The most expensive series of all time, one of the most anticipated in living memory, quite possibly also one of the most controversial. This is The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, the first two episodes of which you can watch on Amazon Prime Video starting yesterday. I watched them. And as a life-long fan of JRR Tolkien’s work, I come away fully enthralled, but only partially dazzled. Some scenes are absolutely unforgettable, while others I would forget about immediately.
A wonderful trip from the past
One thing needs to be emphasized at the outset: I have never seen a series that looks so opulent, so expensive, so luxuriously. I wasn’t one to particularly object to the visuals of The Wheel of Time, also from Amazon, but compared to The Rings of Power, it looks like a bunch of students were filming the adaptation of Robert Jordan’s books for a cell phone in 2010.
Everything is beautiful here. Lindon, seat of High King Gil-galad. Moria, from which the eyes pass. Even the ordinary scenes of the ordinary lives of ordinary people from the south – money clearly went not only into perfect computer effects, but also into costumes, sets and sets as such.
However, the prologue struck me the most. As in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, everything begins with a flashback far into the past, this time to Valinor, to the memories of young Galadriel – memories that reveal what I always wanted to see as a little boy with my nose buried in a certain blue-bound book, but all my life I was firmly convinced that I would never see it.
Two trees. Tirion on Tuna. The Sinking of Beleriand. Battles of the Noldor with Morgoth. Finrod Felagund, my favorite character in the entire Silmarillion. It may not look exactly how I always imagined it, but it doesn’t look much different either. And while the circle of sword-wielding elves doesn’t seem to represent Fëanor’s Oath (Finrod wouldn’t be among them), even though we didn’t really see Morgoth or Ungoliant, the prologue won me over.
The dragon sweeps the great eagle from the sky to a fiery death. Felagund cries out in despair amid the tumult. Another helmet lands on the pile. “We learned many words for death.”
Loss of momentum
The opening is as riveting as a balrog whip, but then the pace of the first episode slows down significantly, and I’m not sure that’s good for the series. Rings of Power tries to introduce various characters and their motivations, spends a lot of time on elven politics for some reason (Elrond is not allowed to come to the council because he is not an “elven lord” – what the hell are they allowing Eärendil’s son to do?). It is being decided whether the elven strike team will be able to sail back to Valinor as a reward. Elrond keeps humming the same thing to Galadriel and it almost seems like he’s flirting with her instead of showing proper respect for the older and, frankly, far more deserving elf. And the whole thing, in terms of dynamics, is starting to rub a little.
I’d never say I’d rather watch proto-hobbits than elves, but I have to admit the Hufflepuffs brought a welcome change of tone. Their opening scene demonstrating their ability to blend in and desire to avoid the “giants” business of the world out there at all costs is downright adorable, as is the sheer joy when they stumble upon (to them) gigantic brambles.
Of course, he also encounters the biggest mystery of the series, the Stranger from the Falling Star. And it’s a mystery crafted with absolute precision. You may notice scattered hints that his fiery arrival on the scene is very bad news for the world (and the poor fireflies, anyway)… But you’ll also notice hints that he might not be all bad after all. I am very curious to solve this puzzle.
I’m also curious to see where the story will go from the far south of Middle-earth, home to the descendants of the humans who once served the dark lord Morgoth, and the crew of elves who watch over them in case they think of doing something like that again. I’m not so interested in this story line because of the blossoming love between the elf Arondir and the human woman Bronwyn, I’m not even that fascinated by the strange evil sword with Sauron’s symbol. Rather, I think it’s really very clever how the creators show that humans and elves look at the world in a completely different way.
The elves have been patiently patrolling for tens, hundreds of years, because their enemies once lived in this region, many, many generations ago. And why not? Both Noldor and Sindar are willing to love and hate for thousands of years, a decade is like the blink of an eye to them. And then when the villagers in the south complain that they are being oppressed for the sins of their great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfathers, that it is not fair at all, their indignation and anti-elven xenophobia is very easy to understand. Do the elves have any idea that they are driving humans into the arms of the Enemy again?
Little bearded darlings
Another elf who apparently doesn’t quite understand how time flows differently for all those who aren’t immortal is Elrond. His long, rock-crushing reconciliation with the likable Prince Durin is one of the show’s highlights – the dwarves are generally excellently portrayed, whether as raucous, yowling spectators at a sacred ritual, or a mass of perfectly menacing, armored guards.
Elrond (and his new superior, the lord of the Eregion Celebrimbor) will need their help, and it looks like he’s won the sympathy of none other than Durin’s light-bearded wife Dísa. Not even when the flatterer blurts out lines like: “Where there is love, darkness never reigns. How would [ten strom] could he not have grown up in a house like this?” To write official speeches for the high kings of the Noldor in Middle-earth, you must have a very silky tongue in your mouth.
But with the dwarves it won’t be so easy to get after all. We all probably know very well what they have dug up in the depths of Khazad-dûm and where their greed will lead them…
Orcs good, raft not so much
So far we haven’t seen Númenor at all and haven’t met its inhabitants, which is a good thing when the series already seems a bit scattered at this point, as if it only occasionally manages to focus its attention on what is really important and interesting at that moment. But we did meet at least some shipwrecked sailors, led by a man named Halbrand… And I have to say that the whole naval intermezzo seemed to me to be perhaps the weakest part of the entire series.
Yes, it was amazingly filmed, especially when you know what the soaking wet actors had to go through to get the storm and sea worm fight scenes on the makeshift raft to our screens. But… Was there really something so fascinating going on there? Did all this wrestling with the elements tell me anything new about Halbrand or Galadriel? I’d say not even, that unlike other nicely shot moments that served the story, this was more of a technically well done tinsel. Although of course Halbrand’s reverse climb into the depths looks great.
Anyway, the goblins also look great, I’d say even better than in Lord of the Rings by Peter Jackson (I’d rather keep quiet about the CGI monstrosities from The Hobbit). The local spawn of Morgoth gives me the impression of real twistedness, malevolence, danger – too often in the film trilogy I felt that they were not sources of danger, but a bunch of total incompetents who are on the scene to be able to Aragorn with Legolas and Gimli what mow most efficiently. On the other hand, the version from the Rings of Power gives a very clear insight into why the elves in the First Age in Beleriand experienced so much horror at their hands.
The professor is not spinning in his grave
Even before its release, the series was accompanied by constant accusations of infidelity to the source material. They say it might even be good, it might look nice, but simply and well, it will never “be Tolkien”. After the first two volumes, I am convinced that I feel Tolkien – sometimes more, sometimes less.
First of all, it is necessary to say that we find ourselves in a different time, in a completely different situation than in the case of Lord of the Rings. The late Third Age is a period of decline, lost glory and heroic struggle against a much stronger enemy, while the Second Age is an age of growth, optimism, lust for life and building. Neither is “more” or “less” Tolkien, and it is foolish to expect the same atmosphere as in the film trilogy. If someone decided to adapt Children of Húrin, we’d get a psychological, existential tragedy about a few characters and it would be too Tolkien.
In terms of specific steps, the screenwriters, for example, are clearly aiming for stylized, lofty-sounding Tolkienian dialogues, statements that one would have Daeron’s runes tattooed on one’s forearm. Sometimes it works great, like with some of the aforementioned quotes, or when Arondir declares, “I’ve said it a hundred times, in every way but words.” Other times, especially during the oddly mundane conversations within elven society, I wasn’t so sure.
As for any major departures from established canon, I’ve only noticed a few that clearly contradict what Tolkien wrote, and I think the reasons for those changes are understandable. For example, Finrod’s motivation in the First Age was certainly not to “hunt Sauron”, but the story of Beren, Lúthien and Barahir would be hard to tell in the prologue. I also strongly doubt that Gil-galad had the slightest right to overturn the injunction to the Valar that Galadriel had imposed on herself through her decisions and which she only managed to wash away with the rejection of the One Ring in the Third Age. And enough has already been written about two Durins at once.
Of course, you will encounter a considerable amount of authorial invention here, which is inevitable, since Tolkien wrote very little about the Second Age. How you like the individual creative steps is a matter of personal preference – for example, I like the excellent rendition of the migrating Hairyfoots, which we knew from Tolkien were wandering somewhere, but we didn’t know how and where, on the contrary, a wall of light and rain on the way to Valinor the authors took perhaps too literally. But it may happen that you will have the exact opposite.
An upward trend?
What to write in conclusion? I’m happy with the first two parts, but I’m not exactly ecstatic. The quality of the dialogues seems slightly uneven, and some parts felt unnecessarily stretched – it’s a rather slow start, which doesn’t really tell us what to be afraid of. Goblin raids on southern villages? Black plagues? The guy on the meteor? I’m probably mainly afraid of the fact that I won’t remember a single piece of music from the entire series, since they seem quite interchangeable to me.
On the other hand, it all looks amazing, the actors are mostly great, I absolutely love the dwarves (especially their little petite prince), and a lot of the ideas, like the elf patrols in Tirharad or the structure of the wandering Hufflepuff society, feel like great, meaningful expansions to the canon. And if you’ve read anything about what’s to come in the Second Age, it’s probably clear that we’ll probably see that epicness and intensity as well…
Source: Games by games.tiscali.cz.
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