Several years (and several hundreds of millions of dollars) after Amazon bought the TV rights to “The Lord of the Rings” from the J.R.R. Tolkien estate, the mammoth effort to boost Prime Video’s profile with the same kind of phenomenon HBO found in “Game of Thrones” is upon us — and it’s just as grand, if not as downright surreal, as the occasion calls for. Sure, “Game of Thrones” might have solidified a television format for fantasy epics. But George R.R. Martin’s novels simply wouldn’t exist without Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” and bringing these stories to episodic life requires not just all the considerable money Amazon can provide, but a certain amount of guts from the TV writers taking it on now, some 85 years after “The Hobbit” changed the game.
From first-time showrunners Patrick McKay and John D. Payne, “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” — premiering Sept. 2 with two episodes — slots as neatly into Peter Jackson’s preexisting cinematic universe of “LOTR” and “Hobbit” films as a series could feasibly manage, while also expanding on the lore fans have parsed for decades. The first episode even mirrors the opening scene of “The Fellowship of the Ring,” in which Cate Blanchett’s ethereal elf Galadriel intones a brief history of why the Ring is so important. The series, however, brings us back to the beginning of time, as Galadriel, now a younger and fierier version played by Morfydd Clark (“Saint Maud”), details the origin of all things.
From this prelude onward, “The Rings of Power” narrative adopts a solemn and awestruck approach that feels in line with Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Jackson’s scripts, even if the direction — by J.A. Bayona and Wayne Che Yip in initial episodes, with Charlotte Brändström to follow in ones to come — is more serviceably sweeping than specific. As for production value, it’s not exactly surprising that the physical world-building and glittering, armored costumes rate so high given the show’s astronomical price tag, but it’s still refreshing to escape into an alternate world that feels more tangibly real than it does CGI creation. When the action does require a visual effect — for, say, an enormous, undulating sea monster creeping underneath a splintering raft — clearly no expense was spared in making it ring true and palpably ominous. (Though if you’re wondering whether “The Rings of Power” might be a friendlier option to watch with your kids than the unabashedly violent “House of the Dragon,” the answer is “Yes, as long as they can handle war and/or the occasional orc jump scare.”)
After the opening outlines centuries of Galadriel’s life and the catastrophic First Age war, the story arrives at a single crucial moment where several plotlines and characters across races can collide. Die-hard Tolkienists may bristle at the idea of the show condensing so much history, but layering the action this way is undeniably effective when building a television show. And frankly, given how many characters and how much Tolkienian material “The Rings of Power” has to get through, the season’s eight-hour run time (the equivalent of two Jackson extended editions) feels practically Spartan.
The first two episodes are admirably concise and compelling in their introductions. As written by McKay, Payne and Gennifer Hutchison (“Better Call Saul”), these initial chapters strike a sturdy balance among the warring, politics and everyday life defining the chosen era as they establish protagonists from every corner of Middle Earth and beyond. There are elves: Galadriel, High King Gil-galad (Benjamin Walker) and Elrond (Robert Aramayo, playing a much more affable version of the character than Hugo Weaving’s mature, or at least crankier, iteration in the films). There’s Nori (Markella Kavenagh), a restless Harfoot (i.e., a breed of Hobbit) who dreams of intrigue beyond her campground. There’s dwarf prince Durin IV (Owain Arthur) and wife Disa (Sophia Nomvete), as well as star-crossed would-be lovers Bronwyn (a stalwart human played by Nazanin Boniadi) and Arondir (a loyal elf played by Ismael Cruz Córdova). Eventually, even mythic “Lord of the Rings” figures Elendil (Lloyd Owens) and Isildur — the father and son whose demises lead to The One Ring’s survival — will join the party from the city of Númenor, whose grandeur is long gone by the time “The Hobbit” takes place.
In the first couple episodes, the elves’ arcs are by far the quickest to click into gear as the other characters end up in more supporting roles. Still, the beauty of spinning so many plates is that when one threatens to come crashing down, the show can simply move on to the next until it’s ready to pick up where it left off.
If there’s one story plate that stays remarkably steady, though, it’s Galadriel’s. From her weighty narration to her flinty determination to find Sauron and avenge her brother’s death, Clark’s take on one of the books’ most iconic figures has an arresting gravitas. Particularly in Galadriel’s testier moments — as when her friend Elrond suggests she’s chasing Sauron’s ghost rather than a real menace — Clark’s controlled face nonetheless betrays flashes of the roiling, righteous rage that will, thousands of years later, overflow in Frodo’s direction. When she’s paired with cocky outcast Halbrand (Charlie Vickers), her frustration cracks just enough to tease something resembling affection, or at least atypical amusement. Tasked with making Galadriel equal parts voice of reason and battling hero, Clark proves the series’ most reliable constant.
With a whopping 50 episodes reportedly planned, it’s hard at this point to say how successful “The Rings of Power” will ultimately be as a whole. There’s plenty of time for some plots to overstay their welcome as their paths intersect with more intriguing ones, or for the series’ overall narrative to get tangled in the weeds of Tolkien’s dense “Lord of the Rings” appendixes. For now, however, it’s safe to say that Amazon throwing the weight of its coffers at this property has resulted in a perfectly winning adaptation that unfolds swashbuckling adventures with clear reverence and affection for the considerable mythos behind it. As the series forges ahead, combining storylines and leaving literal translation from page to screen behind, it will be telling to see just how ably “The Rings of Power” can stay rooted in its venerable source material while, inevitably, bending it into something new.
“The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” premieres Thursday, September 1 at 6 pm PDT / 9 pm EDT on Amazon Prime Video.