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Is LOTR’s The Rings of Power Worth The Weight? 

Unpacking the heroic legends of the Second Age of Middle-earth.

by Christine Leonard

When you break the internet and capture the record for the most watched premiere of a film or television trailer of all-time during your Super Bowl telecast, you know you’ve gotta follow up with something spectacular. That’s precisely what Amazon’s Prime Video had in mind when debuting their flagship fantasy-drama, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

The Rings of Power’s first two epic episodes dropped simultaneously on Sept. 2 with weekly single-episodes to follow. Will it be the new cinematic touchstone that draws fans from all quarters to return to one of the most celebrated literary realms ever written? According to actor Lloyd Owen, who plays Elendil, the founder and first High King of the Realms in Exile, a good old fashioned family viewing is very much in order.

“To me it feels like the Holy Grail of the show is sitting around as a family – Grandma and Grandpa, who probably read the books when they first came out (if they’re still going strong), Pa, Ma, children and grandchildren – in front of the TV on a Sunday evening. There’s a tradition in the UK of the Sunday night drama, which is a family drama, so that everyone can share that.”

Deliberately less spicy than the gore-and-whore formula that denoted similar undertakings like Game of Thrones, and a sexed-up Wheel of Time, The Rings of Power holds fast to a sense of moral virtue that would befit a J.R.R. or C.S. Lewis joint. 

Owen continues. “Also, what Tolkien gives us is this extraordinary mythology. And the function of myth in human society has always been to bypass the head, and the rationale, and hit you straight in the heart – where you begin to feel something through watching the storytelling that’s going on in front of you. You feel less alone. You understand a bit more of the human condition. You recognize your own fallibility. And, somehow to share that as a family in front of the TV screen, I think that is in the tradition of Tolkien and I really hope this series can achieve that. The Tolkienian themes in our series, Rings of Power, are as faithful and as loyal to that sort of material as they can be. So that’s my hope.”

Unpacking the heroes of the Second Age of Middle-earth’s history, this foundational story takes place thousands of years before Bilbo and Gandalf passed the pipe. Viewers will be transported back to the great kingdoms that spawned The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, meeting forbidding villains and disarmingly relatable protagonists along the way. For seasoned actor Charles Edwards (The Crown, The Duke) the arc of his guileful character’s trajectory is mapped out within the first two episodes, but the events he sets in motion are destined to send ripples from the majestic forests of the elf-capital of Lindon to the darkest depths of the Misty Mountains.

“With Celebribor those of you who know the character know what’s coming. It’s in Tolkien. So, while he may appear virtuous at the start there’s stuff already bubbling. And it soon becomes apparent that there are other things at play here,” Edwards advises. “We’ve introduced the character, we know who he is and what his goals are. He’s enlisted Elrond, and that much we know. There is more variation afoot, so I’m not worried about varying the tone of the performance.”

Leaning into the strengths of the series’ writers, producers and showrunners has not only allowed the actors to embrace their roles, but created a mutual understanding of the new and familiar elements that define the concepts they are attempting to convey.

For co-showrunner Patrick McKay the challenge of preserving Tolkien’s original tale was paramount and second only to their ability to reproduce it in a manner that was at once authentic and magical. “My co-showrunner, J.D. [Payne], and I both have an enormous amount of affection for the craft of storytelling and for classical storytelling. As viewers and audience members we sort of get turned off when the story feels cute, or meta, or kind of winky-winky,” McKay admits. “We really like classically structured narratives and those are the films, books, and shows that we keep returning to. That’s part of why we love Tolkien so much.”

Will diehard fans be satisfied with their efforts? Payne and McKay knew exactly what they were up against when it came to impressing the sceptics. “We felt that it was really important, if we were going to touch the hem of Tolkien’s garment in some small way, to go back to those books and hopefully find a new story to tell there,” McKay tells RANGE. “We wanted to have the qualities that we associate with The Lord of the Rings, which is this incredible mythic structure and storytelling and earnestness. It’s emotional storytelling. All of those things were aspects that we worked incredibly hard, with so many amazingly talented people who also valued them so much, to bring them to life in this new show.”

Armed with an unprecedented budget, an estimated production budget of more than $400 million, The Rings of Power has been described by Stuart Nash, New Zealand’s minister for economic development and tourism, as “the largest television series ever made.”

That’ll buy plenty of smoke and mirrors, but it doesn’t guarantee an instant hit. That’s where executive producer Lindsay Weber steps onto the CGI battlefield wielding the broadsword of realism. “From the moment I joined this show to help realize the project, they said they wanted to do as much practically as we possibly could. So, we built a lot,” Weber explains.

“We went to a lot of locations, moving a circus – as they say – this size out to locations is no small thing. We put up cities in the middle of the woods at night in some cases just so we could house the crew and get to shoot and relocations. The first day of the shoot was actually fifty ‘Harfoots’ in the woods down in this very remote kind of place. We had to drive up a very private canyon and down with a bunch of ATVs because it was just exactly the right kind of glade on the side of a forest that they needed. Our production design team and art department crafted their carts so that they integrated with the forest with the wild flowers that were growing then. It was just an amazing thing to witness, really.”

A spectacle to behold, the introductory episodes of The Rings of Power do not disappoint when it comes to providing epic eye candy and action in high definition. Vivid flashbacks, secret groves and cavernous haunts are all depicted with an attention to detail that is every bit as enchanting and elaborate as anything rolled out in movie theatres. “There are certain things in a grand epic story that have to be realized only in visual effects,” executive producer Weber affirms. 

“The Dwarven Kingdom, Khazad-dûm, is a really good example. No matter how much you try, nobody is going to build a city deep inside a mountain. So, we build as much as we can. There are certain environments there that are still all ‘in camera,’ but as you get into the wider shots of what that city looks like – at this moment in the Second Age, when it’s at its height – we get to see it glimpsed for the first time. Our amazing visual effects team lead by Ron Ames (The Aviator) and our visual effects supervisor Jason Smith (The Revenant) did an incredible job bringing this world to life. The art department worked very closely with the visual effects team, and all of us, to capture something that I think is really special and we hope will thrill and delight.”

So, how will audiences around the globe react to seeing diverse new characters interact with ancient legacies? As a self-proclaimed fanboy of the genre, showrunner McKay looks forward to sharing the ensemble drama featuring with those who love Tolkien’s iconic Ring Verse and those who have yet to explore the finite line between allegory and fable. “One of the things we strive to do with our directors and everyone else is to constantly be switching up the ‘trick’ that we’re doing,” says McKay.

“If you’re in a world that’s very constructed, and maybe has quite a bit of visual effects and creatures, hopefully the next world really feels the real sunlight and the real air. So, you’re going back and forth. We reckon that maybe the fanciful imagined worlds would feel more real when they’re set against very real, tangible worlds and vice versa. And I think that’s something that we worked very hard to balance throughout the show.”

In addition to Lloyd Owen and Charles Edwards, the cast of The Rings of Power possesses a United Nations of international headliners including Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Robert Aramayo, Owain Arthur, Maxim Baldry, Nazanin Boniadi, Morfydd Clark, Ismael Cruz Córdova, Trystan Gravelle, Sir Lenny Henry, Ema Horvath, Markella Kavenagh, Joseph Mawle, Tyroe Muhafidin, Sophia Nomvete, Megan Richards, Dylan Smith, Charlie Vickers, Leon Wadham, Benjamin Walker, Daniel Weyman, and Sara Zwangobani. 

Collaborating to forge the legendary Rings one ambitious episode at a time, Emmy-nominated Swedish-French Director Charlotte Brändström, Spanish filmmaker J.A. Bayona and British Chinese Director Wayne Che Yip formed a formidable triumvirate, who are now poised to pour molten metal on the cultural zeitgeist.

Only time will tell if Amazon proves to be the one streaming service to rule them all.