The Rings of Power: first impressions

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Spoilers are also present for The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, and other J.R.R. Tolkien works.

The Rings of Power – or to give it its full, clumsy title: The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power – got underway yesterday on Amazon Prime Video. As one of the shows I’d been most interested in all year, I tuned in almost as soon as the opening pair of episodes were available, curious to see what Amazon’s sky-high budget and years of planning could bring to the high fantasy genre.

For me, and doubtless for many other viewers as well, The Rings of Power simply cannot escape three massive sets of expectations. Firstly, the show has a legacy to live up to in the form of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. Secondly, as the first-ever “billion dollar” television show, The Rings of Power must demonstrate an ability to go above and beyond pretty much anything else present on the small screen. And finally, there are inevitable comparisons with the show that set the bar for multi-season serialised high fantasy television shows: Game of Thrones. I think it isn’t unfair to say that there hasn’t been a television project in a generation that finds itself under so much pressure to deliver.

Galadriel and Gil-Galad on a promotional poster for The Rings of Power.

As we discussed back in February when I previewed the series, some viewers have taken to pre-judging The Rings of Power. Partly there seems to be a bloody-mindedness in hoping that Amazon would fail, and there were definitely racially-motivated criticisms of some of the casting choices – something that’s been incredibly disappointing to see. But there are also some genuine concerns: could the series possibly live up to the legacies of one of the most successful film trilogies and one of the most influential television shows of the past twenty years? How would it fit in with the “established lore” of Tolkien’s Middle-earth? And more fundamentally, is there even a story here that’s worth telling?

Some folks seem to have arrived at their answers to these questions already, deciding that The Rings of Power is going to be irredeemably awful and taking to social media at every opportunity to denounce it to anyone who’d listen. In the past couple of days the show has even been subjected to a degree of review-bombing. But speaking for myself, I wanted to see The Rings of Power before rushing to judgement. While two episodes of an eight-episode season aren’t enough to paint a full picture, I feel like I can at least share my first impressions of the series with you today.

The Rings of Power has finally arrived.

I liked The Rings of Power. The acting performances were solid, the visual effects were competent, its aesthetic style harkened back to The Lord of the Rings films, and when the story got going it held my attention well enough that two episodes passed by in what felt like a matter of moments. As the credits rolled on the second episode, Adrift, I felt myself curiously interested to see what happens next.

The two-part premiere did a decent job at introducing us to what seems to be the primary characters whose stories The Rings of Power intends to follow. One of my criticisms of Game of Thrones back in 2011 was actually how dense its first few episodes felt; had I not binge-watched Season 1 I may actually have stopped watching the series, as keeping track of so many characters and storylines was pretty confusing. In that sense, The Rings of Power did a good job not to overwhelm viewers with too much all at once.

Lenny Henry as Sadoc, one of the Harfoots.

So I felt that The Rings of Power got off to a good start – but perhaps not a spectacular one. After two episodes, the show feels like it’s trying to play it safe; I didn’t note much by way of risk-taking that could take a decent, competent series and elevate it to the kind of phenomenon that The Lord of the Rings films or Game of Thrones became. By sticking relatively close to the visual style established by The Lord of the Rings, for example, The Rings of Power has tried to both find a ready-made identity and pluck at the nostalgic strings that its producers hope will bring in viewers in droves. But by re-using this aesthetic style, The Rings of Power has surrendered its opportunity to construct its own identity.

It’s also worth talking about the story framework that we saw in the premiere. The trope of a hero who finds evidence of an impending threat or disaster, only to be ignored by their superiors, may have been brand-new when Tolkien was writing in the first half of the twentieth century, but it doesn’t exactly make for a groundbreaking or unique story in 2022. Yet this is the outline of both Galadriel’s story with the Elves and, to an extent, Bronwyn’s story in the Southlands. A common trope like this doesn’t necessarily make for the strongest introduction to a new story.

Galadriel found herself opposed by Elrond and other Elves, despite presenting them with evidence of Sauron’s survival.

Though The Rings of Power did a solid job at introducing us to its main characters, there were definitely moments where I felt some background knowledge of Tolkien’s works was something that the series expected from its audience. These mainly concerned elements of backstory – who the villainous Morgoth is, what a Silmaril is, the relationship between factions like the Elves, Men, and Dwarves, and how Sauron fits into the story of a conflict between the peoples of Middle-earth and Morgoth. A very brief sequence at the beginning glossed over some of these points, but not in sufficient depth that a newcomer to the world of Middle-earth would find them easily understandable.

In terms of laying out the world of The Rings of Power, though, I felt that the series did a good job. After two episodes I feel that I understand who lives where, where locations are in relation to one another, and the layout of the world and the primary locations we’ve visited so far. The relatively simple construction of a map, shown on screen for no more than a few seconds at a time, actually ended up being a very effective tool for communicating these things, and I felt it worked well. The seamless transition from the map to the sea at one point was also a neat effect.

The inclusion of a map was a simple but effective visual tool.

Sticking with visual effects, there weren’t many in the first two episodes that I felt were sub-par. There were a few moments where the blending of real actors and sets with CGI backgrounds wasn’t entirely perfect, but those issues can be noticeable even in big-budget productions, and none of those handful of moments really pulled me out of the immersion. I’d particularly call attention to the “falling star” seen in A Shadow of the Past as one of the better CGI creations; it really managed to feel like a meteor of some kind was hurtling toward Middle-earth.

If I were to nitpick, I’d say that perhaps the physical fake snow used in the first part of A Shadow of the Past wasn’t particularly impressive, managing to have the same flat, non-reflective look of similar set dressings that have been in use for decades. The CGI snow used elsewhere in these sequences looked decent, but when Galadriel and her team were seen up close, there was a noticeable difference in texture. Otherwise, physical props and costumes used throughout the first pair of episodes were solid.

A closer look at the fake snow used in the season premiere.

One of the most interesting props is the darkly enchanted sword hilt that Theo uncovered. It’s fascinating from a story point of view, of course, and may well belong to Sauron or one of his most-important minions. But it manages to look fantastic on screen, too – a dark, intimidating design that seems to harken back to the image of Sauron in full armour from The Lord of the Rings films.

Speaking of harkening back to The Lord of the Rings: surely I’m not the only one who noticed that Halbrand actor Charlie Vickers was doing an almost over-the-top impersonation of Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn as he made his first appearance! The way his hair was styled, the way he held himself, and even the way he opened his mouth all felt like they had been carefully choreographed to mimic that iconic portrayal. Halbrand is not a canonical character from Tolkien’s works, and the aforementioned mimicry could be a deliberate red herring, but part of me thinks we’re going to learn that this character has some kind of connection to Aragorn in the episodes ahead!

Halbrand channelling his inner Aragorn…

Some of the battle and post-battle scenes early in the season premiere carried a very strong First World War influence, and I have to assume that was done deliberately. Tolkien was himself a veteran of that conflict, and its influence can be felt in the massive scale of the wars and battles that he created for The Lord of the Rings in particular. This level of destruction, with battlefields reduced to mud, trees stripped of all of their branches, and huge piles of bodies, also succeeded at communicating the scale of the Elves’ conflict against Morgoth and Sauron in a relatively short sequence that didn’t have time to go into a lot of detail, so as an effect it worked well.

Even a century on from the First World War, the way its battlefields looked is still seared into the minds of many people here in the west, and The Rings of Power took advantage of this to use a familiar visual cue to communicate, in a short sequence, just how destructive and devastating this war was as it set the stage for the story to follow.

Galadriel stands on a battlefield that feels reminiscent of the First World War.

A good television soundtrack is unobtrusive. It subtly tells audiences what emotional state certain characters are in, whether danger is just around the corner, or fills an otherwise-awkward gap during silent moments. While a theme tune can become iconic, the soundtrack of episodes themselves should be a relatively toned-down affair. The Rings of Power didn’t get this right, in my view, bringing an incredibly dominating soundtrack that, at several critically-important moments, seemed to hit levels rarely seen outside of soap operas.

The old-fashioned, heavy soundtrack came booming in during several crucial scenes, drawing attention away from the characters and the action instead of backing it up. This is obviously the opposite of what a good soundtrack should be doing, and there are criticisms of both the composition and the sound mixing in both of the first two episodes that I really shouldn’t be needing to make. When we’re at this level, these are some of the basic competencies that a television production should be pulling off flawlessly without even thinking.

One of the moments between Bronwyn and Arondir had music that was, for me at least, too heavy and intrusive.

I’m not a Tolkien super-fan, so I can’t be sure whether some of the dialogue in The Rings of Power has been lifted directly from works like The Silmarillion. But what I would say is that much of the language used in the first two episodes, particularly in scenes featuring the Elves, was very flowery and old-fashioned, as if it had been written decades ago. That was almost certainly intentional, perhaps to tie in with Tolkien’s own writing style or perhaps to give The Rings of Power a “classiness” or even just to distinguish it from other modern shows. However, the effectiveness of this kind of flowery, old-fashioned language is very much a subjective thing, and how well it will work isn’t exactly clear at this early stage.

Some of the lines of dialogue in the first two episodes felt scripted and clumsy – partly as a result of this choice of language – and while I didn’t feel knocked out of my immersion once I got used to it, it was definitely something that took a little getting used to. In any work of fantasy, actors have to work hard to make strange and unusual words and phrases seem normal, but that really isn’t the issue in this case. I can easily accept conversations about warp cores in Star Trek or dragons in Game of Thrones, but here in The Rings of Power, choices as far back as the scriptwriting stage made otherwise innocuous or basic conversations feel almost stilted, as if the production itself, despite its modern visual style and impressive CGI work, was from a much earlier era. For some fans, that’ll make The Rings of Power feel even better. For others… I think it has the potential to detract from the story.

There were several clunky or unnatural-sounding lines of dialogue in the opening two episodes.

As I said, though, once my ears had acclimatised to this way of speaking I didn’t feel it was horribly awkward – but it’s worth noting that, at least for me, it was something that took some getting used to before I could fully immerse myself in Middle-earth. Perhaps I should’ve re-watched The Lord of the Rings before watching The Rings of Power, because now I can’t really remember whether this issue of flowery, old-fashioned language was present to the same degree. I don’t remember it ever being a problem, and I regard that trilogy as one of the best ever brought to screen. But it would be interesting to take a look and compare!

So let’s talk story. Although I find myself curiously interested to see where The Rings of Power goes next and how it will weave its disparate narrative threads together, I don’t feel absolutely gripped by the story after the first two episodes. I’m not desperately awaiting next Friday in the way I can be for new episodes of Star Trek, or in the way I was for Game of Thrones or even shows like Lost.

The Elves of Lindon.

I think partly this is because of the “prequel problem” that I’ve talked about here on the website on more than one occasion. In short, we know where these characters will go and what the ultimate outcome of this story will be. There’s no real sense that Galadriel will ever be in serious danger – because we know she survives for another four thousand years after the events of The Rings of Power. While the series is doing its own thing to an extent by introducing new characters and telling its own story, it’s also billing itself as being firmly set in the world of The Lord of the Rings – heck, that’s the first part of the show’s title. So given that we know the story of The Lord of the Rings and how characters like Elrond, Galadriel, and Sauron fit into it, it’s difficult for The Rings of Power to really reach out and grab me in the same way as a new story with an unknown outcome could.

When we look at The Silmarillion and other Middle-earth books set millennia before The Lord of the Rings, one of the key points is that the characters involved don’t know who Sauron is, whether he’s still around, whether he can come back, etc. But as the audience watching The Rings of Power, we know how this ends: Sauron returns, raises an army, and it takes an alliance of Men, Elves, and Dwarves to defeat him on the slopes of Mount Doom – as seen in the introduction to the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring. Knowing what’s coming robs a story like this of at least some of the tension and excitement, and while it can still be fun to see how the characters arrive at their ending points, we know the destination.

Sauron’s presence looms large over the story.

Even someone like me – and I’m no super-fan of Tolkien by any stretch – knows the basic outline of the story of Sauron’s rise and fall in this era, and just like other famous prequels have struggled to keep up the tension and excitement, I feel that the same issue is already hampering The Rings of Power – at least to an extent. The fates of characters like Nori, Bronwyn, Arondir, and Halbrand are definitely up in the air and ripe for exploration, and I’m absolutely interested to see what comes next for them. But characters like Galadriel, Elrond, Celebrimbor, Durin, and Gil-Galad have their futures written.

Overall, though, the first pair of episodes did a good job at setting up this idea of a slowly-awakening evil; a gathering storm. We saw the slow build-up to the discovery of Sauron’s survival through Galadriel’s eyes, then saw how the Southlands are slowly being corrupted and attacked by Orcs in the stories of Bronwyn and Arondir. The proto-Hobbit Harfoots also had comments to make on the unusual goings-on in Middle-earth, and of course were present for the “falling star” that brought a character currently known as the Stranger into the story. The idea that the world is on the edge of some drastic changes, and that the ruling Elves are oblivious or perhaps wilfully blind to these problems was well-established and conveyed through these different storylines. The latter part – leaders ignoring or trying to downplay serious problems – feels rather timely at the moment, too!

The “shooting star.”

I definitely felt Galadriel’s frustration at being dismissed by Elrond and Gil-Galad, and I think that’s a testament to some strong performances from Morfydd Clark, Robert Aramayo, and Benjamin Walker. Though I called this setup a trope earlier, there’s no denying that it works in this context. The aloof presentation of the High Elves gives their leaders an arrogance that absolutely succeeded at getting me firmly on Galadriel’s side. While again this isn’t something that can be said to be unique to The Rings of Power (look at how the Vulcans are portrayed in Star Trek: Enterprise, for instance) it was pitch-perfect in the way it was deployed.

The sequences at sea with Galadriel, Halbrand, and (briefly) Halbrand’s companions were among the best in the premiere. I’m not certain how or where this was filmed, but the water was so incredibly realistic, managing to look like deep ocean instead of a shallow sea or pool – and this one visual cue did so much to ramp up the tension as the duo survived an attack by a sea monster. The dark water felt dangerous, not only because of what it was hiding but because deep water like that is usually only seen far from land. Look at how films like The Bounty use this same deep water effect to signal how isolated and far from safety characters are; The Rings of Power really did a great job here.

Galadriel and Halbarad’s raft.

And these scenes with Halbrand and Galadriel also took the story in somewhat of a different direction. Galadriel’s choice to swim back to Middle-earth could have been a simple one, perhaps even one that was resolved off-screen, but putting her in this “shipwrecked” situation was a definite change of pace for a character who had been on a mission.

The Harfoots’ camp recaptured at least some of the idealised, pastoral feel of the Shire in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Showing how the Harfoots live in a temporary camp, migrating with the seasons, was a neat addition that made it feel even older, somehow – like some depictions of Native Americans prior to European colonisation.

The Harfoots’ encampment.

Within that framework we got the traditionalist Harfoots to contrast with the more adventurous Nori; her story was set up well enough by leading some of the camp’s children to a berry bush, but I didn’t feel that the danger posed by a wolf was properly paid off – though I suppose it’s something that could be revisited in later episodes, the wolf’s presence was very brief and although it did feel like a threat to the diminutive Harfoots, it seemed to be rushed past and quickly forgotten by a story that had other priorities.

Nori’s relationship with the Stranger is still something that The Rings of Power is building up – beautifully, in my view. Her care for this mysterious giant who fell from the sky humanises her and takes her from being a somewhat rebellious child to someone that I’m sure we’ll be able to get behind as the story progresses. Although I’m sure there’s a lot of speculation as to the identity of the Stranger, I felt that the impact crater and fire seemed to resemble an eye – and a flaming eye definitely carries with it memories of a certain Dark Lord!

Am I overreaching, or does this look like “a lidless eye wreathed in flame” to you?

Of all the settings we’ve seen so far in The Rings of Power, none felt quite so familiar as the Dwarves’ mountain home of Khazad-dûm. We’d spent a lot of time with Dwarven mines in The Lord of the Rings and particularly in The Hobbit trilogy, and The Rings of Power seems to borrow heavily from those projects in practically every way. From the design of the Dwarves themselves all the way to the aesthetic of their subterranean kingdom, The Rings of Power really succeeded at recapturing how the Dwarves have been presented in the past.

It was also in Khazad-dûm that I felt The Rings of Power beginning some of its more delicate and character-driven storylines. Stories focusing on Arondir and Galadriel feel epic in scale because of their focus on this growing darkness and the impact it will have on Middle-earth, but the conflict between Elrond and Prince Durin brought The Rings of Power back down to an understandable level. Durin was upset that Elrond, a long-lived Elf, had simply disappeared from his life for such a long time – and it took Elrond a moment to fully grasp that. For me at least, this became one of the best and certainly most-relatable storylines in the opening pair of episodes.

Elrond and Durin’s falling-out went a long way to bringing the story of The Rings of Power down to a relatable level.

The Rings of Power is off to a good start – but not a great one. Visually, the series is well-made. It borrows from The Lord of the Rings in many ways, but it also incorporates new design elements that help it feel distinct; part of the same world, but not a carbon copy of what came before. There were definitely some issues with the soundtrack and sound mixing that shouldn’t be present in a series that aims to compete at this level, and that’s something I hope can be addressed promptly. There have been some wonderful moments of characterisation that really pulled me in… and a handful of others that weren’t quite reaching that same high bar. Overall, I’d say that the series has left a good first impression and I’m happy to return to it next week to pick up the story. But I’m unlikely to be spending much time between now and then speculating, theory-crafting, or even really just thinking about The Rings of Power very much.

Am I nitpicking too much or being too harsh on The Rings of Power? Well, that’s up to you to decide. But what I will say is this: The Rings of Power is the most expensive television series ever created, and that brings with it expectations in terms of quality that basic competence doesn’t cover. Moreover, as much as I want to judge The Rings of Power entirely on its own merits, by very deliberately leaning into The Lord of the Rings films, the show has invited comparisons to that trilogy – and other works in the high fantasy genre.

What’s going to happen next in The Rings of Power?

I’m glad that I gave The Rings of Power a fair shake and didn’t make a snap judgement. Although I can understand a certain amount of schadenfreude at wanting to see a massive corporation like Amazon meet with financial and critical failure, speaking for myself what I really want to see is another success in the high fantasy genre. I don’t want The Rings of Power to be disappointing – I want it to be entertaining! The first episodes, while they had some issues that I’ve tried to elaborate on, broadly speaking managed to entertain me, and I came away from them feeling satisfied with what I’d seen.

I’m hopeful that The Rings of Power now has a foundation upon which to build a successful series. With five seasons having been planned – and potentially somewhat of a soft reboot coming in Season 2 thanks to a change in filming locations – there’s a long story to get stuck into, one that, like Game of Thrones before it, will unfold over the next few years. There’s time for some of the production’s weaker elements to be addressed, even if it doesn’t happen this season. Whether The Rings of Power will still be talked about in the same breath as Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings by future audiences… well, that’s still an open question. But it feels as though all of the elements exist for this series to reach those high bars. I genuinely hope that it will.

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is available to stream now on Amazon Prime Video. The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is the copyright of Amazon Studios, New Line Cinema, and Amazon. The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and other works mentioned above are the copyright of the Tolkien Estate. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Looking ahead to The Rings of Power

Spoiler Warning: There are minor spoilers ahead for The Lord of the Rings films and for The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

It’s been several years since Amazon announced that it had purchased the rights to make a television series based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s work. In that time, the corporation has kept a tight lid on the show’s progress, and very little news has trickled out. However, with the series aiming to premiere later this year, Amazon has kick-started the marketing push! After the show’s actual name was finally revealed a couple of weeks ago, we got a few different poster designs, and then a few images featuring some of the cast, before the first official teaser trailer made its debut a few days ago.

Today I thought it could be interesting to look at what’s been revealed and teased so far, and see what we might be able to gleam about The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. This is going to be the most expensive television series ever created, and was greenlit out of the gate for five seasons. Intended to be Amazon’s answer to Game of Thrones, the show aims to build on the renewed success that the high fantasy genre has been experiencing. Based on Amazon’s financial commitment we should be in for a series with high production values and great visuals – one which can push boundaries and set a new high bar for television in general. That might sound like I’m asking for too much, but with a billion dollars on the line and competitors like Disney doing some incredible things with visual effects on streaming shows like The Book of Boba Fett, anything less would be underwhelming in the extreme.

Morfydd Clark as Galadriel in a promotional image.

First up, let’s talk about the title. I’m sorry, but The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is an incredibly clunky, unwieldy title for a television series. In its short form, I guess we’ll be referring to the series as The Rings of Power, which is better! But the first thing that struck me was that it wasn’t a particularly inspired or original title. It frames the new series entirely around the rings Sauron had made for the Elves, Dwarves, and Men of Middle-earth, and that seems to take the series back to the familiar story that we’ve already seen play out.

Rather than this prequel using Tolkien’s work as a base for building its own story, the title seems to suggest that we’re really going to be seeing earlier chapters in the story we already know. There was scope, when stepping back literally thousands of years, to do something different. Early rumours suggested that the series might look at the rise and fall of Númenor, one of the kingdoms of Middle-earth that was extinct by the time of The Lord of the Rings, and while Númenor’s story may indeed play a role, the title of the series now suggests that we’re really going to be focusing more on Sauron and his rise to power.

Is this Númenor?

Such a focus makes The Rings of Power more of a direct prequel to the events of The Lord of the Rings and less of an expansion of Middle-earth and Tolkien’s work on the small screen. That isn’t to say it will be bad as a result – but The Rings of Power will be confronted by the typical “prequel problem” that many such productions face: namely, we already know how this story ends. We’ve already seen what is arguably the more interesting part… so just convincing people to stick around and see what came before is automatically a challenge for The Rings of Power to surmount, one that wouldn’t have been present if the series had been structured differently.

Over the past few years since Amazon announced this project, I’ve heard a lot of people saying that the corporation shouldn’t be using the placeholder title “The Lord of the Rings on Prime” because the new series isn’t going to be about The Lord of the Rings. But it now seems that it actually is going to be all about the One Ring, Sauron, and his rise and fall. I’m not the only one who had been expecting the series to go in a different direction, and I think that the decision to stick closer to the established, familiar story represents a lack of boldness on Amazon’s part. Having spent all of this money for the rights to Middle-earth, there may have been a fear that steering away from established characters and storylines would be detrimental to the show’s prospects.

The character of Bronwyn – a healer and single mother, played by Nazanin Boniadi – was created for The Rings of Power.

On the flip side, I’ve heard fears from some fans that The Rings of Power will stray too far from Tolkien’s stories, so I guess there’s no way to satisfy everyone! For those folks, though, I would suggest that the title of the series, and the fact that characters like Elrond, Galadriel, and others will play significant roles means that it can’t be diverting too far away from storylines we might be familiar with.

It’s been a long time since I read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, and I don’t claim to be a Tolkien super-fan who knows all of the ins and outs of Middle-earth and the stories set there. So from my point of view, if the show’s central story arcs are engaging and exciting, they can dip in and out of the so-called “established canon” of Tolkien’s world at will. The same applied in some respects to Game of Thrones, a series which moved progressively further away from its source material season by season. If the stories continue to be well-written and entertaining, and the world populated by fun characters, that’s going to go a long way to making up for any deviations from the stories Tolkien wrote.

Charging horses seen in the teaser trailer.

In terms of the look of The Rings of Power, there’s definitely a heavy influence from the Peter Jackson films. I noted in the poster of King Durin in particular that the Dwarves seem to be modelled on those we remember from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. In other areas, The Rings of Power has seemed to move away and begin to chart its own course, but this will likely be a balancing act that the series will need to keep up for its entire five seasons. New showrunners, designers, and other creatives will always want to stamp their mark on their creation, but if Amazon is banking on fans of The Lord of the Rings films turning up in droves – and nostalgia for those films being a driving force – then it makes sense to expect to see many familiar visual elements.

There will be a marked change after Season 1, though, with production moving from New Zealand to the UK. New Zealand has become practically synonymous with Middle-earth for many folks because of The Lord of the Rings being produced there, and the country has even traded on that, using Middle-earth to bring in tourism. Unfortunately it’s the fault of the pandemic that production had to be moved, but we won’t see the consequences of that – in either a positive or negative sense – until next year. It’s possible, in my view, that if Season 1 is deemed underwhelming the second season could be a soft reboot, changing up the look and feel of the series. Time will tell!

Robert Aramayo as Elrond and Morfydd Clark as Galadriel.

The trailer itself was action-packed and looks exciting. We saw different races (Men, Dwarves, and Elves) featured, as well as a few magical creatures and CGI monsters that I confess I’m not familiar with. But the whole thing was well constructed and cut together, and I think it showed off a diversity of characters and locations without revealing too many spoilers or too much about the potential storylines. It was a tease to get viewers interested, and I think it largely succeeded in that regard.

I noted what could be either a sinking ship or, perhaps, the sinking/destruction of the island of Númenor among the clips in the trailer, something that was also shown off in one of the behind-the-scenes photos. There was also what appeared to be a large battle taking place; this can’t be the climactic battle between Sauron and the Last Alliance, surely, because it was that battle that led to Sauron’s defeat and the loss of the One Ring. So I assume that this battle is taking place somewhere else between different groups of forces.

A battle scene from the teaser trailer.

There is definitely a contingent of people who want to see The Rings of Power fail, either because they dislike Amazon in a general sense, or because they see The Rings of Power as moving too far away from their understanding of Tolkien’s works. Personally, I don’t think it’s fair to pre-judge the series at this stage, with a one-minute-long teaser and a handful of photos being all we’ve seen, and I’d encourage everyone to try to lower the temperature in some of these discussions. There’s definitely a racial edge to some of the attacks I’ve seen thrown at The Rings of Power, with some so-called “fans” decrying the inclusion of non-white performers.

Because of Amazon’s status as one of the biggest companies in the world, I guess I can understand the bloody-mindedness of wanting to see it fail – even though it isn’t a sentiment I share. But to have decided already, months before the premiere, that The Rings of Power is somehow going to be unenjoyable – particularly if one of the primary reasons for thinking that way is because non-white actors are in it – seems utterly ridiculous to me. For some of these so-called “fans” to be actively willing the series to fail because it isn’t as white as they wish it would be is just pathetic.

The Rings of Power is coming soon.

As a fan of fantasy, and as someone who has enjoyed Tolkien’s work since I first read The Hobbit before I was ten years old, I want to enjoy The Rings of Power and for it to be an enjoyable and entertaining ride. Some of Amazon’s past productions in the sci-fi and fantasy genres – like The Expanse and The Wheel of Time – have been great, and while this project is certainly bigger and more ambitious, and thus has farther to fall if it doesn’t work, the potential exists for a fantasy series that could be on par with, or even eclipse, those early seasons of Game of Thrones. Amazon certainly has precedent and knows how to make some excellent television shows.

But I will judge the series on its merits when it’s here, and if I review it either as a whole season or as individual episodes I’ll be sure to give my honest thoughts and opinions at the time. I’m not a cheerleader for Amazon, but I’m certainly not going to go on the attack this early on. In my view, the trailer and photos show promise. Everything from costumes and set design to CGI work looked impressive, and The Rings of Power should be on course to make good use of its high budget in that regard. Whether the show’s writing, pacing, editing, acting performances, and the like are up to scratch… the jury is still out and we won’t know until September! But anyone pre-judging the series this early is, in my view, misguided.

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power will premiere on Amazon Prime Video in September. The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is the copyright of Amazon, and The Lord of the Rings, Middle-earth, and other properties are the copyright of the Tolkien Estate. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Thoughts on a potential Mass Effect television series

Spoiler Warning: There are minor spoilers present for the Mass Effect trilogy.

Have you heard the latest rumour? Amazon is apparently very close to securing a deal to make a television series based on the Mass Effect video game franchise. I thought it could be fun to discuss this rumour – given that it seems to be close to being officially confirmed – as well as the merits of big-budget television shows in general.

Many film adaptations of video game properties have proven to be disappointing. There are a number of reasons why that’s the case, and it varies from project to project, but one thing absolutely worth considering is the fundamental, irreconcilable difference between how long the average film lasts and how long the average video game lasts.

1993’s Super Mario Bros. is an… interesting film.

Many video games – especially those with strong stories, like the Mass Effect series has – can require many, many hours of playtime. Despite what I said a moment ago, there really isn’t such a thing as an “average” video game length; it can vary from a couple of hours all the way to dozens or even more than a hundred. But most video games that have seen disappointing film adaptations in recent years have been these kinds of long, story-driven titles – and condensing a whole video game’s worth of story into a two-hour film is difficult to get right.

This is also the problem a lot of novel adaptations face, so much so that “the book was better than the film” has become an overused cliché! Even adaptations that have been widely praised overall – like the Harry Potter series, for instance – had to make significant story cuts to squeeze an entire book’s worth of plot into a standard cinematic runtime. Exceptions exist, of course, and the Lord of the Rings films from a few years ago are an example. But in that case, the extended editions of the films are widely considered to be superior to the shorter theatrical cuts, and the extended edition of the trilogy clocks in at well over eleven hours long.

The Lord of the Rings films are an exception to the rule!

What I’m trying to say is that a story like Mass Effect will be far better served by a television series adaptation than it would’ve been by a film adaptation. If it’s true that this is the route Amazon wants to go down, I’ll be very interested to see what will become of the project in the months and years ahead.

In the aftermath of big serialised shows like Lost and Game of Thrones, audiences have become used to story arcs that run across multiple seasons, something that would be a perfect fit for a long story like the one seen in the Mass Effect games. Even just the original story of Mass Effect 1 could itself be two seasons’ worth of television without feeling padded or bloated, so there’s potential in this project to really bring the Mass Effect galaxy to life.

Saren, the main villain of Mass Effect 1.

Amazon is still a relative newcomer to the television series game, but the company has already got an impressive track record. Shows like The Man in the High Castle and Jack Ryan were great, The Wheel of Time, which debuted just last week, is off to a fabulous start, and the company also picked up The Expanse following its cancellation, putting out two amazing seasons of the show so far. Amazon has also played host to Star Trek: Picard and Star Trek: Lower Decks, giving Prime Video a solid lineup in the sci-fi and fantasy genres. And we haven’t even mentioned the upcoming Lord of the Rings series!

Projects like The Lord of the Rings have demonstrated Amazon’s willingness to spend vast sums of money on their television shows, and if they do pursue a Mass Effect series, I would hope they’d be willing to invest there too. One of the great things about the Mass Effect galaxy is how “alien-feeling” some of its non-human races are. Races like the volus, hanar, and krogan were able to be created for the video game series because the animators weren’t limited by the need to use human actors – and recreating those races for the small screen will be a challenge.

Bringing a hanar to the screen in a live-action series will be a challenge!

I don’t like to speak ill of Star Trek, but in that respect I think Mass Effect actually gives the franchise a run for its money! Many alien races in Star Trek – and other live-action sci-fi shows and films too – are naturally limited by using human actors. There have been some very different-looking aliens, of course, but the majority of the main cast are humanoid, something that’s also true of Star Wars. Mass Effect shook that up with races like the krogan being part of the player’s crew from the very first game, and I’d be curious to see how well that would work in a live-action production.

The story of the Mass Effect trilogy, with Commander Shepard on a quest to save the galaxy from the Reapers, would be absolutely fascinating to see retold as a television show! It would definitely need multiple seasons to do justice to such a long story (my playthrough earlier in the year of Mass Effect: Legendary Edition clocked in at almost 80 hours) but I think it could be done exceptionally well.

I recently replayed the Mass Effect trilogy.

Some fans have expressed concern about retelling the story of the Mass Effect trilogy. Not only would doing so mean recasting characters that fans have come to know and love, but it would also mean setting in stone a number of key decisions which form the core of the games’ role-playing and branching storylines.

On the first point, I think that we’ve seen so many franchises recast key characters over the years that I’m not particularly worried. In Star Trek we’ve had characters like Spock go through three iterations at this point, and while many fans have a favourite portrayal, I don’t think anyone disagrees that all three versions of the character work as intended in their various stories. Just like many actors have played roles like Hamlet or Richard III over the years, there’s room for more than one actor to play Commander Shepard. Heck, the original Mass Effect games already have two Commander Shepards – a male and female version of the character!

There are already different Commander Shepards…

On the second point, the Mass Effect galaxy absolutely feels like a vast setting in which different stories could be told. The story of the Reaper War is exciting and I think would make for engrossing television, but equally a Mass Effect television show could tell an original story in the same setting. Amazon is doing precisely this with its Lord of the Rings adaptation – the new show won’t be a retelling of the books nor a remake of the films, but a prequel set millennia earlier.

There’s huge potential in a Mass Effect television series, and there are many different ways to jump into the setting and tell stories. It wouldn’t have to be a straight adaptation of the video games and Commander Shepard’s story, because there are so many other stories out there in the Mass Effect galaxy. But at the same time, why not? The Reaper War is one of the best sci-fi stories I’ve seen in many years, and even though its rushed and imperfect final act did put a downer on things, that’s something that a television series could actually fix. An adaptation doesn’t have to be a like-for-like copy, so there’s scope to go back into the story and fix things that didn’t go to plan in the original games.

So watch this space! The rumour mill suggests that an announcement may be imminent, and while I don’t have “sources” of my own, I’m picking up this story from a number of different outlets – some of which are more reliable than others! For my two cents, I think a series like Mass Effect would work far better as a television series than a film, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed. If and when we get any major news be sure to check back as I may have more to say.

The Mass Effect series is the copyright of Electronic Arts and BioWare. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

The Amazon buyout of MGM is another blow to cinemas

We’ve recently talked about how the pandemic may have a long-term impact on cinema attendance and the box office, with many folks getting used to the convenience and practicality of streaming big blockbusters at home. But it seems cinemas just can’t catch a break, because it was recently announced that Amazon will be buying legendary Hollywood studio MGM.

Make no mistake, this is all about streaming. Amazon Prime Video looks set to benefit greatly from this acquisition, helping the service compete with the likes of Netflix and Paramount+ in terms of films. Though Amazon does have its own film studio, and has had a hand in titles like the Academy Award-winning Manchester By The Sea, most films available to stream via Amazon Prime Video were licensed from other companies. As more and more companies try to launch their own streaming platforms, these licensing deals are increasingly difficult (and expensive) for the likes of Netflix and Amazon, so finding ways to get their own in-house content is hugely important.

Buying MGM will enable Amazon to add a huge library of titles to its Prime Video streaming service.

Netflix has branched out into making more and more of its own original films – for better or worse! But Amazon is one of the world’s largest and most successful companies, having grown massively during the last year, and can throw its money around to buy up studios – and the rights to properties like The Lord of the Rings. We’ve recently seen Microsoft do something similar in the gaming realm, buying up Bethesda and adding that studio’s games to Xbox Game Pass. Amazon is doing the same thing with MGM.

I’ve seen some outlets trying to make the case that this is Amazon further diversifying its business model. What began as an online bookseller in the mid-1990s has grown to sell practically everything and has involvements and holdings in industries as far apart as space technology and baby nappies. But this MGM acquisition is not about diversification. Amazon doesn’t want to break into the film distribution market any more than they’re already involved; they want films, both old and new, to add to Amazon Prime Video for the sole purpose of driving more subscriptions. It’s that simple.

Amazon announced a deal to buy famed American film studio MGM for $8.45 billion.

This is a hammer blow for cinemas and cinema chains already reeling from the pandemic and associated closures and cancellations. We’ve already seen many films that would otherwise have received a theatrical release go direct-to-streaming, and Amazon’s acquisition of MGM comes with the real threat of all future MGM titles following suit. There aren’t many studios the size of MGM, releasing multiple high-budget titles per year, so this is a coup for Amazon.

Upcoming titles like the sequel to Tomb Raider, Legally Blonde III, Soggy Bottom, and House of Gucci would have all been draws at reopened cinemas around the world, but their theatrical releases are now in doubt. And that’s before we even consider one of the biggest upcoming MGM titles (at least from a UK perspective!) No Time To Die, the latest instalment in the James Bond series.

No Time To Die may still manage a theatrical release… or it may not.

It’s not unfair in the slightest to say that British cinemas have been desperately waiting for No Time To Die’s release, as no other upcoming film has quite as much potential to bring audiences back after well over a year of closures, lockdowns, and cancelled titles. Even the mere threat of No Time To Die going direct to streaming is enough to make a lot of people involved in the UK cinema industry very nervous, and I’m not sure we can rely on promises that the film will still meet its planned theatrical release in September – especially if the pandemic causes further disruption in the months ahead.

As I said when Microsoft acquired Bethesda, companies don’t spend these vast sums of money and expect nothing in return. With Amazon making this move to shore up and expand its library of streaming titles, any future MGM release now has the potential to end up on Amazon Prime Video either exclusively or alongside a release in cinemas. Even if imminent titles like No Time To Die meet their theatrical obligations – which will almost certainly be due to pre-existing contracts if it happens – future titles, both announced and unannounced, are almost certain to join Amazon’s streaming line-up. In short, cinemas may get a temporary reprieve from the fallout of this acquisition, but it won’t last much beyond the end of 2021.

Amazon will be expecting a serious return on such an expensive investment – and that’s all focused on streaming.

The way people consume media has been changing for years. The pandemic may have accelerated some of those changes to light-speed, but it isn’t the fundamental cause of a shift in audiences away from cinemas and broadcast television to online on-demand streaming. Just like the pandemic isn’t the root cause of problems with many high street shops, it can’t be blamed for people moving en masse toward an all-digital streaming future. The future of companies like MGM is in the digital space, and unfortunately for cinemas that means fewer films, smaller audiences, and growing irrelevance as bigger titles bypass a theatrical release altogether. Even in the pre-pandemic years, going to the cinema had become, for many folks, an occasional treat rather than a regular outing, and this move is simply a reflection of the changing way in which people choose to watch films.

Amazon’s acquisition of MGM is a big deal, but it’s unlikely to be the last such move as the so-called “streaming wars” look for new battlefields. It isn’t yet clear how many streaming services people are willing to put up with, nor which will ultimately survive, so it seems inevitable that more big studios and distributors will eventually team up with – or be bought out by – other big players in the streaming landscape. None of which is particularly pro-consumer, it has to be said, but then again I’d rather see MGM films go to Amazon Prime Video – a streaming service I already have access to – than wait for MGM to set up their own “MGM Plus” or whatever they would’ve called it!

It’s a serious blow to cinemas in the medium-to-long-term, even if some titles scheduled for this year will still get a full theatrical release. But will audiences really care? As I said last time, the shift away from the cinema had already set in long before the pandemic struck, and with film studios and audiences alike having discovered the many advantages of at-home streaming, it seems like we’ll be seeing a lot more of this type of acquisition or merger in the months and years ahead, with many more films going direct-to-streaming in the very near future. MGM may be one of the biggest so far, but it won’t be the last. Cinema chains and owners are already feeling the effects.

All titles mentioned above are the copyright and/or trademark of their respective owner, studio, company, distributor, etc. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Have we seen an unstoppable shift away from the cinema?

One of the consequences of the pandemic has been the long-term closure of many cinemas (movie theaters for my American readers). Aside from a short respite last July and August, most cinemas here in the UK have been shut since March 2020 – for well over a year now. Some, like a local independent cinema near me, have had no choice but to close permanently, even with the end of lockdown seemingly in sight. Even when cinemas are able to reopen, limits on capacity due to social distancing, the general unease among many people about sitting in a room with dozens of strangers with the pandemic still ongoing, and most significantly, the lack of major film releases in the near term will – in my opinion, at least – most likely mean it will be a long time before things are able to get back to normal.

But will things ever get back to normal? That’s the question I want to ask today.

Will empty cinemas be full again one day?

In the early days of the pandemic, most films scheduled for release in spring or summer 2020 were simply postponed; their release dates pushed back by a few months so that they could be released to full crowds when lockdowns were lifted in their key markets. But as the pandemic has dragged on and on, film studios have begun to switch the way they release many big titles – opting to send them to streaming platforms rather than wait.

Without Remorse was originally supposed to get a theatrical release, but premiered on Amazon Prime Video instead. Raya and the Last Dragon went directly to Disney+. Then there are titles like Zack Snyder’s Justice League, Mulan, The Little Things, Godzilla vs. Kong, Bill & Ted Face The Music, News of the World, and Tom & Jerry. Upcoming titles such as Jungle Cruise, Space Jam: A New Legacy, Black Widow, Malignant, and A Quiet Place II are all going to either be released directly on streaming or with a limited theatrical run at the same time as going straight to streaming.

Animated film Raya and the Last Dragon went straight to Disney+ earlier in the year.

Is this a one-time thing, purely caused by the pandemic? And if it is, will audiences be happy to return to cinemas once the pandemic has cleared and they can fully reopen? If you’d asked me in March or April last year, I’d have said yes to both questions without hesitation. But now I’m not so sure.

There are a lot of advantages to streaming compared to going to the cinema, and as more and more people come to see those advantages, the cinema becomes a less-attractive option in contrast. This trend is not new – cinema attendance has declined a lot from where it was a few decades ago, and with the rise of high-quality television series which can rival and even surpass films in many cases, this is a reckoning that cinemas have had coming for a while. The pandemic has accelerated that to light-speed, but the trend has been going in this direction for a while.

Paramount+ is one of many competing streaming platforms that have arguably benefited from the forced closure of cinemas during the pandemic.

So what are the supposed advantages of at-home streaming? The first has to be convenience. Viewers can watch what they want on their own schedule, with the ability to pause a film to take a phone call or go to the bathroom, watching before or after work, or even late at night. It’s possible to watch with subtitles, audio description, director commentaries, and even watch in other languages. Most folks are more comfortable in their own homes than they are in a cinema chair – even the nicest cinema seats aren’t as pleasant as a comfy armchair or couch. There are no distractions from (other people’s) noisy kids, people munching popcorn, or idiots on their phones. You don’t have to sit through half an hour of adverts and trailers to get to the film. If you’re using a phone or tablet it’s possible to watch on the go, or literally anywhere. And some of the things we might’ve considered to be disadvantages a few years ago – such as screen size, resolution, and audio quality – are all easily surmountable even for folks on a limited budget.

Obviously not all of these points apply in every single case, but as a general rule, as screens get bigger and better, the need to watch something in the cinema is dropping. The old adage that a particular film was “better in the cinema” or “made for cinemas” no longer applies in many cases.

Amazon Prime Video have snapped up a number of films that couldn’t get a theatrical release this year – including Without Remorse.

I have a relatively inexpensive 4K television that doesn’t have OLED or HDR or any of those higher-end features, just a bog-standard LED set. But this model, even when I was buying it a few years ago, only started at a 40-inch screen size, with sizes going all the way up to 60″ or 65″. Nowadays, 85″ and 90″ sets are on the market and within reach of many consumers. Sound bars and speakers that put out fantastic quality audio are equally affordable, with prices dropping massively from where they had been when 4K and large screens were new. Even on my cheap and cheerful set, films look great. And if you sit reasonably close, it really does feel akin to being in the cinema – in the comfort of my own home.

It’s difficult, in my opinion, for cinemas to compete on price or quality. Even the more expensive streaming platforms, like Netflix, cost around £10-12 per month. It’s been a while since I was able to go to the cinema – health issues prevent me from doing so – but the last time I was able to go, £10 wouldn’t even stretch to two tickets. For that money you get one month’s worth of access to a massive library of titles – including many brand-new ones and Netflix originals made specially for the platform.

Large, good-quality television screens are increasingly affordable and offer a cinema-like experience at home.

In the late ’40s and ’50s, when my parents were young, going to the cinema was a frequent outing. You’d see an A- and B-movie, as well as perhaps a newsreel or something else, and it would feel like good value. Since the early 20th Century, going to the cinema on at least a weekly basis was a big part of many peoples’ lives – but things have been changing, slowly, for quite a while.

For at least the last couple of decades, going to the cinema is something most folks have viewed as an occasional treat rather than a regular outing. The price and value of a cinema ticket – and the additional extras like drinks and snacks – have shot up in relation to earnings, while at the same time the number of advertisements and trailers have also increased. Though the cinema still has a place in many folks’ lives, that place had been slipping long before the pandemic arrived. In the ’90s and 2000s, the blame for that lay with cable and satellite television channels, including many dedicated film channels. Nowadays, the blame has shifted to streaming.

Netflix has picked up a lot of subscribers in the past year.

Many film studios are keen to play their part in this trend, too. Sharing a big chunk of their profits with cinema chains and operators was never something they were wild about, which is why we’re seeing more and more studios and production companies either partnering with big streaming platforms or else trying to launch their own. Paramount+ exists for this reason, as do Disney+, HBO Max, and many others. These companies don’t care in the slightest about the fate of cinemas – except insofar as they can use them to turn a profit. When the pandemic meant that wasn’t possible, many companies happily jumped ship and released their films digitally instead.

Though I know a lot of people who have told me they’re keen to get back to the cinema as soon as possible, when I probed most of them further and asked how often they would go to the cinema pre-pandemic, or what films they were most excited to see at the cinema next, all of the answers I got back up everything I’ve been saying. Most folks go to the cinema infrequently at best, and while they’ve missed some of the social aspects of the “cinema experience,” they certainly haven’t missed the adverts, loud seat neighbours, and hassle. Streaming, while not as glamorous or exciting in some ways, is a more enjoyable experience in others.

Some people have missed every aspect of being at the cinema… but many haven’t!

I know I have to acknowledge my own bias here. As someone whose disability prevents them going to the cinema, I’d be quite happy if every film I want to watch from now on comes directly to streaming! On a purely selfish level, that’s something I’m fine with. And while I stand by the fact that the trend away from the cinema in a general sense is real and demonstrable, the pandemic probably hasn’t killed the entire concept of the cinema stone-dead. Nor would that be a good thing. Many cinemas offer more than just the latest blockbusters, with classic films, recorded theatre plays and ballet performances, and other such events. In the rural area where I live, the idea of being able to see something like the Royal Ballet is beyond a lot of people due to the distances involved. But local cinemas occasionally show things like ballets, operas, and Shakespeare plays, bringing a different kind of culture and entertainment to the region. Cinemas are also big local employers, and it’s nothing to celebrate when a local business is forced to close.

So most cinemas will eventually re-open. But the question I asked is still pertinent, because I don’t know whether they’ll see pre-pandemic numbers of visitors for a very long time – if at all. The pandemic has forced the hand of film studios and distributors, and the result has been an uptick in the number of subscribers to streaming platforms. Many folks have tried streaming for the first time, and while there will always be holdouts, people who proclaim that it really is “better in the cinema,” I think a lot of people have been surprised at how enjoyable streaming a film at home can be, and how favourably it can compare to the cinema experience.

Many people haven’t missed the “cinema experience” as much as they expected.

A big home theatre setup is no longer necessary. With a relatively inexpensive – but still large – television set and maybe a sound bar or pair of satellite speakers, many people can have a truly cinema-like experience in their own living rooms. And a lot of people who’ve tried it for the first time, prompted by lockdown, may have no plans to return to the cinema any time soon – or if they do, they’ll be making fewer trips.

In my opinion, this is something that has the potential to continue to build over time. As screens continue to improve, and as more people eschew the cinema in favour of staying in, more films will go direct to streaming because companies will see more success and more money in it. Fewer films will end up in cinemas exclusively, so fewer people will go. And the cycle will continue!

Even if I’m wrong on that final point, I do believe that we’ve already seen a slow move away from cinemas in the pre-pandemic years. The pandemic came along and blew the lid off that, and while there will be a return once things settle down, at-home streaming is here to stay. It benefits viewers and companies – the only folks who are going to lose out are the cinema chains themselves. I’m not saying it’s a positive thing necessarily, although it does stand to benefit me in some respects, nor am I advocating for it. But when I look at the way things have been going over the past few years, and add the pandemic’s disruption into the mix, I really do feel that we’re seeing a big move away from the cinema in favour of at-home streaming.

All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective studio, distributor, production company, etc. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Amazon’s Wheel of Time series – will it work?

A few months ago I took a brief look at Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings series, and that show has been getting a lot of attention, both for its Middle-earth setting and due to inescapable comparisons to Game of Thrones. But Amazon has another high fantasy series in the pipeline, and this second series hasn’t been getting quite as much interest – at least, not yet.

The Wheel of Time is a fifteen-novel epic; a magnum opus totalling almost four-and-a-half million words. It was written by Robert Jordan, with the final three novels completed by Brandon Sanderson following Jordan’s death in 2007, and is now complete. There has been a previous attempt to adapt the series for television, with a pilot being filmed in 2014-15, but it was generally regarded as a badly-made piece of TV so the series was not picked up.

Rosamund Pike as Moiraine in a short teaser.

It seems as though Amazon – and former CEO Jeff Bezos in particular – have been chasing their own version of Game of Thrones almost since that show premiered in 2011. Greenlighting two major television projects simultaneously is both a bold, expensive move, as well as one that could spell doom for one of the shows if there’s a clear preference from viewers.

Lord of the Rings on Prime – or whatever its final title will be – was a massively expensive commitment from Amazon, with the rights alone reportedly setting the company back $250 million. That’s before even a single frame had been shot, a single prop created, or an individual actor hired. The rights to The Wheel of Time were positively cheap in comparison!

A blade of some kind seen in a separate teaser.

Game of Thrones proved hands-down that a television show in the high fantasy genre based on a series of books that, let’s face it, most people will never read can be a resounding success, and I would assume that The Wheel of Time is about as well-known today as A Song of Ice and Fire was circa 2010-11. In short, there’s no reason I can see why Amazon’s adaptation of The Wheel of Time should fail to find an audience, particularly if the series is well-marketed.

Amazon Prime Video, which will be the series’ home when it’s ready to be broadcast, exists in an unusual space for a streaming platform. It’s tied to Amazon Prime, which offers a range of other benefits alongside the video streaming platform, notably free next-day or two-day delivery on many items Amazon sells on their main website. Unlike Netflix and Disney+, Amazon’s diverse business model is less reliant on streaming, and thus the success of any individual series is less important than it would be for a traditional broadcaster. At least in theory!

The Wheel of Time will be available to stream via Amazon Prime Video… when it’s ready!

I’ve read the first couple of novels in The Wheel of Time series, but it was at least twenty years ago and I honestly can’t remember much about the specifics of the story. I do recall the disappointment at not being able to afford the next book in the series after finishing the second, though, but for some reason I just never got around to finishing the series even when I subsequently had the means to do so.

In recent years I’ve debated going back to The Wheel of Time, but in some ways a very long series like this feels like a huge commitment, and spending the money on a fifteen-book set is something that, as someone on a low income, I have never been able to justify to myself. I enjoyed the first couple of books when I read them, though, and from my personal perspective, Amazon’s adaptation provides an opportunity to revisit the world of The Wheel of Time.

Fifteen novels comprise The Wheel of Time.

Comparisons to Game of Thrones keep cropping up, and not only is that inevitable given the nature of the project, I think it’s what Amazon really wants audiences to keep in mind. But Game of Thrones had an ending that was, according to most of the show’s fans, disappointing, and as The Wheel of TIme is now in production, I admit to feeling a slight sense of trepidation or caution at the prospect of history repeating itself.

While Game of Thrones’ eighth and final season had a number of issues with its narrative, pacing, and even production goofs, the fundamental problem – in my opinion – was that it was cut short. There was the potential for Seasons 7 and 8 to be spun out into at least twice as many episodes across twice as many seasons, with writer George R R Martin on record saying he was hoping to see the show run until at least its tenth season. And this is where my concern with The Wheel of Time comes into play.

Game of Thrones is a natural comparison for a series like The Wheel of Time.

Fifteen books means there’s a lot of story to adapt, and even if clever cuts are made to characters and whole narrative arcs, the show will still have an awful lot going on – and the potential to run for as many seasons as there are books: fifteen. But will Amazon let the show run that long? At time of writing, only a single season is confirmed, adapting the first novel in the series. If I recall correctly, the first book – The Eye of the World – was by no means conclusive; there will be many storylines unresolved by just the end of Season 1.

As we’ve recently been discussing, some television shows can outstay their welcomes and run too long. Fifteen seasons would mean that Amazon’s adaptation of The Wheel of Time would run longer than 99% of all television shows, catching up to the likes of ER, for example. At one season per year, the series would not conclude until at least 2036 – and I’m just not convinced yet that there’s that much of an appetite for The Wheel of Time.

The Wheel of Time could run for a long time if each book is adapted to one season of television!

So here’s where we are, as I see it: this is an incredibly ambitious project. It’s far more ambitious than Game of Thrones, which only had five books (of a planned six) and some 1.5 million words to adapt, and certainly it’s more ambitious than its sister project, Lord of the Rings on Prime. Amazon’s Lord of the Rings adaptation is based in part on Tolkien’s works – The Silmarillion in particular. But the nature of that book means there’s a lot of leeway for the show’s producers and writers. They could choose to construct a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end, and run it over the (allegedly) planned five seasons in a way that would feel natural.

In contrast, The Wheel of Time either has to run for fifteen seasons, or condense multiple books into a handful of episodes, as Game of Thrones essentially did in its latter seasons. Both of those options have potential drawbacks.

As we’ve also recently talked about, shows that are cancelled before concluding their stories are incredibly disappointing! And I would hate to see The Wheel of Time end up in that situation. The story of the series – at least, based on my recollection – is engaging and entertaining, with the potential for a television adaptation with a sufficient budget to even eclipse Game of Thrones. That’s what I’d dearly love to see – a fantastic piece of fantasy television. I’m optimistic for The Wheel of Time, but still only cautiously so.

The Wheel of Time on Prime (working title) is currently in production and will premiere on Amazon Prime Video in the future. The Wheel of Time on Prime is the copyright of Amazon Studios. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Previewing Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series

Spoiler Warning: Beware of minor spoilers for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Though disrupted by the pandemic, filming for Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings prequel series resumed earlier this year, and the series currently has a tentative 2021 release date. That could easily slip back into 2022 depending on production-side factors, but I don’t think it’s too early to begin considering what the series could be – and what I’d like to see from it.

The Lord of the Rings was part of my childhood. Not the films – those came years later – but the books. I remember my father reading The Hobbit to me when I must’ve been only six or seven years old, and I later read The Lord of the Rings while still quite young, so it’s not unfair to say they spurred a lifelong interest in fantasy that I still enjoy today. I came to enjoy Tolkien’s works years before I watched Star Trek, so you could even call it one of my earliest fandoms!

The films, which were released from 2001-03, are many folks’ first and only encounter with The Lord of the Rings, and many elements from the films – like the music – which didn’t come from the original books are now considered inseparable from the realm of Middle-earth. The new series has a line to walk between respecting that and trying to do its own thing.

The Lord of the Rings films are held in very high regard.

Expectations will be sky-high for this series. Not only because of its association with the most famous works of the fantasy genre, but because of the frankly insane budget afforded to the show. Simply purchasing the rights to use Tolkien’s world set Amazon back an eye-watering $250 million, and that was before any work had been done on the show at all; no actors had been cast, no scripts written, etc. The budget for the series, which has been given a preliminary five-season order from Amazon, may top out at over $1 billion. This makes it by far the most expensive television series of all time, surpassing the likes of Game of Thrones, and that alone generates a lot of attention and scrutiny. And speaking of Game of Thrones, despite that show’s controversial and disappointing final season, comparisons will be inescapable. The stakes could hardly be higher.

Our last visit to the realm of Middle-earth didn’t go so well. The first two parts of The Hobbit were decent, even good films, but The Battle of the Five Armies wasn’t spectacular, something caused at least in part by the entire film being adapted from a handful of pages of text instead of a whole book! In a way, the disappointment some fans felt at The Hobbit’s adaptation means that Amazon’s series has even more work to do. It has to convince sceptical fans that they want to come back to Middle-earth, and that there are stories worth telling beyond the first three films.

The Hobbit was a less-enjoyable experience overall.

The series will be set during Middle-earth’s Second Age, which makes it a prequel to the events of Lord of the Rings. Taking a setting several thousand years in the distant past could open up myriad possibilities within the story. And we’ve seen some prequels that go down this kind of route achieve success – Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, for example. But the stories of Middle-earth in the Second Age are all background, building up slowly toward the events of the “main” books. The initial rise of Sauron – who is still alive in this era – may prove fascinating to see. Or it may feel underwhelming considering we’ve already seen his ultimate defeat at the hands of Frodo.

Prequels can be difficult to get right. The Hobbit trilogy attempted to bring in characters who weren’t present in the original book in order to “foreshadow” the events of The Lord of the Rings, and it was hit-and-miss. Some elements worked, and some fell flat. Telling a story that serves as a fully-direct prequel to The Lord of the Rings, with characters like Gandalf, Sauron, and the ancestors of people like Aragorn and Legolas could be tricky to get right – there will always be a sense that we’ve seen the main event, and this is just unnecessary fluff.

That’s what happened – in my subjective opinion, of course – with the Star Wars prequels. They took on the less-interesting part of the story, a story that was ultimately wholly unnecessary. We didn’t need a three-film saga depicting the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker to know that Darth Vader was an evil, yet ultimately redeemable, character. Everything we needed to know about Vader was already present in the original films, and the prequels – which had numerous other problems, don’t get me wrong – didn’t feel like they had a purpose or told a particularly compelling story. They did, at least, tell one single story, which is something the Star Wars sequel trilogy failed to do! But that comparison is not a redeeming feature, despite what some like to think.

Legolas in The Desolation of Smaug. The character was not part of The Hobbit novel but was included in the film version.

But we’re off-topic! Prequels can be troublesome and difficult to get right, so one way around that is to tell a story that’s tangentially related to the main event but is otherwise a wholly standalone affair. As strange as it may sound for a show with the working title Lord of the Rings on Prime, the fewer direct references to The Lord of the Rings the better. There’s plenty of scope to see familiar places and races, and if the show keeps to an aesthetic that fits with the films then all of that will be to the good. But where The Hobbit was less interesting was when it ham-fistedly tried to “foreshadow” the events of The Lord of the Rings, so if the new series could find a way to stick to new characters and a storyline that doesn’t stray too much into setting up the events of the earlier films, I think all of that will be to its overall benefit.

Middle-earth, much like the Star Trek or Star Wars galaxies, is a sandbox. It’s a beautifully-created world with a rich lore built up over decades, but the main works set in Middle-earth focus on a relatively narrow slice of that world across a relatively short span of time. Taking us back to the Second Age opens up a lot of possibilities – as would moving forward to a potential Fourth Age! Star Trek demonstrated as early as the 1980s that it’s possible for a franchise to expand beyond its original incarnation and do completely different things. Star Wars has yet to really attempt this, as I noted once, but this is a chance for Middle-earth to do what Star Trek did more than thirty years ago. It has the opportunity to expand beyond Sauron, Bilbo, Frodo, and the Rings of Power.

The kings of Middle-earth receive their rings of power, as seen in The Fellowship of the Ring.

The history of the Second Age is documented, in part, in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. But unlike The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which each look in detail at a few characters across a relatively short timeframe, The Silmarillion is broad, encompassing thousands of years of history and legend within a single work. There are so many opportunities within these legends and this fictional history to either expand upon events it touches on or to create something completely new. There’s certainly the prospect of doing both.

One of the few things we know about the upcoming series is that it will look, at least in part, at the land of Númenor – an Atlantis-type land that would later vanish beneath the sea. Some Númenoreans would settle in Middle-earth, and these long-lived men would be the ancestors of Aragorn and a few other familiar characters.

The destruction of Númenor is documented in The Silmarillion, and if it’s the case that the show will look at that event (or the lead-up to it) there’s still a lot of scope to expand on the familiar and branch out into something entirely new. In fact, because The Silmarillion is a single book, and doesn’t contain anywhere near enough material for a straight adaptation, the producers of the new series will have to get creative!

The Silmarillion may be the basis for the new series.

Picture Credit: Stojanoski Slave, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

Speaking of the creative team, there are some very interesting folks amongst the producers and writers. Showrunners JD Payne and Patrick McKay both worked on Star Trek Beyond, and amongst the writing team are folks with credits on such diverse works as Breaking Bad, Hannibal, and Toy Story 4. The director of the first two episodes has also been announced: JA Bayona, the Spanish director of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Some fans were critical when Amazon debuted the creative team, but let’s try to give them a chance. Though most of their names would not be familiar to the average viewer, between them they’ve worked on some huge and very successful projects. There’s an expression that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – perhaps that’s true here. Having spend this much money, Amazon would surely not waste that on a creative team it wasn’t 100% happy with. Unlike some recent projects, there haven’t been any high-profile firings or departures, which I take as indicative of a project progressing nicely.

On the cast front, none of the main players from The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings seem to be returning, at least not at this stage. I do consider cameos at least a possibility, but so far no announcements have been made. The cast that we do know of is led by Robert Aramayo, who is probably best-known for his flashback scenes as young Ned Stark in Game of Thrones. Nazanin Boniadi, who has had co-starring roles in shows like Homeland, also joins the cast along with Tom Budge, Owain Arthur, Morfydd Clark, Ismael Cruz Córdova, who played the Twi’lek Qin on The Mandalorian, Ema Horvath, Joseph Mawle, who played Benjen Stark in Game of Thrones, Markella Kavenagh, Tyroe Muhafidin, Sophia Nomvete, Megan Richards, Dylan Smith, Charlie Vickers, Daniel Weyman, and Maxim Baldry. What do most of these folks have in common? You’ve never heard of them. And why is that significant (aside from perhaps saving Amazon some money)? It follows a trail blazed by Game of Thrones. Set up a series with a mostly-unknown cast, give them a chance to grow into their new roles and become household names for those roles. It was a successful formula in 2011, and for the most part, people weren’t watching that show thinking “hey, I know that actor!” That was a deliberate choice, and I assume the same is true here too.

Robert Aramayo (seen here as young Ned Stark in Game of Thrones) leads a mostly-unknown cast.

Amazon is positioning this new series as a successor to Game of Thrones. The way the casting has been handled, the amount of money being thrown at it, and the general way they’re working on the series all smacks of being an attempt to recreate the magic of one of the last decade’s most important television series. Game of Thrones built on what The Lord of the Rings films had done, and at this stage, folks who would have balked at the idea of watching anything in the fantasy genre a few years ago will surely be interested to check out what this new series has to offer. The genre has become a major part of our cultural landscape, and The Lord of the Rings films set the stage for that in a huge way.

Other than a single map of Middle-earth in the Second Age, Amazon is keeping a tight lid on this project. There haven’t been any leaks or significant rumours about the series, which is a good thing. It’s always nice to go into a new show unspoiled!

The map depicting parts of Middle-earth in the Second Age.

Despite some positive moves from Amazon, and the huge amount of money involved in this production, there are no guarantees of success. The show needs to be well-written, with interesting characters and a story arc – or multiple storylines – that are interesting and worth getting invested in. Game of Thrones, at least in its earlier seasons, came with that built-in because it was based on an already-successful series of novels. The Silmarillion is indeed a successful book, but as mentioned can hardly be adapted verbatim in the same way as A Song of Ice and Fire was for Game of Thrones’ earlier seasons. In that sense, this show represents more of a risk.

I’m hopeful for some truly awe-inspiring fantasy. Returning to the land of Middle-earth is always a treat, and by filming the show in New Zealand – where the films were all produced – it might just feel like a homecoming. Game of Thrones’ final season was a disappointment to many, but this new series has the potential to help us all forget about that and get stuck into another fantasy story all over again – one inspired by the works of the grandfather of the modern fantasy genre. I can hardly wait!

Lord of the Rings on Prime (working title) is the copyright of Amazon Studios. The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings books are the copyright of the Tolkien Estate. Film versions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are the copyright of New Line Cinema and Wingnut Films. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.