether you’re a book reader, film fan, or new viewer, Galadriel is our guide through this world, and the main character we’re following (ably assisted by Markella Kavenagh’s Nori Brandyfoot, Nazanin Boniadi’s Bronwyn, Ismael Cruz Cordova’s Arondir and Robert Aramayo’s Elrond). Clark is a perfect choice for the role, managing to combine the ethereal, the tough (Galadriel here is much more of a warrior than her later incarnation) and the likable to draw viewers into her world.

Overall, we’re impressed so far. It’s hard to judge two episodes that give us so much set-up and exposition without knowing where the rest of the series is going. These episodes effectively do what early episodes need to do, which is to get us invested in these characters and their stories and excited to watch the next installment. How well they stand up on repeated viewings will depend on how satisfying those later installments turn out to be.

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The first two episodes of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power will be available to stream for Prime Video subscribers on Sept. 1 at 6 p.m. PT/ 9 p.m. ET in the U.S. and on Sept. 2 at 2 a.m.

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