Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was arguably the defining cultural moment of fantasy breaking into the mainstream. The box office run was a juggernaut, the critical acclaim was deafening, and the fan response was largely euphoric. It hit the trifecta of what an adaptation should achieve and, until this day, the trilogy remains for many film buffs the best trilogy ever made.
Warner Bros.’ attempt to repeat that magic with the Hobbit trilogy failed spectacularly. Some scenes had the charm of the original story – when Bilbo (Martin Freeman) decides to go on an adventure, when he and Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) engage in a thrilling battle of wits, when he meets Gollum (Andy Serkis) for the first time. But largely, those little moments of magic were lost amid a bloated screenplay that tried to be epic, but in the grandness of its landscape forgot about the characters that make that landscape feel meaningful.
Visually, the latest take on Tolkein’s world, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (an absurd title), is stunning. There are some frames so breathtaking that I want to pause the screen and devour the frame pixel by pixel. I found myself rewinding the show multiple times because I was so transfixed by the visual grandeur that I lost track of what actually happened – not a bad problem to have in a series. But some of that visual splendour is too crisp and too clean, so when it’s transported to a location that is supposed to feel tactile and lived in, it doesn’t work.
But overly-clean visual effects are not a major problem (see some shots of King’s Landing in House of the Dragon). What is a major problem is that the show doesn’t bother to establish a sense of place in these locations. What would it look like to live there? To walk around in those halls and chambers? Eregion is an excellent example of this. The home of the Elven-Smiths is beautiful,but there’s no sense of place and no sense that the characters are a part of that environment. Instead, we get a baffling scene where two characters decide to walk to the only location that works in the series instead of, say, taking horses or something efficient.
That location is Khazad-dum, the fabled city of the Dwarves. This environment is detailed and I can believe that people inhabit it. The visual effects aren’t too clean or crisp but rather render the city tactile enough without giving it a sheen that simply wouldn’t work for underground mines. The characters we meet feel real, like people we would meet if we existed in Middle-earth. We don’t spend far too much time with them but the time we do is so effective in establishing their existence and relationships with one another that it invites the question of why the rest of the episodes aren’t capable of doing the same.
The potential is there. The slow build of dread is overall quite effective, even if it is punctuated by cartoonish jump scare moments and diluted a bit in the second episode. Nori (Markella Kavanagh) captures that childhood desire to see the wonders of the world beyond the smallness of the world they know. Nazanin Boniadi’s Bronwyn has glimmers of a deeper character within her presentation but her relationships to her son, her elf lover Arondir (Ismael Cruz Cordova), and her home are so thinly established that it beggars belief.
When she leaves her home with her son (Tyroe Muhafidin), the audience should feel a pang of loss. But we don’t because the series spends approximately two minutes of its two hour-plus runtime establishing what Bronwyn’s relationship is with the people in her village, who she loves, who she dislikes, what they think of her. It’s a plot point. Everyone within the village is a plot point to move the story forward and that thinness robs this series of the potential it so clearly has.
It is established that during this age, the Second Age to be exact, this village of men is being oppressed by the elves for their allegiance to Morgoth. Who exactly in this village was allied with Morgoth? Why were they allied? Did the villagers feel like they had a choice to stand up to an evil magic being? None of these questions is addressed but we’re simply supposed to take the word of “people in this village had an unusually strong allegiance to Morgoth.” What that means is apparently irrelevant.
The central thrust of The Rings of Power is the rise of Sauron during a time when everyone is like, “um, I don’t think that’s a thing anymore.” It’s an oft-heard story but one that never fails to resonate when it is done well. Certainly Galadriel’s insistence that in spite of what others may have heard, the threat that Sauron has not been eliminated feels real. That her search may inadvertently lead to the very realization of the darkness’s return is a neat little bit of narrative building the series is otherwise lacking in.
If that setup sounds a little too familiar to the original trilogy, it is, but there at least seems to be a sense that a significantly larger amount of people in positions of authority here seem to be oblivious to that threat. Whether that is a significant enough change or not remains to be seen but the series lacks the same energy it has for Galadriel’s storyline, which is a cause for concern as it relates to its ability to sustain itself over multiple seasons.
But plot and narrative mechanics are ultimately secondary. If The Rings of Power is simply another story about people having to band together to stop Sauron, sure. That’s fine. And in telling that story, the series establishes that it has the skills to establish the scale and scope of that story. But all the beautiful lights, battle sequences, and mountain scenery simply cannot make up for the strength of characters. That’s where the magic ultimately is.