A billion dollars. It’s an unreal number for many folks, but it’s what Amazon has put on the table for The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, making it the most expensive television series of all time. No doubt there’s a lot at stake in this project for those behind the camera, but for avid fans of J.R.R. Tolkien and his world, it’s an important adaptation that demands care and thoughtfulness. I grew up with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films; they were the most important and formative films for me as a kid. I know I’m not alone in this. For some of us, Tolkien’s books also feel like sacred texts of childhood.
With that said, it’s important to approach adaptations with an open mind. We will envision the worlds of books very differently from others–including showrunners. Adaptations can provide fascinating glosses on their source material even as they divert from it. The diverting, inherently, is not the issue. The issue is, of course, whether those changes make sense and, more importantly, is the adaptation actually any good?
The Rings of Power takes place during the Second Age of Middle-earth’s timeline when Sauron has already laid waste to the world, but before Isildur acquires the one ring (as seen in the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring film). In this part of the timeline, Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) has spent centuries seeking Sauron and his servants, scouring Middle-earth to find any shred of evidence of his continued existence. Gil-galad (Benjamin Walker), leader of the elves, is convinced the threat has gone and tries to send Galadriel across the sea to Valinor and into military retirement. She will not be so easily persuaded.
This is one of four main storylines in The Rings of Power. In another, Elrond (Robert Aramayo) is sent by Gil-galad and the elven craftsman Celebrimbor (Charles Edwards) to form an alliance with the dwarves. Elrond will reunite with his old friend Durin, prince of the dwarf kingdom of Khazad-Dûm–a relationship that may prove to have major implications for the elves of Middle-earth. Elsewhere, the Southlanders, a group of people from the race of men, fight to keep an army of orcs at bay. Here we find elves overseeing the Southlanders since they, years before, swore fealty to Sauron. Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) is one of these elves, but he has fallen in love with Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), the local town healer who raises her son Theo (Tyroe Muhafidin) as a single mother. In the last subplot, a group of Harfoots (forerunners to hobbits) make their yearly migration. A young girl, Nori (Markella Kavenagh), and her best friend Poppy (Megan Richards) discover a man (Daniel Weyman) who has fallen to earth like a meteor. Who is he? Only time will tell.
If it seems like those four braided stories have a lot of potential, you’d be right–there’s a great deal to unpack in these characters and their histories. With that said, the first season lacks a sense of urgency in its plotting. A slow pace, an absence of tangible stakes, and thin characterization all hold back the stories. Yes, things happen, but they lack weight, either because we spend too much time with things that don’t quite matter or because the acting performances don’t have time to sit with characters’ reactions long enough. There’s a sense of rehashing without moving forward–staying in the same place and treading water. Even when things start to pick up in episode 6, it happens too suddenly.
Another issue–and perhaps the most pressing one–is the show’s lack of meaningfully-developed relationships beyond a few. The Rings of Power’s characters feel loosely tethered unlike in the movies, which have some of the richest character relationships in blockbuster history. Indeed, whether Sam (Sean Astin) and Frodo’s (Elijah Wood) companionship will last the journey is just as gripping as finding out whether, how, and when the ring will be destroyed.
Despite Galadriel being a signature strong female character (said with affection), she spends considerable energy furthering the cause of the man Halbrand (Charlie Vickers). While the two actors have great chemistry and do well together in every scene they share, their relationship never feels as close as it could and should. Galadriel, especially as our protagonist, deserves to have well-crafted connections with the people around her. Although her friendship with Elrond is sweet, we don’t get to see them together enough, given the plot’s direction.
Nori’s relationship with “the Stranger,” as the musical score dubs him, also feels lacking in real substance. While the mysteries of his origin and future in Middle-earth may fascinate enough to pull a viewer along, there’s a lot of missed potential in forming a compelling bond between him and the young girl who helps him. Although we get bits of this, it never feels as fleshed out as it should.
And that’s it, isn’t it? The Rings of Power lacks depth. Some great ideas and character sketches are present but don’t feel fully formed, as if still stuck in a rough draft stage. The actors do well with what they’re given, despite some woodenness and awkward moments of formality along the way. All these characters have the potential to be literary figures, but only a few rise to it.
The characters of Elrond and Durin (Owain Arthur) do rise. Elrond and Durin’s bond is my favorite friendship I’ve seen on television in recent years. Durin offers dignity and complexity to the dwarves of The Rings of Power and avoids making them feel one-note in their representation. He is easily the most skillfully-written character in the cast, and Owain Arthur hits many points of nuance in his portrayal. Robert Aramayo is also splendid here, offering a kind-hearted performance of Elrond. He is one of the gentlest characters imaginable while still maintaining an Elven resolve. Together, Durin and Elrond’s chemistry is infectious, and I looked forward to their interactions each week (and missed them with disappointment during the episodes they were absent). There are a lot of superlatives in this paragraph, but all are earned.
I would be remiss to not mention Disa as well, the first dwarven woman we’ve seen in a major role, who brings a warmth, vibrancy, and heartiness the show needs. So far, her role might be a little too much time as glue to Elrond and Durin’s relationship, but in future seasons, I hope she stands even more on her own two feet as the good-natured but commanding character we already see.
I’d emphasize that sentiment: hope for the show’s future. I’m looking forward to it, and it’s why I can’t label The Rings of Power’s first season a failure. Despite its many flaws, I found myself thinking about it throughout the week, wondering what would happen, reading up on theories, and brushing up on my Tolkien lore. Heck, my profile header on Twitter is a picture of Elrond. Shows don’t necessarily have to be great to still grip our psyches, and The Rings of Power certainly did for me. One thing helped: I had a sense following the season that despite the glacial pace of the plot and the often-static characterization, something grand could be around the corner. I felt that hope met with realization with the penultimate episode’s particular richness, even if some of the choices in the finale left me very conflicted (yet still unable to stop thinking about it). Regardless of where the show goes, if I can see Elrond and Durin together again? It’s good enough to have me tuning in.