By Eros ViDemantay
Greater than the quest to destroy the One Ring in Mordor is the quest to find the next hit show. Ever since Game of Thrones - which drew in millions of both viewers and dollars for HBO - streaming services have made countless efforts to reproduce the grandeur and success of such a cultural phenomenon. The shows that have been made as a result have been nicknamed ‘Blockbuster TV’ by the press.
Naturally, such ‘Blockbuster TV’ requires a hefty budget; it was reported that Game of Thrones cost about 15 million dollars per episode in its final seasons. Despite this , other streaming services have risen to the task. Take, for example, The Wheel of Time, based on the books by Robert Jordan. Amazon Studios spent around 80 million dollars for the first season alone. Netflix, a fellow streaming service competitor, spent 15 million dollars per episode on the first season of The Sandman (based on the comics by Neil Gaiman), and for the fourth season of the hit show Stranger Things, the company spent an insane 30 million dollars per episode.
None of these shows have come close to what Amazon has spent on their new show The Rings of Power, based on the works of legendary Middle-Earth author J.R.R. Tolkien. For only the rights to the Second Age of Tolkien’s works, Amazon spent an eye-watering 250 million dollars. Then, for the production of the first season, an extra 465 million dollars was dished out. All of this, plus marketing costs and additional production taxes brought the total cost of The Rings of Power to an estimated 1 billion dollars. Yes, that’s right. Billion with a B.
All that money spent on a single season of a television series has raised eyebrows and questions by the press. Before The Rings of Power even dropped a trailer, fans and journalists alike were wondering why a show would even need that much money in the first place. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, which are widely acclaimed for their groundbreaking work in both narrative and CGI cost a total of around 275 million dollars to make, for all three films. That’s only slightly more than what Amazon spent on the rights alone. With such astronomical numbers surrounding the highly secretive show, fans began to buzz with excitement and worry. On one hand, there were fans of Tokien who felt that Amazon was doing Middle-Earth justice by giving the show such a large budget. On the other hand, there were skeptics who raised the question: can money buy quality?
In the months leading up to the release of the show, the series was mired in even more controversy. There were the showrunners, JD Payne and Patrick McKay, who admitted that they compressed the timeline of the First and Second Age of Middle-Earth (which takes place over thousands of years) to make a more manageable narrative for audiences to follow. There were racist comments from some overly devoted fans, who were upset at the casting of colored people as elves and Harfoots, races that were traditionally white in Tolkien's works. There were sexist comments towards the women who played dwarves, who were an all-male race in the books. None of that will be commented upon in this article, except to note that with the money and big gambles Amazon was placing on this show, the controversy made the guarantee of success a little less safe.
Having seen the Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, this journalist can say for certain that the money Amazon aggressively threw at the show is on display in every frame. Visually, the show is a feast for the eye: the CGI is extremely well done (looking better than most movies), and the sets and costumes are masterfully crafted. This is definitely an expensive looking show, and the cast, for the most part, is fine. Apart from some bland performances by some secondary characters, the main leads, namely Galadriel (played by Morfydd Clark) and Nori (played by Markella Kavenagh) infuse each scene with thespian drama and wit. The show’s greatest weakness, however, is in its writing; there are too many storylines to be followed - in one episode we are introduced to 3 of them immediately - and some of the side stories are uninteresting and lose the viewer’s interest. For example, there is a forbidden romance between the elf Arondir and human healer Brownyn (which plays out similar to Aragron and Arwen’s love story in the Lord of the Rings books) that feels too trope-like and not bold or inventive enough to captivate the audience. Despite this, the show is so grand in scale and so inviting to new audiences that viewers are most likely to tune in every Friday for the rest of the weekly episodes (there are 5 left as of this writing).
Having seen the episodes, the question asked by the skeptics can now finally be answered: it seems that with Amazon’s The Rings of Power, money can buy quality to a degree. Most fantasy movie producers and directors can only dream of getting such a giant budget. All 465 million dollars that the studio spent on the first season alone is on clear display in The Rings of Power, from the elaborate sets to the millions of VFX shots. When making a fantasy, a high budget is almost always a must, and there have been shows and movies (including some Marvel projects) that have suffered from lack of money and poor CGI. The Rings of Power doesn’t have to worry about this at all, so at the very least on a visual level an abundance of resources can buy excellence. Despite this, no amount of money can buy a quality script, and amazing visuals and craftwork aside, the story of The Rings of Power falters in its stride - a problem that Game of Thrones by far never had until it’s disastrous final season (and by then, fans had built such trust in the show that the widely panned final episodes still had record high viewership, so it wasn’t a total disaster either). If Amazon is serious about making the next hit fantasy TV show, they need to make a quality story that will engage audiences and get people talking. For now, the first few episodes of The Rings of Power definitely show ambition and the potential to become a cultural phenomenon.