I suspect a lot of families are going to be paraphrasing Martin Brody at the end of episode 2 of “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” and declaring: “We’re gonna need a bigger television.”
That’s because Prime Video’s new J.R.R. Tolkien adaptation is such a grand, lavish production that it simply must be seen on the biggest and best of screens – and most certainly not on a smartphone. I’ve spent the past couple of years debating whether to get a new TV (mine is 11 years old, which qualifies it for a television museum), and “Lord of the Rings” has just convinced me that now is the right time to upgrade.
Of course, the show’s grandness begs the question of whether something so cinematic should really be told on the “small screen.” Put another way, is a streaming site really the best format for a fantasy epic featuring the ultimate battle between good and evil?
The fact that Amazon plans to tell its “Lord of the Rings” story over 50 hours, over five years, certainly suggests that this format is the right one. And you thought Peter Jackson took his own sweet time getting to Mount Doom with his movie trilogy, which took up most of my 30s.
This is also clearly a labor of love for Amazon – one that catapults it into the big league (and might make us forget that, only six years ago, Prime Video’s idea of going big was a Woody Allen mini-series called “Crisis in Six Scenes”). How big a league? Well, in addition to the $250 million that was reportedly spent on securing the adaptation rights from the Tolkien estate, season 1 alone is reported to have cost over $400 million – or over $50 million per episode. If you run a special effects house and haven’t been offered work on “LoTR,” you really should take it personally.
With this kind of money at stake, it’s easy to imagine Jeff Bezos clutching the series’ scripts tightly and maniacally murmuring “Precious” to himself. (Sadly, it’s disturbingly easy to imagine Bezos maniacally murmuring to himself about pretty much anything.)
In a rare public appearance, Amazon’s head honcho revealed at the show’s U.K. premiere last week that, upon hearing that Amazon had bought the rights, one of his sons said to him: “Dad, please don’t eff this up.” And while one can only wish that a Bezos heir might care so much about unionization and toilet breaks, the good news for Bezos Jr. is that, initially at least, Amazon most assuredly hasn’t effed up.
Some folks regard Tolkien’s works as holy scripture, but I’ve always been somewhat immune to the 20th-century English writer’s charms. Honestly, being forced to read “The Hobbit” as a youngster put me off all novels for about a decade. So, the only thing I really like about Tolkien is the fact that Led Zeppelin albums would have been a whole lot shorter without his books proving such an unlikely source of inspiration.
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While it was impossible not to be swept up in the majesty of Jackson’s “LoTR” trilogy, his “Hobbit” trilogy left me rather cold. Even revisiting the longer version of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” recently, I was surprised quite how bored I was by much of it.
So it’s fair to say I was interested in Amazon’s new adaptation more because of its scale and importance to the streamer than anything remotely connected to Middle-earth. There was also a nagging doubt: Given Jackson’s definitive telling of the story less than 20 years ago, what could a TV version possibly offer to justify its existence?
Well, in a word, backstory – thanks to the appendices in Tolkien’s books detailing the history of his universe. The TV adaptation begins thousands of years before Bilbo, Frodo and friends appeared on the scene – before the titular rings were even forged and long before Gandalf went gray.
Part of me would have loved it if Amazon had done a George R.R. Martin and sexed up Middle-earth a little, giving us orc orgies and horny hobbits (and, in the process, perhaps giving a whole new meaning to “Lord of the Rings”). But no, this is very much the same vibe Jackson presented in his trilogy: a family-friendly spectacle with PG13-rated violence. Even though Amazon spent $250 million on the rights, the Tolkien estate was never going to say: “Go ahead, it’s all yours – turn it into ‘Euphoria' with pointy ears for all we care.”
There are some obvious tonal changes between the film and TV versions, however, highlighting how things have advanced in just a few short years: This is very much a modern retelling, where the women are just as likely to kick orc butt as the men. Indeed, of the main characters in the first season, about half are fearless females who are either swirling swords or charging headlong into danger.
Of course, another modern development is something even Jackson never had to face 20 years ago: fierce social media debate and a whole other type of troll to the one Tolkien imagined.
Some “Ringers” are apparently upset that the beloved character Galadriel – the eternal elf played by Cate Blanchett in the movies – has been turned into a “Xena: Warrior Princess”-esque badass in the series. At this point, it is worth remembering that Tolkien himself called the books’ most ardent admirers his “deplorable cultus.”
And then there are the morons who, like with the casting of Steve Toussaint as Lord Corlys Velaryon in HBO’s “Game of Thrones” prequel “House of the Dragon,” find it hard to believe that a fantasy world might actually feature non-white actors. Just wait until these folk find out the actual heights of the actors playing the dwarves.
Yes, there is something quite predictable nowadays about turning female characters into action heroes. But isn’t that better than the alternative? Just look at the main “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” film poster from 2001, where the male characters are wielding weapons while the female characters are armed with nothing stronger than a powerful stare.
Aided by the performances of Welsh actress Morfydd Clark (who previously freaked audiences out in the unsettling British horror movie “Saint Maud”) as Galadriel and young Australian actress Markella Kavenagh as an adventurous harfoot called Elanor “Nori” Brandyfoot, these characterizations really breathed life into the opening episodes for me. (Galadriel starts proceedings by telling us that “nothing is evil in the beginning” – which suggests she is unfamiliar with the work of Rep. Matt Gaetz.)
And yes, the presence of the hobbit-esque harfoots does allow the new adaptation to serve up yet more bucolic/nausea-inducing scenes of country life (delete according to preference) and suggest that the outbreak of song is not far away.
The lack of big names among the cast means that most of that immense budget goes on creating the realms – and boy are there are lot of realms: Middle-earth (obviously); the Southlands; Eregion; Khazad-dûm … when we talk about world-building, that really is what is going on in these initial episodes. I don’t think waterfalls have ever figured so largely outside of a TLC set list, and I’m guessing the budget for prosthetic ears, noses and hairy feet is greater than entire indie films.
The Tolkien geeks and racists are clearly finding things to moan about. But just like HBO’s rival fantasy series “House of the Dragon,” I’m more than happy to go along for the ride. Now I just need to decide what size TV screen to go for.
“The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” is out now on Prime Video, with new episodes dropping every Friday until October 14.