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The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power

**
2022

‘…one long boring descent into Mordor…’

Let’s flash back, not to Middle Earth, but to May 11th 2001, and I’m standing on the deck of the Soho House yacht in Cannes. There’s not much doing on a Friday night, and I’m about to troop off the exit gangplank, when I spot a merry band traversing the entrance boards onto the yacht. Led by the redoubtable figure of Ian McKellen, they include Sean Bean, Billy Boyd and more; yes, it’s the cast of Lord of the Rings, currently shooting the first movie down under and in Cannes to promote a sizzle reel. They’re a disconsolate bunch; they didn’t think that the trilogy will be completed, and over an hour of off-the-record cigarette smoking, seemed fairly confident that the plug would be pulled by the studio abruptly on completion of the first movie.

As well as being a beloved literary text for the ages, the Lord of the Rings film trilogy turned out to be rather more popular than the cast expected, and the original trilogy spawned a somewhat less popular and overtly drawn-out set of films based on The Hobbit. Now serial tax-evaders Amazon have invested over a billion dollars turning various JRR Tolkein appendices, laundry lists and telephone-pad doodles into an eight-part blockbusting streaming series, the first two episodes of which dropped on Prime this week. Whether it’ll be a hit is unknown to any of us; what we’re looking at here is whether Rings of Power is any good or not.

‘This isn’t an adventure’ offers one of the cast, but it’s certainly grand of scale; we’d headed back to middle-Earth, and join up with a legion of elves led by Morfydd Clark as Galadriel in search of unseen evil wizard Sauron, so this is a firm prequel to the first LOTR trilogy. Rather than She-Hulk’s bare-bones sitcom A and B story, all the stories are weighted A here; Charles Edwards plays Celebrimbor, who wins a stone-smashing completion with some dwarves and is clearly about to build a forge and make some rings. There’s also a pestilence plaguing the land, with black leaves falling and cows producing black muck from their udders, much to the consternation of Sadoc Burrows (Lenny Henry). Cheeky Harfoots Nori (Markella Kavenagh) and Poppy Proudfoot (Megan Richards) are wowed by a mysterious giant called The Stranger (Daniel Weyman) who falls from the sky in a flaming meteor, and Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) explores some tunnels under a burnt out village.

All these stories will presumably come together at some point soon, but episode one was agonisingly slow to start and fragmented of approach; there’s lots of sub-poetic waffle like ‘I can still feel the light of the trees on my face’ but it takes a long time for any of the diverse characters to land. But things do pep up a little in episode 2, with less chat about sigils and more direct action, with an impressive underwater sea-worm, a funny throw-away joke about a lift delivered by MVP Owain Arthur as Durin IV, and a tense scene involving a close-quarters fight with some kind of orc that attests to the spooky-spooky influence of director/producer JA Bayona, who directed these two openers.

Sure, there are striking moments here, but it’s fair to say that whatever magic the original trilogy so unexpectedly conjured has long since gone away under Amazon’s leaden touch; the result feels synthetic and fake. It’s no surprise that Amazon are out of touch with their target audience, at a time when we can’t confidently feed our families or heat our homes in part due to the deadly corporate greed that Amazon have come to symbolise. The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power may be a shiney-shiney-thing to those who love trolls and elves, but to the casual viewer, it’s one long boring descent into Mordor. Maybe there’ll be an unexpected surprise again, but I’m bored of these rings already.

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  1. As someone who is a big fan of the series I did like the first few episode a surprising amount. But, as you say, I’m not sure what casual/new viewers are supposed to make of this. I’m going to continue to enjoy it regardless, even if a whole episode is devoted to galadriel swimming over the fantasy atlantic ocean and never feeling a bit tired.

    • I’m sure Rings fans will enjoy it, and so they should. But casual viewers used to lap this up, and I’m not sure that’s still the case…

  2. Think so! I do remember the intro establishing the boogies’ dexterity (a la Tolkien), by describing how their quick agile fingers were ideally suited to handling a browning automatic or extracting a purse from somebody else’s pocket. I think you tend to remember the funniest parts? The book itself was very much a mixed bag.

        • It’s full of lines like ‘and then Bilbo Baggins did something that ashtonished his friends and devastated his enemies…he dropped his trousers’

          Made me laugh anyway.

          • The scene that made me laugh was Goodgulf’s return after fighting the balrog – or rather, the balrog’s equivalent in BOTR. The wizard describes his battle (‘Lo, I have a tale to tell! etc) and how he survived it, provoking a mixture of scepticism and respect from the boggies; they’ve never heard such a preposterous bunch of lies, but they respect the wizard’s chutzpah. And in fairness, what would YOU think?

            • I have NEVER met anyone else who has read this book. Didn’t the fireworks for their hobbit festival all have ‘US MILITARY AMMO’ written on the side? Funny how these things stay with you…

  3. Fantasy seems to be what Americans relied on during Depression; people ‘forwent’ milk on the table in exchange for a reddish ticket stub. I don’t know the minds of B’naires, but despite increased cost, record #s signed up for Prime this year. Indictment for peoples tastes, priorities? Netflix’s gotten some unpleasant surprises this year, and IMO continues to deliver some gems (if you’re willing to hunt) and int’l diversity. Amazon’s a creature of a different color. How does one appeal to or reach a pseudo sky god? Will shunning or criticism work? What do the common people want post Camelot? Does whistling still brighten days, as the song goes, or is blowing the whistle more effective? In Camelot, they danced and wondered what the royals did, not having access to a 21stc wizard’s toolset. We do. Keep spreading your message!

    • Now this is a cool wave to surf. Mid 70’s, gas price wars, post Watergate, post Vietnam, what comes out of it? Star Wars. Fantasy works for sure as a balm to the masses in tough times. The 30’s and Great Depression? Look at the quality of the movies, and the popularity of radio, and the rise of the comic book. But Amazon are actively strangling the arts, and in service of what? Cinema, live music, comedy, theatre are all going to the wall in a post-pandemic hard time, and all the money is going into streaming. If we don’t leave the house, restaurants, cafes and pretty much everything else goes the same way. Streamers set out to disrupt a cultural system that ended up decimated by Covid. But if there are no movie stars, no rock stars, who needs streaming at all? There’s a real culture war going on that nobody wants to talk about; the plutocracy reigning over us all, and destroying what we once prized as culture. So we move on, boats bobbing against the tide, but we’re going to need some joined up thinking to defeat the selfish thinking of those who care only about themselves, culturally and politically. We’re paying for their trips to the moon with our souls…

  4. Hmm, not sure where to start. Kudos for being on a yacht in Cannes–anytime! Accolades for reporting your honest take on this series (and commentary on a point in time that needs to be talked about). It’s derived from a section of Silmarillion, and a few of its stories (tales of Numenor, Sauron the Maia, Gil-Galad…).
    As much as I love stories, magic, fantasy…I couldn’t slog through Tolkien’s books EXCEPT for Silmarillion, deemed the densest book of all, running rings round the others. Go figure. It’s a sort of almanac/bible companion to what was later created, a 12 volume history of middle earth. Except for the wonky graphics, I’m liking what I’ve seen so far. There seems to be a trend of late to go back to beginnings. It worked magically for ELVIS, which I’ve watched twice now, and I’m sensing mixed vibes on prequel to Game of Thrones. Tolkien’s world was so full of extraordinary characters. I can see why it may have been hard to pick just one to tell about the origins of middle earth and the misguided creation of certain rings. I hear Lennon singing ‘all I’m saying is give rings a chance?’

    • Well, I’m two episodes in, so it’s getting a chance! And episode 2 moved with a better pace than the first. Having not read the Silmarillion, I’ll have to take your word for it, but there’s a hubris about this show that sticks in my craw. Given how Amazon are so penny pinching about the way they make their platform so impossible for creatives to make a bean from, it’s frustrating to me that they put so much cash into a rather shonky project like this. Pick one story, tell it well, then maybe follow up if the public dig it, but announcing five seasons of this feels like a sentence in the orc mines to me. I can’t see a breakout performance, and the visuals are so fake. Shouldn’t Tolkien be spirited and soulful? Which story here has these qualities? Still, the point of my preface is that nobody knows anything, as William Goldman said. Hopefully this will come good and not turn out to be a phenomenal cash burn that really should have been spent on original IP. Here’s hoping!

  5. I recall the books were good at capturing that sense of the English countryside, its beauty by day and danger by night.

    The only film I’ve seen that captures this essence is Tess by Polanski, ironic considering he is neither English nor one of the anointed gate-keepers of how English Literature must be portrayed on film.

    I think the reason why the hippies of the 60s enjoyed the books was how they conveyed a kind of poetry of the environment, there was a soulfulness in those stories.

    I suppose the LOTR movies succeeded at this in small patches but its purpose seemed more commercial, and those patches soon turned into cloying sentimentality.

    This new series sounds all surface, elves and wizards doth not a middle earth make. Perhaps rather like how lots of lightsabers and jedis don’t really make a new Star Wars?

    Are a couple of west-coast dudes the right pair to create a show set in a very English / European tradition? Who knows.

    • Bayona is the ‘voice’ for the first two episodes, and there’s some evidence of a stamp, but not enough. But I think they really needed more creative muscle to make this work.

      The Tess comparison is a good shout, that lyrical countryside feel is only there as another green screen element here, and that’s a missed opportunity. There’s nothing soulful about this at all, and much of it does look like actors standing in a studio.

      Having said all that, there are some very dynamic effects at times, but it falls way short of the first trilogy. The show runners seem to have come up short on the basis of the first two outings. It’s not awful, just not exciting and as noted, doesn’t feel like an adventure.

      • The Hobbit (ie, the book) has a very strong sense of place, something which really helps the reader buy into the goblins, elves and dragons populating it. Most English fantasy authors of a certain era (e.g. Peake, Tolkien, Lewis, Sylvia Townsend Warner) seem to have had a big connection with the countryside. They could identify every flower and tree anyhow – more than I could do!

        Tess was shot entirely in France, ironically. Polanski could have been extradited to the US had he tried to shoot the film in the UK.

        • It was Ken Russell who said that the British countryside was the most underestimated asset in film-making, and I genuinely think that he was right. There’s a kind of Thomas Hardy vibe that works for Tolkien, but that sense of place you describe is largely missing here. I get that green screen makes it easier to organise a film shoot, but you really can see the join between the backgrounds and the actors standing on podiums, and that’s a killer when that sense of reality is key to a show. Tess may have been shot in France, but at least it was shot in an actual place and not a warehouse. Maybe aficionados of Tolkien can pick out the flora and fauna featured here, but it’s just another big budget melange of colour-matched locations and comically mis-matched accents from here. I’m beginning to wonder if middle-Earth is a real place at all…

          • Yes! Women in Love, that scene by the water at dusk/night, beautiful!
            Garden of the Finzi-Continis has some summer garden scenes too, if you’ve ever seen that one?
            I’m undermining my own point here but I think Polanski said something about choosing France because he just couldn’t find English countryside that matched how it was described in the novel? (Possibly the fact so much of the English countryside is not available to the public was a factor too?)
            I think it all comes down to craft. Expert filmmakers know what they’re doing, they can even conjure a piece of England out of France! I mean Geoffrey Unsworth, what a cinematographer he was!

            • If the actual English countryside isn’t good enough, why not substitute something closer to what you’re thinking? Not seen Garden since the 80’s, but I don’t require reminding about Unsworth. The First Great Train Robbery really opened my eyes to how seductive a film’s appearance could be. Just shows what you can do when you know what you’re doing; Russell’s BBC work on Omnibus docs allowed him to make use of the countryside to add production value to low-budget tv work. The fact I didn’t even look to see who shot Rings of Power shows how wowed I was, it just looks like every other green screen show, albeit with a few big fancy fantasy shots thrown in.

  6. Sigh. Well, you’ve confirmed my fears. I’m also taking your review with a grain of salt because I know you’re not a Tolkien fan, so I’m not giving up hope completely, but there is definitely no excitement on my part, like there was for the first hobbit movie (which quickly died).

    There are just so many other books/series that they could have adapted for something completely new but instead we get the dregs of Tolkien’s books.

    • Or just make up a good story that connects to the Tolkien universe. It sounds like there were a few big ideas to mine, but they needed a few of their own to create momentum. What is a Tolkien story if it’s not an adventure? Having said all that, there’s a few cracking visuals to savour, and they do attempt to engage various emotions, humour, romance, horror, tension. I wasn’t expecting much, hopefully I’ll lower your expectations and you’ll enjoy.

      • Unfortunately, what amazon did with the Wheel of Time seems to have carried over here and so even lowered expectations aren’t enough.
        I haven’t bothered with WoT and probably won’t at this point. and I suspect the same for Rings of Power.

        Really, I’d be more interested in a show by amazon called Squidward Planktonpants than what they put out now.

  7. Absolutely. I guess Jackson had more to work with, too. I never read the Silmarillion (nor do I intend to) but my brother has and he reckons any series based on it would be problematic.

  8. In terms of the books, I loved The Hobbit but was never a big fan of LOTR. I thought the first film in the LOTR trilogy was pretty good though, in part due to how the director was neither American nor English (in which case I’d have known what to expect*) as he had a fresh perspective on overly familiar material.

    This new series is a shameless attempt to cash in on Jackson’s success. The problem is that both The Hobbit and LOTR have a strong central premise, centred around a strong central character, who also isn’t representative of the world he ends up travelling through (ie, Bilbo/Frodo). In that respect both books are as much portal fantasies as they are High Fantasy.

    I haven’t seen the Amazon production (although I did see the trailer) but I’m pretty sure a bunch of elves yammering away portentously and everybody else oohing and arring for all they are worth does not a story make.

    a Western if it had been made in the US; a bunch of luvvies hamming it up for all they were worth if it had been made in the UK.

    • I’m not Tolkein expert, but your sentiment matches up with what I saw ; this just isn’t an adventure in the way that LOTR and Hobbit are. There’s no central character, and that notion of exploring a strange world is sorely missing; there’s no-one who is finding thinbgs out in the way that the audience requires as a surrogate. A ‘bunch of elves yammering away’ is what I took away from this. I do think Bayona was a good choice for the first two episodes, but they’ve shied away from the challenge of creating a Tolkein-esque adventure, and instead we have a multiple character story where each story is deadly slow and very little happens. We certainly miss Jackson’s ability to trun the text into crowd-pleasing cinema…

  9. Wasn’t a huge fan of the original trilogy, but I’ll probably go back and watch it again at some point. Never saw any of the Hobbit movies. Pretty sure I’ll pass on this.

    Ian McKellen, over an hour minutes off-the-record cigarette smoking?, an eight-part, has long since gone away, decent into Mordor

    • Thank for the typos, obviously this was a super-fast turn around, so much appreciated. Perhaps, as with the first trilogy, the appeal of Tolkein’s world has been underestimated, and episode 2 is better than the weary slog of the first, but it really isn’t an adventure, more of a soap opera with lavish backgrounds and no dramatic meat to be found.

      • I’m always amazed at the size and strength of the fan base for Tolkien. I know people who re-read those books every year. So I guess there’s some demand for just rehashing this stuff. But as with Marvel and Star Wars you have to think you reach a point of saturation and burnout eventually, especially if you’re not bringing anything new to the table.

        • Agreed. people seem to love this stuff, whether its any good or not. And they swear by it, whearas I swear at it. I guess it’s the kind of Ip you can confidently blast a billion dollars at, but as with things like The Irishman, I bet they’ll be very quiet about the number of viewers who stick with the whole thing. I’m not interested enough to know how much of this comes from Tolkein’s notes, but it does feel very written by committee..

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