What would you do with a billion dollars? For most people, the question is so absurd as to be essentially meaningless. You could do it all. You could move into a mansion, eat only caviar, drink only champagne, hire a cadre of grovelling butlers and still have enough change left over to buy a respectable mid-size sports club. For a company like Amazon, however – or its multi-multibillionaire CEO, Jeff Bezos – a billion is a bit of a different proposition. That kind of money can buy you a wizard, a battalion of elves, and a few dozen hobbits.
Back in November 2017, Amazon acquired the rights to adapt parts of Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, for its proprietary streaming service, Prime Video, in a deal worth an eye-watering $250m (£176m). This week, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power finally makes its debut. The series – set thousands of years before the events of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy – is reported to be costing the streamer $1bn, making it the most expensive TV show of all time by some distance. On paper, if you’re going to spend big on any series, it’s about as sure a bet as you can make. The three original Lord of the Rings films brought in around $1bn apiece at the box office (2003’s Return of the King was the highest, with $1.146bn in takings). The same held true for the Hobbit films – despite faltering reviews and goodwill from audiences, people kept showing up. The Rings of Power, of course, has no box-office release to recoup its budget. It is a statement of intent, an extravagant Hail Mary designed to propel Amazon into the streaming big leagues. (Despite moderate hits such as The Boys and Reacher, Prime Video has languished behind Netflix when it comes to original content; Disney+ also rapidly surpassed it.) The money is very much there on the screen: in his four-star review for The Independent, Kevin EG Perry praised the series as a “spectacle-filled” epic that “promises to deliver an awfully big adventure”.
It would be stupid to suggest that there is much chance of Rings of Power flopping completely. Before the release of this summer’s other blockbuster fantasy series, HBO’s Game of Thrones spin-off House of the Dragon, some pundits voiced doubts about the series’ prospects. All evidence suggests the series has been a roaring success. Lord of the Rings is a far more bankable property than Game of Thrones – more widely seen and by a greater range of demographics, thanks to the absence of gore and sex. To some extent, The Rings of Power is a preordained hit for a platform that’s desperate for something to cut through into water cooler-conversation territory. And yet, I’m still not sure how the ridiculous production costs can be justified. Prime Video has become the Manchester United of streaming services, splashing crazy money on a flashy marquee signing, while neglecting the sort of workmanlike building blocks that you need to win week in, week out.
From the very start of The Rings of Power, it is clear that you’re watching something very different from Peter Jackson’s trilogy. The ingredients are all there: beautiful New Zealand vistas; grand, fanciful battles. The characters we see are familiar archetypes, albeit thankfully more diverse when it comes to race and gender. There are elves, the pointy-eared stoics of Middle Earth, dwarves, and harfoots (proto-hobbits in all but name, thanks to some minor stipulation of Tolkien lore that dated the origin of Frodo’s diminutive species to a later era). But for whatever reason, it feels a world apart from Jackson’s universally adored fantasy trilogy. Maybe it’s the tide change from practical effects to a more CGI-centric aesthetic. Maybe it’s the cast – who are by no means awful, but inevitably fall short of Fellowship of the Ring’s impeccable casting. Maybe it’s the writing, which suffers from a rather scattered, multi-part narrative. (Part of the reason Jackson was able to market such an indulgently nerdy film franchise to a mainstream audience was its clear, straightforward premise.) Whatever the reason, I doubt I’ll be the only normie who struggles to get their head around the fantasy-intensive lore of the new series.
The Rings of Power will have no problem attracting viewers to partake in its series premiere. But whether it will convince them to keep coming back is another matter. And even if they do – what next? Television is fast becoming a feudal battle between giant IPs. Amazon has the Lord of the Rings, Disney has Star Wars and Marvel, Warner Bros has Game of Thrones and DC Comics (as well as Harry Potter, which will no doubt be serialised sooner or later), and Netflix has, well, problems down the line if it doesn’t come up with a few more Stranger Things-like hits. It’s hard to see this as a good thing; you can only imagine the countless worthwhile TV pitches that were nixed to make room for The Rings of Power’s Balrog-sized budget. But it’s the way everything seems to be heading. Win or lose, Amazon’s fantasy gamble has probably raised the stakes for good.
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