The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power sets out its sprawling epic fantasy credentials right from the off: even its title seems like it could be split into multiple instalments. Laden with a name as unwieldy as an orc’s battleaxe, the Prime Video series also arrives under a staggering weight of expectation. In 2017, when Amazon paid author JRR Tolkien’s estate $250m (£211m) not for the rights to remake Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit but merely to set a story within the author’s fantastical world of Middle-earth, financial observers described the deal as “insane”. Jeff Bezos’ omnipotent empire has reportedly spent a further $462m on this first season, which averages out at nearly $60m an episode. By comparison HBO’s Game of Thrones, the blockbuster fantasy hit whose runaway success Amazon evidently hope to emulate, cost a relatively reasonable $15m per episode. For what Amazon’s paying, you at least hope they’ve been able to breed real dragons. Can any television series ever hope to live up to that sort of Caligulan price tag?
There are moments when The Rings of Power comes close. If you’re into breathtaking panoramas of fantasy cities soaring across your screen then, oh boy, have I got a show for you. The first two episodes have been directed by JA Bayona, who made his film debut in 2007 with gothic horror The Orphanage before moving on to blockbuster fare like 2018’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. You’d have to imagine he encouraged Amazon’s decision to host a night of theatrical screenings the same day the episodes appear on streaming. The cinematography is so sprawling and cinematic there’s something bound to be lost on the millions who’ll inevitably end up watching on their phones.
As for the story itself, so far it seems Amazon were right to trust their dump truck full of cash to relatively unproven first-time showrunners JD Payne and Patrick McKay. As easy (and fun!) as it is to laugh at the vast sum Bezos handed over for the rights to a relatively minor part of Tolkien’s work, the author’s lengthy appendices to The Lord of the Rings naturally make for rich and fertile storytelling ground. Payne and McKay’s new epic takes place in what Tolkien described as Middle-earth’s “Second Age”, thousands of years before the well-trodden events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
That jump back in time means most fan favourite Tolkien characters haven’t even been born yet. There are however a few familiar elves around, thanks to their remarkable longevity. The early hero of the show is elven princess Galadriel, who finds herself the last lone voice refusing to believe villainous sorcerer Sauron is truly defeated. A grown-up (by elf standards) version of the character was played by Cate Blanchett in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Here, she’s a headstrong young warrior brought to life magnetically by Saint Maud’s Morfydd Clark. Any resemblance to the crop of blonde, headstrong royal warriors currently going at it over on HBO’s Game of Thrones spin-off House of the Dragon is surely coincidental.
Fans of hobbits should note that the show takes place so far before The Hobbit that hobbits aren’t even hobbits yet. Instead they’re a tight knit group of “harfoots”, an evolutionary predecessor to the creatures we know and love. It’s the harfoots that really make The Rings of Power work. Maybe it’s just the reassuring presence of British comedy icon Lenny Henry among the cast (playing elder harfoot Sadoc Burrows), but these pastoral scenes manage to capture the magic of the late-Eighties BBC version of The Chronicles of Narnia, an enchanting series which never had quite this budget. There’s another couple of stand-out performances from Megan Richards and Markella Kavenagh as the young harfoots who, in the words of Vanity Fair, “encounter a mysterious lost man whose origin promises to be one of the show’s most enticing enigmas.” Who might the tall, bearded, magical stranger who falls from the sky and lands among hobbit-like creatures turn out to be? Perhaps we already know more of the characters after all.
It’s now 20 years since Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy took Tolkien’s fantasy epic and made it into a cultural behemoth. The Lord of the Rings was such a gigantic success they even dragged his much shorter book The Hobbit out into a trilogy a decade later. There’s certainly an appetite to explore more of that world, and while The Rings of Power might be a brand new story, it still has plenty of authentic Tolkienesque charm to go along with the best production value money can buy. There are probably better things the richest man in the world could do with his massive pile of gold, but there are definitely worse.
Earlier this year, Game of Thrones creator George RR Martin told The Independent that he hopes both The Rings of Power and House of the Dragon can find an audience and prove that there’s room on television for more than one epic fantasy series. This family-friendly show seems set to do just that, and will presumably pull in a broader and younger audience than their apparent rival on HBO. This isn’t Westeros. Nobody’s going to get their head lobbed off here. Instead, it’s a spectacle-filled return to a lovingly rendered Middle-earth that promises to deliver an awfully big adventure.
‘The Rings of Power’ will be released on Amazon Prime Video at 2am on 2 September