Title: The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power ( Season 1 of 5 – Prime Video – 2022)
Creators: Patrick McKay, John D. Payne
Stars: Morfydd Clark, Peter Mullan, Benjamin Walker, Lenny Henry, Robert Aramayo, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Owain Arthur, Markella Kavenaugh, Nazanin Boniadi, Maxim Baldry, Sophia Nomvete, Charles Edwards, Charlie Vickers, Lloyd Owen, Ema Horvath, Trystan Gravelle, Leon Wadham
This review is based on the first two episodes of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.
Warning: The following review includes discussions about toxic fandom. Whatever your opinions are about this or any other series, film or franchise, please be kind to each other and never harass those who do not share your own.
It’s hard to even know where to even begin with this review. Amazon’s grand epos, the most expensive series ever made, is finally upon us. And as regular readers of FilmLore might know, JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the author’s other works about Middle-earth and the adaptations based on them have helped shape my life for the better part of the last three decades.
And now, some 20 years after Peter Jackson’s epic The Lord of the Rings trilogy and ten years after his oft-discussed and frequently-maligned The Hobbit trilogy, comes The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. The series is set in the Second Age of Middle-earth, with which readers of the novel The Silmarillion and certain other books and appendices will be familiar, but of which relatively little is still known when compared to the author’s more famous novels.
Before we begin, I have a confession. I was on the fence for a long time after the first news started to trickle in from this massive Amazon production. With Peter Jackson’s trilogies (yes, that’s plural) so firmly lodged in my mind, seeing other actors take on the roles of beloved characters like Galadriel and Elrond was hard. Even the new High King Gil-galad, lord of the High Elves, who had his “blink-and-you-miss-it” role in the prologue scenes of The Fellowship of the Ring, didn’t sit well with me. Never mind that the actor in this new series, Benjamin Walker, is like a spitting image of Mark Ferguson, who played him in Peter Jackson’s trilogy.
The feeling was strongest when watching the trailers, at least at first. My skepticism stopped me from enjoying them, at least for the first two or three times I watched them. This wasn’t my Elrond. This wasn’t my Galadriel. It didn’t feel right. And although I wasn’t entirely convinced that Peter Jackson had said the final word when it came to adaptations of Tolkien’s novels, he had set the bar so high that it would be practically impossible to get over. But finally, it clicked, and I was knocked straight off my perch on that fence I was sitting and landed face-first into the new and quickly evolving The Rings of Power fandom.
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power deftly wields its massive cast through several connecting and disconnecting story arcs and plot threads. It is never plodding. It is never slow. And despite being modernized in many ways, even compared to Peter Jackson’s films, it still feels timeless. It is clear to see from the first shot and its chills-inducing monologue how much the series’ creators love both the source material and the adaptations that came before.
The series takes us back to the Second Age of Middle-earth. Peace reigns after a long period of conflict against the evil of Morgoth. But in the grand tradition of fantasy storytelling, much of which originated from JRR Tolkien’s own works, evil is steadily growing again, biding its time, waiting to return, even if most of the Elves, Men and Dwarves fail to see it.
The revenge-driven High-Elven warrior Galadriel (played by Morfydd Clark) hunts for any sign of Morgoth’s lieutenant Sauron, who killed her brother Finrod (played by Will Fletcher) in the War of Wrath that ended the First Age and sundered the world. Meanwhile, in Eregion, the Elven master smith Celebrimbor (played by Charles Edwards), with the help of the diplomatic Elrond Half-elven (played by Robert Aramayo), plans a great project, one that requires the help of the Dwarves of Khazad-dûm – a project that will forever change Middle-earth, for good or ill.
We also meet the wandering “proto-Hobbits” known as the Harfoots, living in hiding in the land of Rhovanion across the Misty Mountains. The Harfoot girl Nori Brandyfoot (played by Markella Kavenaugh) encounters a mysterious and otherworldly Stranger (played by Daniel Weyman) who has been sent to Middle-earth by higher powers by way of a flaming meteor!
And in the Southlands, the Silvan Elves are leaving their posts now that the High King Gil-galad has declared that the lands are once again at peace. But here, too, evil is stirring again, and the Elven soldier Arandir (played by Ismael Cruz Cordova) stays behind to protect the human woman Bronwyn (played by Nazanin Boniadi), who he has fallen in love with, from what lurks in the shadows and other dark places.
One might be forgiven for thinking that all these characters and their storylines make The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power feel a bit crowded, and one wouldn’t be entirely wrong. The show plays out on a massive scope, starting with a prologue from the First Age of Middle-earth. Several of the plotlines do connect, but there are still many moving parts. In Tolkien’s various books, the events depicted here are spread over several thousand years, but the creators behind the show decided to make it all happen roughly at the same time. Although I get the reasoning that they didn’t want everyone who is not an Elf to die off due to old age ever so often, it was still one of the decisions I found the most difficult to accept at first, as it would fundamentally change the history of Middle-earth and lessen the importance of Elven immortality. I’m not a Middle-earth lore purist by any means, but if you are, I recommend you to take a deep breath and be prepared for such liberties. There are quite a lot of them. But does it lessen the quality of the series in itself? Not at all!
My hat also goes off to the cast gathered for this enormous project. And watching them play their roles, I realized that something unexpected was happening. All of the main characters, be it Morfydd Clark as Galadriel, Robert Aramayo as a younger Elrond, Ismael Cruz Cordova as the Silvan Elf Arondir, Markella Kavanaugh as Harfoot Nori Brandyfoot, Owain Arthur as the Dwarven Prince Durin IV, name anyone – they are all instantly likable, with stories that easily drew me in. For the most part, they seem effortlessly at home in Middle-earth.
And looking back, it now seems absurd to me that one of my main gripes with the whole production was the casting. I was wrong. This is my Elrond. This is my Galadriel. But I can say the same about Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving, who played them in Peter Jackson’s adaptations. The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power exists in perfect parallel with those films. And now I’m lucky to have both to enjoy whenever I want.
But as you might be aware, I was hardly alone with my early misgivings about The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Even early in development, and especially around the presentation of the cast, toxic fandom reared its ugly head. Discussions, constructive criticism and skepticism about the quality of something are entirely fair. But this was textbook toxic fandom, and we see it time and time again, be it for The Lord of the Rings or other franchises like Star Wars, Harry Potter or Doctor Who. It usually goes something like this: A brand or franchise draws in fans whose identities are shaped in some way by their experiences. The brand or franchise is later changed or updated. Because the brand or franchise has, in part, helped to form the fan’s identity, usually at a younger age, the fan now feels that an integral part of them is being attacked, especially if the changes in question also go against the fan’s ideology. On the defensive, the fan now lashes out and takes to the internet, where the anonymity afforded by this mode of communication makes it easier to dehumanize those they see as their opponents and hate what they stand for. And with The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, it was the usual suspects: racism, misogyny, gatekeeping and politics – and just plain old personal attacks and insults.
Nothing, and I mean nothing, can excuse some of the behavior I’ve seen on various social media platforms over the past year or so. Fueled, in part, by certain YouTube influencers who realize that the easiest way to get clicks is through negative content, the forums and social media channels have boiled over with toxicity. Still, it is hard to deny that some of the early press coverage and panels did little to reassure the more skeptical and angry members of the Tolkien fandom. Maybe it was the shock of reading the “This Is Not Your Dad’s Tolkien” headline that came up some time back? Adjustment takes time, but after having watched the first two episodes, I know that we’re in safe hands. But with fandoms being what they often are, it would also be helpful to put some extra effort into not antagonizing the fans further and instead focus on dialogue and understanding towards those still skeptical.
To be sure, it is always crucial to change and evolve when adapting literary works. What works in a book won’t always work on the screen, and vice versa. One can only hope that in the years ahead, the showrunners have their hands firmly on the wheel to keep this massive production with all its moving parts from going off its hinges.
But for now, leave all doubts aside. I was skeptical about Amazon’s journey to Middle-earth at first, but they did it! Amazon actually did it! After much hand-wringing from a fandom that seems hell-bent on tearing itself to shreds over this return to Middle-earth, we have arrived. And it is as magnificent as it has ever been. Welcome back! Some of us never left.
I really have so much more to say and write about The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power in the months and probably years ahead. The music by Howard Shore and Bear McCready deserves an article of its own. The special effects, many of them done by Wētā Workshop (check out my interview with Sir Richard Taylor here and my interview with executive producer Mark Ordesky here), the company that pioneered much of the technology to create Middle-earth for Peter Jackson, another one. And in November, I’m heading to New Zealand, where the first season was shot, to travel the country for three weeks and to meet up with the people who created now over 20 years old trilogy and this new series.
Despite what some might say (or scream, shout and curse, as is often the case), it is a good time to be a Tolkien fan!