Amazon's ‘Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power’ is nothing more than expensive fan art

Amazon’s J.R.R. Tolkien adaptation will hit a sweet spot for superfans but the average viewer might get bored.

Amazon Studios
Culture

Let’s annoy the hardcore fantasy nerds right away: To the casual fan, it’s impossible not to compare Amazon’s Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power to HBO’s House of the Dragon. Both are newly dropped prequels, the former a follow-up to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy (and the film adaptations by Peter Jackson) and the latter to George R.R. Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire (or, as the HBO adaptation titled it, Game of Thrones). Both feature actors in long white wigs, and both make you look a lot at animated maps.

In The Rings of Power’s favor, the first two episodes are shaping up much better than House of the Dragon. Most noticeably, the wigs are of a remarkably better quality, as they should be. The series will be the most expensive ever, costing $1 billion, according to Time. And it’s, quite evidently, a labor of cash — the visuals are mostly exceptional, whether we’re in the ren faire-esque village of the hartfoots, ancestral predecessors to the hobbits, or watching elves climb a harrowing ice wall (again, the accidental similarities to Game of Thrones can’t help but present themselves) while tracking an enemy. Perhaps the only exception to the beautiful landscapes is anywhere in elvin territory, where everything is filtered like an Oprah interview, soft and fuzzy to suggest the beauty and serenity of all that elves touch. Is this Middle Earth or a Meghan Markle interview from her home in Santa Barbara? Maybe they’re one and the same.

Among the elves under a constant soft focus is Morfydd Clark — almost unrecognizable from her exceptional turn as the titular role in A24’s Saint Maud — as Galadriel. (Or, to pronounce it as fellow featured elf Elrond (Robert Aramayo) does, with gusto, “KAH-lad-dree-EHL.”) Clark rivals Orlando Bloom’s Legolas, of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, in her ethereal beauty and — bless Bloom’s heart — she’s a better actor, too. Her portrayal of a sister who carries the burden of her brother’s death, and has inherited his mission to battle an unknown evil, is among the series’ most compelling. It also sets the key tension for The Rings of Power’s first two episodes, which is between those who believe that their world is settled at peace following years of unrest and those who think, or know rather, that evil waits. As one elvin leader insists to a rightfully dubious Galadriel early on, it is “proven beyond doubt that our days of war are over.” Has a stupider, more damning statement ever been made? Hell on Middle Earth is clearly, as Galadriel expects, right around the corner.

Fellow elf Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) lives a similarly uneasy peace in the land of men, where he faces prejudice as a “pointy,” a pejorative term for elves because of their pointed ears. “The evil is gone,” he’s told in a pub altercation with a human, again suggesting that the evil is anything but. Also out of place is hartfoot Elanor (Markella Kavenagh), or “Nori,” who longs for adventure beyond her simple shire. This, the early episodes suggest, is a story in part about whistleblowers whose warnings go unheeded, maybe because of their species or because no one wants to believe that their contentment is uneasily balanced on denial.

The problem with The Rings of Power, as was the problem with all the Lord of the Rings movies, is that the lead-up to the action is terribly boring. As much as the lives of hobbits — pardon, the hartfoot — are jolly, they’re also extremely inane. I mean, I live a perfectly pleasant life of eating, drinking, and exchanging japes with my ma and pa, but I’d never expect someone to watch it and think it’s entertaining, even when my toes are at their hairiest. Meanwhile, dialogue is clogged with fantasy cliches like, “Strange, isn’t it? How one object could be responsible for creating so much beauty … and so much pain.” Is it strange? Not for any viewer who’s contemplated the basic conundrum of humanity. But hey, these are elves speaking at the dawn of time. Maybe this is groundbreaking stuff for an immortal race who existed, as the series suggests, before the sun.

Also clumsy, as is often the case in the fantasy genre, is the handling of prejudice between the species of Middle Earth. Humans hate elves, and elves hate dwarves, and dwarves hate elves. But they also all seemingly want to have sex with each other, leading me to Google whether or not a baby between an elf and human would be sterile like a mule. (According to one message board: No, the offspring is fertile.) Attempting to make this an allegory for racism in the real world, like declaring it is “proven beyond doubt that our days of war are over,” can only result in disaster as, on screen, such interspecies biases lack any real nuance. As far as I can tell, elves are hated because they’re just too damn hot. Especially since the male elves' haircut options have broadened since the Lord of the Rings movies to include a feathered Mikhail Baryshnikov option in addition to the expected long, flowing locks. And dwarves … because they’re grumpy and live in mountains? Can friendships and figurative bridges between races help fight the evil that so clearly waits in the wings?

But again, this isn’t so much a problem specifically with The Rings of Power as it’s historically been with hits of the genre in general. We’re at a point in fiction where, I hope, viewers should expect more nuance than good versus evil, and the best characters of the past several years of genre film and television are the ones who oscillate somewhere in the middle. Is there an orc out there who’s questioning why it was made and whether or not it's on the right path? And maybe it’s also horny for a hot elf with a sharp sword and thirst for vengeance? If a Boromir falls in the woods, does it make a sound?

Maybe The Rings of Power will push these boundaries beyond its predecessors. Real Lord of the Rings fans have always been rewarded for their patience, whether it’s by plowing through Tolkien’s pages-long descriptions of a molehill, or Return of the King’s 48-part ending that somehow keeps cutting to yet another scene. If it’s the true heads that the Amazon series wants to appeal to, I imagine they’ve already succeeded, and I mean that with no bite or snark. The appreciation of a slow burn should be indulged. But the broader audience will likely expect, for better or worse, immediate satisfaction.