What does several hundred million dollars buy?
In “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” premiering Thursday night on Amazon Prime Video, it buys a lot of grandeur: lavish landscapes, lofty and subterranean palaces, orcs by the bushel, chaotic battles and even, as if to send a message to the series’s current fantasy competition, a sky filled with wheeling and menacing dragons. The most expensive series in TV history wears its price tag on its face. (The exact amount of Jeff Bezos’ hoard being spent on “Rings of Power” has varied in reports, but the consensus is it would make Smaug a comfortable bed.)
What money cannot buy is inspiration. In the growing field of franchise-based TV, it is generally meant to do the opposite: You’re buying the rights to give millions of fans another helping of whatever they’ve already eaten up.
“Rings of Power” is no different. It turns the clock back thousands of years before the events of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and the Peter Jackson movie adaptations, to the era when the fateful magic knickknacks of the title were forged. And its first season offers fans well-executed versions of familiar things: balletic archery, squabbling frenemyship among elves and dwarves, a rising evil, even a tempting, cursed artifact.
But if the ambitious first season does not reinvent the ring, it is a breathtaking reproduction that adds a few new filigrees. It immediately conjures the visual spell of the movies. More important, it manages, eventually and occasionally, to create its own swashbuckling, storytelling magic.
The sense of “the same thing, but different” comes immediately across with the (re)introduction of the powerful elf Galadriel (Morfydd Clark). Cate Blanchett played her in the films as a wise, stately Lady of the Canyon, but a few millenniums can change a person. Here she’s a young, headstrong and deadly warrior, with “Crouching Tiger” moves and a conviction that Sauron, the once and future big bad, is still alive and plotting.
Because of arcane legal spells and incantations limiting its rights agreement, “Rings of Power” is working at Tolkien’s margins, using the six appendices to his trilogy as source fodder. Where Jackson got to adapt three novels rich with character, sacrifice and comedy, the showrunners, J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, have a Wikipedia-like mishmash of family trees and invented alphabets that describes the series’s time period, the Second Age, this way: “Of events in Middle-earth the records are few and brief, and their dates are often uncertain.”
But blank spaces leave room for creation. And Tolkien was also considerate enough to create several characters who are naturally immortal, including elves like Galadriel and also her half-elven comrade Elrond (Robert Aramayo). He is now a young aide to the high king Gil-galad (Benjamin Walker), who sees Galadriel’s Sauron obsession as a nuisance. Elsewhere, Payne and McKay have squished up the timeline, reworked mythology and filled in many gaps with invented characters and settings.
There will be great sagas written in the Tolkienosphere about the liberties they’ve taken. But while I am a middling-level Middle-earth-ophile (have read “The Silmarillion”; do not speak Quenya), I am reviewing a TV show. And in its look, themes and sound (celestial score by Bear McCreary and theme by Howard Shore), this show is, if not 100 percent Tolkien, then certainly Tolk-ish.
And the show’s differences from the books may be less significant here than their differences from Jackson’s movies. A multiseason series can’t live in the operatic intensity of a fantasy film; it needs to build a world, evolve character and develop story arcs over time.
So as Galadriel seeks allies in her hunt for Sauron, the two premiere episodes, directed luminously by J.A. Bayona, establish several story lines with Entish deliberateness. (Númenor, the Atlantis-like kingdom of humans whose rise and fall dominates the Second Age, doesn’t even figure into the opening hours.)
The ruling elves, who live in a series of Thomas Kinkade paintings, have their own ambitions. These involve sending Elrond to negotiate a pact with Durin (Owain Arthur), the gruff dwarf prince of Khazad-dûm — in the films, a ruin with a nasty Balrog infestation but here a thriving, cavernous marvel. And in an outpost deep in human country, the elf warrior Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) nurses a forbidden crush on a mortal healer, Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), whose downtrodden neighbors picked Sauron’s side in the last war.
So far, so high-fantasy. But as Tolkien realized, without characters of human scale (or smaller) that have the spark of personality, the doings of the high and mighty risk becoming stiff. (This is a lesson so far lost on HBO’s “House of the Dragon,” which practically begs for an Arya Stark or Hot Pie to cut the genealogical grimness.)
That’s where the hobbits come in — or here, the Harfoots, a woodsy, secretive, nomadic band of small wanderers who live more precariously than their domesticated descendants did in Bilbo’s Shire. Nori Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh) is a variation on another Tolkien type: the young dreamer who longs for adventures. One day, fate serves one up in the form of a meteor. In its burning crater she finds a mysterious stranger (Daniel Weyman) with wizardly tendencies, whose identity remains a riddle. (Speak, friend, if you have a guess.)
The invented exploits of the Harfoots and their star-man guest may drive purists batty. I don’t care; they give heart and a common touch to a story that could otherwise quickly become a live-action unicorn tapestry. And the Harfoots’ casting, along with that of the other denizens of Middle-earth, foregrounds more female characters and actors of color than the films did, though the story remains thoroughly grounded in European myth.
Part of the appeal of Tolkien’s stories is their unembarrassed earnestness, their willingness to deal in good and evil and matters of honor; they are anti-modern, anti-antihero. This could make “Rings of Power” an outlier in the TV-fantasy environment post-“Game of Thrones,” whose good-guys-get-decapitated ethos was in many ways a reaction to Tolkien. “Rings of Power” keeps up with “Thrones” in the volume of blood spilled — both human-red and orc-black — but its sensibility is far more idealistic.
Still, there are small signs of moral shading in the early going — partly with the political machinations in its various royal courts, but especially with Galadriel. In Clark’s commanding performance, you can see glimpses of the character tempted by the One Ring in the film, imagining herself a queen “terrible as the dawn.”
In the young Galadriel, determination verges on fanaticism, righteousness shades into ruthlessness. We know how she ends up, of course; welcome to the world of prequels. But “Rings of Power” could complicate her by showing that her eventual beatific wisdom will not be not come by easily or nicely. Instead, as her brother Finrod (Will Fletcher) tells her, in an early flashback that risks corniness and survives it, “Sometimes we cannot know [light] until we have touched the darkness.”
A troubled, obsessed, Carrie Mathison-like Galadriel may not be purely Tolkien. But she is interesting, and that’s what “Rings of Power” will need to be, more than faithful, to sustain itself over multiple seasons. “Rings of Power” is spectacular on the screen, but spectacle will take you only so far in TV.
This is, after all, a tale about the crafting of rings. Anyone can throw gold at the screen. It takes imagination to fashion it into something precious.