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The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power Review- A Mixed Bag With Potential

The Rings Of Power
Courtesy of Prime Video-Markella Kavenagh as Nori

Typically I’m not too fond of prequels. It’s not the stories themselves that bug me. It’s the idea that I already know what is going to happen. When you know how the story will end, why is there a point in rehashing history? As much as I enjoy the Star War movies, I didn’t enjoy the Darth Vader origin movies because I knew where they led. I’m shocked to say that in the last month, I have realized what a prequel could be. Paramount +’s The Orphan: First Kill somehow managed to turn a very old backstory into a fun surprise, and HBO’s House Of The Dragon is pretty perfect so far. Then there’s Prime Video’s Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power. The far-reaching, ambitious series might be a disaster or something that needs time to percolate.

HBO’s Game Of Thrones is the measuring stick if you are a fantasy series. Ignoring the abysmal final season, GOT was great. The expansive world-building and complicated character development on a massive scale were impressive. Instead of being overwhelmed by all the side plots and new characters, each episode felt reinvigorated by them. Every plot and set piece had a purpose and served to further not just the immediate storyline but each one that was tangentially connected to it.

Before George R.R. Martin, there was J.R.R. Tolkien. His Middle Earth tales laid the groundwork for Martin’s Song of Fire And Ice and now House Of The Dragon. Tolkien’s rich imaginings were full of far-flung communities and races of people so disparate from one another that it is hard to imagine them all in one world together. But, they did, and the patchwork symmetry by which they existed was something to behold.

The first two episodes of Prime Video’s The Rings Of Power will require patience as everything but the kitchen sink is thrown at you quickly. You are expected to keep up and make connections based on previous knowledge. Familiar names and races fly from scene to scene with little preamble but an unfortunate Middle Earth map to announce the change of scenery. The most compelling character is Galadriel, Tolkien’s immortal and sometimes dangerous Lady of the Woods is an elf to rule all elves. The Rings Of Power’s version of her is in the early days.

The Rings Of Power
Courtesy of Prime Video-Morfydd Clark as Galadriel

She is headstrong, heartbroken, and full of vengeance. She slashes her way through a war-torn world with blood on her hands and fire in her heart. The scary Cate Blanchett version in Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings seems on brand for her. Yet, you appreciate who she is and can see where she is going without being bored by her. This is partly because Morfydd Clark(Saint Maud and His Dark Materials) brings the same ethereal tensile strength to the character. As a result, she is compelling to watch. A study in contrasts, her Galadriel is fragile and deadly, insightful yet ignored, and dedicated yet impulsive.

The hobbits look like a casting call for Elijah Wood lookalikes was answered, and the orcs are mean and ugly. For reasons I don’t fully understand yet, the hobbits are all grungy little urchins caked in mud and twigs and look like they have all had their hair cut by a hedge trimmer. The egalitarian community of brave and tiny hole dwellers in The Rings Of Power are distrustful and dirty. Jackson’s hobbits were adorably scruffy but not grungy. There isn’t enough there yet to decide if this change will pan out.

A star-crossed lovers’ scenario between a human, Bronwyn(Nazanin Boniadi), and an elf, Arondir(Ismael Cruz Córdova), has the potential to breathe new life into the stories. She is a single mother who has caused tongues to wag by chatting up Arondir. He is there to ensure the humans don’t rise up again. Arondir is old enough to remember what they did last time, but they are not and view him as the military arm of a controlling regime(which he is)

Sauron is handled well so far. Vigils pop up to remind us that the All-Seeing Eye has his fingers in pies all over the world and, despite what the elves think, hasn’t been vanquished. If only everyone would stop underestimating this turd of a being. As long as he continues to be dispatched sparingly and with an eldritch flare, there will be no complaints.

There are some missteps. Tolkien’s adamantly anti-industrialism theme of the books is abandoned for political talk about massive industrial projects requiring unheard-of workforces. Looming threats are abandoned at sea, and cliff-living elves espouse shrewd phrases that are more droll platitudes than sage advice. We are also supposed to believe a character dives off a ship and swims/teleports hundreds, if not thousands, of miles to shore. There is also a nasty fascist streak in these elves that I doubt Tolkien would be on board with.

Additionally, casual conversations about distrust and racism run wild and take away some of the sweetness of Tolkien’s fantasy. In this version, it is hard to imagine a group of people coming together eventually to help some random hobbits do anything, much less band together on a dangerous mission that will likely end in death. That might yet become a strength, though. Middle Earther anxiety is new to the source material and might be the spark this series needs to survive.

With only two episodes available for review, it’s hard to say what might happen. The main storylines might crystallize and become more focused, and the threats more immediate. We also might get more of Tolkien’s underrepresented lands. I want to know about places only casually mentioned in the books. Places caught up in broad terms like the East. I don’t want to see them on a map as if we are in a bad hybrid between the novels and GOT’s title sequences.

The Rings Of Power has potential. Unfortunately, the first two episodes are a mixed bag of fan service and wild swings. It feels like showrunners Patrick McKay and John D. Payne need time to settle into the immersive world but once established could provide us everything we hoped we might get from more LOTR stories. As a Tolkien purist, I hope they find their footing before the money runs out.

The first two episodes of The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power premiere on September 2nd on Prime Video. Subsequent episodes are released weekly.