The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power – first thoughts

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by | Sep 2, 2022 | Film & TV

We're back in Middle Earth, and it looks great

Well it’s here, the first adaptation of events from the Second Age of Middle Earth from Tolkiens works. What are our The Rings of Power – first thoughts? Expectations have been high, and there has been a lot of trepidation as well, after all, this isn’t adapted from a rounded out story like The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit were. The Rings of Power has been fleshed out from what amounts to a series of notes Tolkien wrote as appendices to give some background to The Lord of the Rings.

Fantasy is now mainstream

Who would have thought that high concept fantasy would be so mainstream in the 21st Century? Obviously Game of Thrones as been the catalyst but also the rise of streaming has created a thirst for content that reached far beyond the existing tentpole movie fare. Amazon have very deep pockets, and are crucially a big player in the new frontier of streaming, without being bound by its constraints. Where Netflix lives or dies by the numbers of subscribers, Amazon Prime piggybacks on existing free delivery subscriptions, and members will buy more stuff from Amazon because it’s so simple.

middle earth map

Deep pockets

Everyone is talking about the budget for The Rings of Power, the total expenditure (according to the Wall Street Journal) is around $715 million dollars for the first eight episodes. A huge amount, but still only about 0.15% of Amazon’s total earnings in 2021. That figure represents a huge investment in buying the rights and the world building required – sets, costumes, weaponry and props have to be made to be used in future seasons. Fundamentally, to do any sort of justice to the material and existing expectations this project was always going to require megabucks. It’s actually on a par with major movies that can cost up to $100 million per hour of screen time, so for 8 hours-ish of screen time for this season it almost sounds like a bargain.

the rings of power orcs

Tolkien and Jackson

Peter Jackson created one of the best fantasy movie trilogies of all time with his adaptation of The Lord of The Rings. Movies that set the bar and defined a standard in effects, costume and production design, much as Star Wars did for SciFi in the 70s. The writers and producers of The Rings of Power couldn’t ignore his work, and indeed those movies have cemented the look and feel for everything in Tolkiens world. Let’s not talk about the Hobbit movies though, they were spoilt by physics defying CGI, bloated runtimes and a general feel of a studio demanding a trilogy to cash in on the whole thing.

So visually The Rings of Power adheres pretty closely to Jackson’s vision of elves, dwarves, men, hobbits and all the nasties that populated Middle Earth, from orcs to balrogs. This is manifestly a good thing, those beings and cultures were developed by a creative team that had a long association with Tolkiens work, the illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe, plus Tolkien scholars such as Tom Shippey who helped with languages.

Shippey was actually on board with the Amazon series from its inception, but left after a few months due to undisclosed reasons. The Tolkien estate is involved however, Simon Tolkien, grandson of J.R.R. Tolkien, is a consultant. His late father, Christopher Tolkien, hated Jacksons films, saying that they “eviscerated the book”. But then it is an adaptation, and made the books incredibly popular and accrued an awful lot of money. In fact, if they had made a completely faithful version the films would have been ten times longer, pretty dull for long stretches and also virtually a musical as the characters are prone to breaking into song at the slightest opportunity. Christopher sued New Line in 2008 for unpaid royalties, so that may have been the root of his unhappiness. Amazon have Paid $250 million for the rights to just the appendices of Lord of the Rings, so the estate is doing pretty well.

the rings of power galadriel

First thoughts on the story?

The action takes place in the Second Age of Middle Earth, a long time before the events of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings at the close of the Third Age. Tolkiens appendices outlining the events of the First and Second Ages covers thousands of years of history, the second age itself encompassing 3441 years. The problem Amazon had is that their rights are to 50 hours of television, so either massive time jumps or some creative compression of time are needed.

Their clever solution is to make Galadriel the central character and compress the major events into a human lifetime, which makes for seamless viewing rather than a title card saying ‘300 years later’. The over arching story is of the rise of Sauron and the forging of the titular rings of power, so the first episodes are setting the scene and bringing us up to speed on the events of the First and Second Ages. This they do in fine style, catnip for anyone who has pored over the maps of Middle Earth and wondered what all of the empires, civilisations and culture would have looked like.

This series will rise or fall on whether the writers can create a cohesive and compelling narrative out of the timeline of events that Tolkien left. They will have to create characters and events to flesh it all out into a story to rival The Lord of the Rings. There is a lot to get across, even to viewers familiar to the books and films, a cast of many characters from different races and cultures have to be introduced and set on their courses. So the first couple of episodes carry a weight of exposition, but nothing that bogs it down. Indeed this is what we have come to expect from modern fantasy (and drama in general), multiple plot threads built from multiple point-of-view from a large cast of characters.

elves in the rings of power

The Harfoots

Despite there not being any hobbits yet in Middle Earth at this time, Tolkien mentioned their ancestors, the ‘Harfoots’. In his outline of history they didn’t really feature at all, but we need some innocents to help with all of the exposition. Following in the mode of the films, we also expect some comic relief, which these more rustic versions of hobbits seem set to deliver. Perhaps one of their number will also become the key to winning against the evil of Sauron, in the way that Bilbo and Frodo did? Michael Moorcock neatly summed up Tolkiens affection for the ‘little man’ in his essay Epic Pooh in 1978, “Like Chesterton, and other orthodox Christian writers who substituted faith for artistic rigour he sees the petit bourgeoisie, the honest artisans and peasants, as the bulwark against Chaos. These people are always sentimentalized in such fiction because traditionally, they are always the last to complain about any deficiencies in the social status quo. They are a type familiar to anyone who ever watched an English film of the thirties and forties, particularly a war‐film, where they represented solid good sense opposed to a perverted intellectualism.”

harfoots

The big difference from the works of Tolkien

Those multiple POVs are something that Tolkien just never did, The Lord of the Rings book is structured so that we follow a single character or group through the events they experience. Then we jump back to follow what someone else was doing at the same time. It feels oddly anachronistic when reading his works now (I can hear Tolkien purists gathering their hordes to come and smite me). This is the biggest difference that the films made to the structure of the story, and is a style fundamental to virtually everything we read or watch now.

So this must have been the biggest challenge for the writers of The Rings of Power, taking a list of events and creating a drama of human scale around it. After the first two episodes they certainly seem to have succeeded.

Flawless world building

Rest assured that every cent of the budget is on screen, this is resolutely an expansion and deeper dive into the Middle Earth that we have grown to love in the films. The trailers hinted at it, and the disparate races of Humans, Elves and Dwarves are more rounded out and three dimensional, you do feel that you are witnessing a history unfold. For anyone familiar with the books and films its a blast, although if you came to it cold you could be a bit baffled. But then that is what is so engrossing about Tolkiens works, the depth and richness, a sense that you are in a fully formed world and not just the pages of a book or the scenes on a screen. The Rings of Power understands that perfectly, and delivers.

Reports state that Amazon have used over 20 VFX studios including ILM, Weta and DNEG to complete the 10,000 VFX shots in the first season (acording to Variety). The whole seasso is finished to theatrical resolution so it could be viewed on an IMAX screen.

That other show

Comparisons between this and Game of Thrones are a bit pointless, GoT has a totally different tone, the world that GRR Martin built for his stories is basically the brutal Middle Ages with a little bit of fantasy. Tolkiens world is more sentimental, you get bad guys but everything turns out fine in the end. Neither is right or wrong, or better than the other. They are just fictional tales that we obsess over endlessly.

The Rings of Power is on Amazon Prime. But surely you knew that.

 

Written by Iain Hazlewood

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