At a time when streaming services are taking over the world, corporations are looking toward some of their most successful properties and expanding their universes with movies and TV shows. Disney pioneered this with the Marvel and Star Wars universes, with dozens of projects slated to release in the next few years. Similarly, Paramount has continued to release new media associated with their “Star Trek” and Nickelodeon properties. Recently, Amazon Prime Video has been working on a series based on the world of J.R.R. Tolkien called “Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.” Looking at the past 20 years, “The Rings of Power” is one of the few properties made based on Tolkien’s universe that will have as much production (and anticipation) as the two trilogies preceding it. With the release still only a few months away, curious minds are inevitably left to wonder: What does Amazon have in mind for the story of “The Rings of Power”?
How Did the Series Happen?
When it comes to the series Amazon is making for this universe, many ask, why now? Is it meant to introduce the world of “Lord of the Rings” to a new generation? In actuality, the show has been in development for about five years now, after Amazon Originals bought the rights to adapt “Lord of the Rings” for the small screen in 2017. The show would not start filming until two years later, in 2019, when The Hollywood Reporter broke the news that the show would film in Auckland, New Zealand. After a delay by the COVID-19 pandemic, “The Rings of Power” is set to release this upcoming September.
During this time, executive producers J.D Payne (“Jungle Cruise”) and Patrick McKay (“Star Trek: Beyond”) revealed some bits about the plot, saying the location had qualities of “the primordial beauty of the Second Age of Middle-earth [and] we knew we needed to find somewhere majestic, with pristine coasts, forests, and mountains.” The decision comes as no shock as the production efforts mirror Peter Jackson’s original trilogy of films. Filming in practical locations allows for an element of realism in an incredibly fantastical world, which is part of what made “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy truly beautiful.
What Is “The Rings of Power” About?
Tolkien meticulously crafted the world of “Lord of the Rings.” His world spans over four “ages,” encompassing tens of thousands of years. This series, according to Payne and McKay, takes place in the Second Age. This age holds various key events leading to the events of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” which both take place in the Third Age. Several characters who appeared in those films are returning in this series. Characters like Galadriel, Elrond and Thranduil will have their origins explored, and their roles in the saga expanded upon.
The Second Age is also when the inciting incident of the entire Third Age occurs: the forging of the title rings, along with the One Ring sought out by many in the following age. In the appendices of “The Lord of the Rings,” Tolkien lays out the beginning of the Second Age, writing, “These were the dark days for the Men of Middle-earth, but the years of the glory of Númenor,” an island to the west of Middle-earth. With this premise, the show can delve into the descendants of characters such as Aragorn from the original trilogy.
The show is also predicted to showcase “the first overthrow of Sauron, and the taking of the One Ring.” This particular event is even shown briefly in “The Fellowship of the Ring” as a prologue to the events of Peter Jackson’s trilogy. This time, the battle will have more context, and audiences will possess more knowledge than they had before going into the first three films. However, though the series may take place in a familiar world, Amazon has a few tricks up their sleeve.
What Will Make “The Rings of Power” Special?
On Feb. 10, Vanity Fair shared two posts on their Instagram, revealing set photos of the cast of “The Rings of Power.” Though the cast had been reported by Deadline in 2020, many fans couldn’t help but notice the inclusion of people of color in the new photographs. When fans voiced criticism of the decision online, Lindsay Weber, another executive producer of the series, told Vanity Fair, “It felt only natural to us that an adaptation of Tolkien’s work would reflect what the world actually looks like.”
The show, as Vanity Fair writes, “will juggle 22 stars and multiple storylines—from deep within the dwarven mines to the elven kingdom of Lindon.” Compared to the three main storylines of Peter Jackson’s trilogy, “The Rings of Power” has the opportunity to add an incredible amount of diversity to the world of Middle-earth. Due to the probable storyline and the scale of this project, “The Rings of Power” could also have enough credibility to be canon, further establishing the diversity in their world. Instead of portraying an ensemble of protagonists that are entirely white, introducing people of color will allow more viewers to see themselves in the characters.
The Chicago Tribune argues that “race was never directly addressed in [The Lord of the Rings], and physical descriptions of enemy humans were rare.” Despite this being true, the heroes of Peter Jackson’s original trilogy all bore fair skin and blue eyes. The decision to expand the world of Middle-earth in this way is not only going to positively affect the world-building in Tolkien’s works, but also give meaning to the potential storylines yet to be explored.
What Could Go Wrong?
The decision to have the show tread into real-world issues has become a point of criticism already; another is the premature verdicts on the visual effects. Part of what made Peter Jackson’s original trilogy so special was the creative decision to use practical locations and forced perspective to make the films look as realistic as possible. In the spirit of the original vision of the world of Middle-earth, the crew of “The Rings of Power” kept filming strictly in New Zealand, similar to the original trilogy.
After the release of the teaser trailer during the 2022 Super Bowl, fans pointed out the additional use of CGI in the series. Whereas in “The Hobbit,” the computer graphics looked sloppy and near-cartoonish, the effects in the trailer are less noticeable to the eye. Special effects are inevitable, especially in fantasy media, and fans of Middle-earth remember the overwhelming use of CGI in the “Hobbit” trilogy, which hurt the overall reception of the films. The flaws of the graphics were especially noticeable in wider shots in which actors and hundreds of extras would look swallowed up by digital enhancements and effects.
In a Collider article, showrunners McKay and Payne addressed the concerns, revealing that while CGI is necessary for extraordinary creatures and locations, ideas like moving “hundreds of crew members to a location under a mountain in New Zealand” was an option. Because the first eight episodes have a budget of almost “half a billion dollars,” finding a location is the least of their worries. If practical efforts did not meet the expectations of the showrunners, the budget had room to let them insert clean and convincing CGI.
In an age where film is defined by blockbusters, reboots and sequels, some have raised an eyebrow toward the decision to expand the “Lord of the Rings” universe after years of no content. Teams are coming together to bring to life a world, all created by one man, from the language to the lore. A production based on source material of this caliber has only been done twice before, and both were met with very different responses. The original trilogy revolutionized fantasy storytelling, and when it was finished took home 17 Academy Awards. Years later, when the prequel “Hobbit” trilogy cycled through, critics pointed out the lazy production and how presenting one book as three movies seemed like a cash grab. Learning from the mistakes of “The Hobbit,” Amazon has put a lot of money into preventing history from repeating itself. The show can look as good or bad as anyone else thinks, but audiences will know for sure when “Rings of Power” begins on Sept. 2.