Amazon’s Lord of the Rings adaptation feels more like a franchise spinoff than a new interpretation of a literary work. The Rings of Power relies heavily on Peter Jackson’s foundations, from its visual style to Bear McCreary’s masterful score, which echoes Howard Shore’s auditory map of Middle-earth. There’s a strong sense that showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay are attempting to play the hits while forging their own artistic path.
While the first two episodes are enjoyable, they largely feel like a retread—both of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and of other fantasy shows we’ve seen in recent years. With the budget and timeframe of a blockbuster film, this two-hour premiere struggles to evoke the looming mysticism and genuine emotion that Tolkien fans expect.
Payne and McKay (who, like the Game of Thrones creators, have no prior TV credits) make good use of Amazon’s massive production budget. Unlike Netflix and Disney’s recent spate of hollow CGI murk, TRoP is jam-packed with gorgeous locations and lavish production design. We enter an era of Middle-earth thousands of years before the birth of Frodo Baggins, with a few familiar figures (Galadriel and Elrond) but a very different cultural landscape. There is a conflict between elves and humans, and the Shire does not yet exist. The harfets, a nomadic precursor race, fill the hobbit role.
The show, based on Tolkien lore, will follow the rise of Sauron (currently a distant, half-forgotten foe) and the creation of the titular Rings. Galadriel is arguably the protagonist, portrayed as a steely warrior who believes the world is in danger. Galadriel’s compatriots believe her paranoia is a relic of long-dead wars because they live in a peaceful era. Of course, we know better.
These first two episodes cover a wide range of locations, introducing a snapshot of life in the Middle-Second earth’s Age. Nori (Markella Kavenagh), a young harfoot, is Trop’s equivalent of Frodo or Bilbo Baggins; a charming, upbeat girl yearning for adventure. She’s the most emotionally engaging character so far, which the show lacks elsewhere.
Morfydd Clark’s Galadriel is an intriguingly tough, angry interpretation, while my personal favorite is Robert Aramayo’s Elrond, a wry politician who is currently quite low on the elvish food chain. TRoP, on the other hand, fails to make the elves appear otherworldly or impressive. Despite a commendable attempt at Tolkienesque dialogue (“What devilry is this? Some ancient dark sorcery.”) These elves are far too grounded and human.
TRoP’s foray into racially inclusive casting is, of course, one of the most significant departures from Tolkien canon. After watching shows like The Witcher update their white European source material for several years, TRoP’s diverse cast feels both welcome and unremarkable—though there are some teething issues. Arondir (played by Afro-Latino actor Ismael Cruz Córdova), for example, is initially defined by a racism subplot. Arondir is in a secret relationship with a human woman, echoing Tolkien’s fondness for human/elf romances (Nazanin Boniadi). However, the show commits the classic error of portraying their relationship solely through the lens of adversity and persecution, rather than demonstrating why they love each other in the first place.
When we consider Arondir’s role in comparison to the other prominent elves, these optics become even more questionable. Galadriel, Elrond, Celebrimbor, and Gil-galad (all of whom are white) are powerful Tolkien characters. Meanwhile, Arondir is a working-class character created for the show who is targeted by human bigots. These racial dynamics would be less of an issue if the casting was more diverse across the board, including Tolkien canon characters.
Affirmed Tolkienites will undoubtedly have more thoughts on Amazon’s flexible interpretation of Middle-Second earth’s Age, but I won’t claim to be an expert. What I will say is that, while The Rings of Power is lavishly expensive and enjoyable to watch, it is also a little shallow.
It’s difficult to shake the notion that The Rings of Power exists primarily to invest in intellectual property. The Lord of the Rings is a profitable brand, and the films have a distinct nostalgia value. Amazon’s adaptation strategy entails investing $500 million in a replica of Peter Jackson’s work. Much of the architecture appears to be familiar. The elvish costumes use similar fabrics. The camera pans across the landscape in a distinctive manner. The music adheres to the same motif structure, tying specific subgenres (Celtic folk; symphonic Romanticism; eerie choral vocals) to similar characters and settings. In short, no attempt is made to make this a distinct project in its own right.
This approach feels cynical and disappointing to me because Jackson’s Lord of the Rings is a one-of-a-kind work of art. The Rings of Power may replicate some of its technical strengths, but it cannot replicate the same impact—especially since viewers have spent the previous 20 years watching fantasy media that borrows from the same source.
TRoP needs to draw us in with interesting new characters and relationships without a strong aesthetic identity of its own—which isn’t happening on a script level. These first two episodes, which account for a quarter of season one, benefit greatly from the audience’s pre-existing fondness for Middle-earth. The spectacle is present, but there is far less emphasis on emotional storytelling, which is hampered by the separation of the main characters into individual subplots with their own supporting casts. Compare this to the first episodes of genre hits like Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, or For All Mankind, which launch exciting conflicts and alliances between the leads right away.
Fantasy fans (including myself) are generally content with a slow burn, and Middle-earth is an important draw in and of itself. However, this introduction indicates a concerning lack of interest in character-driven drama. While impressive production values can go a long way, they are far from everything, especially when your show is heavily based on someone else’s work.