“The world has changed. I see it in the water. I feel it in the Earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost. For none now live who remember it.”
With these words, Peter Jackson kicked off one of Hollywood’s most ambitious projects. It was 2001. Mark Zuckerberg was in high school. Netflix was a DVD subscription service. And on the very same week a baby named Billie Eilish was born in Los Angeles, The Fellowship of the Ring arrived in theaters, the first in a grand and monumentally expensive gambit to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy classic for the screen as three separate movies, all filmed in the same grueling 438-day shoot in New Zealand.
You know the rest. The box office records, the Oscars, “you shall not pass” and all that. The risk paid off about as well as any cinematic longshot in the history of Hollywood ever has. At the time of the trilogy’s success, Amazon was a small internet company that was mostly known for selling books.
Now, over two decades later, it’s one of the most powerful companies in history, complete with its own Hollywood aspirations. With The Rings of Power, Amazon has commissioned a project maybe even riskier than Jackson’s original trilogy. Audiences are returning to Middle-earth, albeit several thousand years before Bilbo stumbled across the Ring that caused so many problems, and getting acquainted with a far more obscure corner of Tolkien’s world.
Amazon has dumped an unprecedented amount of money into The Rings of Power in an attempt to recapture the movies’ stunning attention to detail in everything from its palaces to the stitching on Aragorn’s cloak. But with enough money, such things are a given. What fans will really want to know is how close The Rings of Power will hew to Tolkien’s vision of the world, the battle between good and evil and the fate of those who choose to believe there is good in the world and it’s worth fighting for.
Part and Parcel
“When you read Tolkien, he writes in such a way that he’s peeking behind the curtain in certain ways,” says Robert Aramayo, who plays a young Elrond, the role made famous by Hugo Weaving. “That’s what I love about reading his First Age stuff. There’s ambiguity there.”
Aramayo is talking about the liberties the showrunners have taken in depicting this era of Middle-Earth, about which Tolkien wrote a broad history in his trilogy’s appendices and his own The Silmarillion. But Aramayo says the broad outline gave the writing team a lot of leeway to imagine what happened in between the cracks of what happens in the canon. In fact, he says, such speculation is part of the joy of reading Tolkien.
“As a reader, sometimes I have to take a moment to imagine ‘What is going on?’” Aramayo continues. “[Tolkien] invites your imagination to the table, to make choices. And the show is set in a time where we don’t know very much. It’s the choices that we’ve made to connect certain points.”
Aramayo’s co-star says that’s true, but doesn’t want anyone to mistake that freedom for carelessness with the source material. “I have a group of friends that I’ve been friends with since nursery,” Morfydd Clark says. “And for years, we’ve met up once a year and watched all three films together.”
Clark plays the elf warrior Galadriel, a principal Rings of Power force and one of the few repeat characters from the original trilogy, where she was played by Cate Blanchett. She says her passion for the story has been honed by years of being a fan of the movies themselves, and notes that the group of friends she watches the movies with annually have some very high expectations for The Rings of Power.
“That’s what it is to be part of something as beloved as this, something that’s been part of our culture for 70 years now,” she says. “It’s part and parcel of it.”
Clark plays a much younger and less austere Galadriel than the one we meet in Tolkien’s original trilogy. Her Galadriel is a restless fighter, consumed by rage. She lost her beloved brother to an ancient and powerful enemy, and has devoted every waking moment of her exceptionally long life to getting revenge. It’s an interesting choice — one of many made by showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, who have chosen to show even familiar characters at very unfamiliar seasons in their development as people. Fans may find it intriguing. Or they may find it divisive. The cast accepts that that’s all part of the thrill of it.
“[Tolkien] invites your imagination to the table.”
“No two imaginations are the same. They’re like fingerprints,” says Welsh actor Trystan Gravelle, who plays Pharazôn, a modernist thinker in Númenor. “Everyone’s going to have their unique take. That’s a wonderful thing. You go to your own home, you sit down and you start to think about it. You put yourself in situations. Your imagination runs amok. What you have then are these wonderful worlds that you’ve created as the audience, for yourself. This is a wonderful thing.”
“It’s an amazing opportunity and responsibility,” says Charlie Vickers, who plays Halbrand. “There’s a sense of pressure and of expectation, but it’s far outweighed with the pride we have in being able to be a small part of Tolkien’s universe.”
One of the pleasures of Tolkien’s original story are the nuanced lines between good and evil drawn throughout. At the beginning of the story, it all seems fairly straightforward: Sauron and the orcs are the bad guys who must be defeated by our good and noble coalition of elves, humans, wizards, dwarves and hobbits.
But as the story continues to unspool, these sides get more complicated. Not all the good guys can be trusted to do the right thing, and we learn that even Middle-earth’s most sinister foes were not always evil, but succumbed to temptations to power. That is a key part of understanding the makeup of Lord of the Rings, and it’s one this cast took to heart.
“What Tolkien talks about a lot is humility,” Clark says. “Knowing the limits of yourself. We learn through mistakes. You can’t go through life thinking you’re going to be perfect. You’ve got to go through life seeing where you’ve done things wrong and taking accountability for that and moving forward in a different way.”
One thing the cast is all in agreement on is that their show’s lessons about power are very timely. Galadriel says that “men, above all else, desire power” and that’s an evergreen observation if ever there was one, and it’s weighing heavy on this cast.
“Generally, there are many factors that incite humans to power,” says Sophia Nomvete, who plays the dwarf princess Disa. “One of those is fear. We strive for power because of a fear that we need to take control of. That’s true of the age that we’re living in.”
“Everybody’s afraid,” Gravelle agrees. “And the most negative coping mechanism of that is to seek power.”
In our current, non-Middle-earth age, power feels so consolidated that it’s hard to not desire just a little bit of it, just to give your side a fighting chance in whatever cultural, moral or social war you find yourself caught up in.
We all feel the temptation to seize power, confident in our abilities to resist the temptation to do evil with it. “We would be different,” we tell ourselves. “We would be heroes.” But Tolkien knew better.
“Tolkien absolutely loved Faramir,” Clark says, referring to Boromir’s younger brother. “Because Faramir knew that he should never touch the ring. He completely knew himself.” (Clark is right — Tolkien spoke often of his affection for Faramir.)
For Clark, this idea gets close to the heart of Lord of the Rings — the idea that we all have an obligation to know ourselves and our own propensity for weakness, and how to use that understanding to become better people. “It seems to embody a lot of what I see as Tolkien’s vibe,” she says.
“I think what Tolkien lets us explore is the idea of opening up the gates and celebrating each other’s individual powers,” Nomvete says. “The biggest force is when all of those powers come together. That’s when we overcome evil.”
It’s hard to miss the symbolism in the vast array of forces that unite against evil in Middle-earth. While Sauron’s minions are mostly orcs, our heroes are a collection of hobbits, dwarves, elves, humans, ents — even eagles and a few ghosts. The Rings of Power builds on this idea, touring a Middle-earth that is deeply divided but growing closer against a common threat.
“What I love about Tolkien’s world is that you can’t have a Middle-earth that only suits the elves,” Clark says. “You can’t have a Middle-earth that only suits humans or dwarves or hobbits. But you need a world that’s gentle enough for them all. And you don’t get that through one person having absolute power. You get that through different people learning the limits of themselves: humility, hope and mercy.”
Clark looks downright regal as she says this, fully embodying the spirit of the royal elven Lady of the Woods she is playing. None of this guarantees that Amazon will be able to make lightning strike again on this beloved mythology. But it does suggest that everyone involved not only believes in the story they’re telling, but also the beauty of the ethos behind it: the power of fellowship to give hope even in dark times.
“That’s something that will always be relevant for us,” Clark says. “To remind ourselves that we need to water our hope. To exercise it. To lean on each other.”