The past 25 years of American television, like the history of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, can be usefully divided into several ages. First came the age of Prestige TV, dominated by auteurs and antiheroes, 1970s-style reimaginings of classic cinematic genres, think pieces about Dickensian storytelling, Sunday-night appointments with HBO. It was succeeded by the age of Peak TV, in which proliferating streaming platforms competed to produce as much content as possible, in a repetitive churn dominated by B+ knockoffs of the prestige era’s biggest hits.
Lately we have been entering a third age, the age of Blockbuster TV. The streaming services are retrenching and bundling, and they’re all searching for the small-screen equivalent of the summer-tentpole movie, the expensive, big-audience, subscription-generating anchor for their platforms. That can mean spinoffs of existing cinematic franchises, like the Marvel and “Star Wars” productions on Disney+. It can mean a crowd-pleasing historical fantasia like “Bridgerton,” Netflix’s multiracial bodice-ripper. Or it can mean experiments with heretofore “unfilmable” science-fiction or fantasy epics, like Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” and Robert Jordan’s “The Wheel of Time.”
Now we have two experiments big enough to shape the entire era’s trajectory: the near-simultaneous kickoffs of “House of the Dragon,” HBO’s prequel to “Game of Thrones,” and “The Rings of Power,” Amazon’s bid to monetize the history and mythology of Middle-earth. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been lavished on these productions — much more by Amazon than by HBO — and their success could elevate fantasy into the cultural territory occupied by superhero movies, the genre that currently dominates Hollywood’s spending and receipts.
As a lifelong fantasy reader, I have mixed feelings about this prospect. On the one hand, any cultural alternative to the stifling tyranny of spandex-suited superbeings seems worth welcoming, and fantasy in all its variations offers much richer storytelling possibilities than DC and Marvel (this claim will not be defended — it is self-evident), especially in a world where television platforms are willing to extend their expensive narratives across five or 10 or 20 hours.
On the other hand, the only fully successful case of big-budget fantasy storytelling to date is Peter Jackson’s trailblazing “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, which opened more than 20 years ago. HBO’s “Game of Thrones” was an impressive feat for six seasons, albeit one undermined by its pornographic treatment of both violence and sex, but then its conclusion was an epic botch. Other fantasy treatments, even when commercially successful, have tended to be either bland mediocrities (like Amazon’s “Wheel of Time”) or bloated catastrophes (the Jackson “Hobbit” movies). And the fact that some of the biggest budgets have been reserved for spinoffs of Tolkien and George R.R. Martin, however understandable the commercial calculation, hints at a future when fantasy filmmaking succumbs to decadence and repetition without actually attaining greatness first.
So a lot rides on whether “House of the Dragon” and “The Rings of Power” show a quality to match their price tags. I’ve seen the first six episodes of the former and the first two of the latter, and the answer so far is that they do show some of that quality — but in a way that’s unfortunately divided, so that each manifests some of the genre’s virtues, but in a way that cries out to be supplemented by the other’s strengths.
Great fantasy, to generalize, offers a conjunction of two storytelling modes: The mythic and metaphysical on the one hand and the political and historical on the other. At one level, the clash of good and evil, gods and heroes, the decline or return of magic, the specter of apocalypse. At another level, in the shadow of the greater conflicts, the struggles of kings and princesses and common folk, working themselves out with all the usual human confusions and shades of gray.
Tolkien’s Middle-earth and Martin’s Westeros are generally held up as starkly different exercises in fantasy world building — the former the more traditional heroic epic, pious and chivalric to a fault, the latter a grittier and more realistic (or, if you prefer, coarser and more nihilistic) portrait of a premodern society. But while the differences are obvious, the two fantasists’ sagas are somewhat closer than the caricature suggests, and they both feature versions of the two-tiered mode of storytelling that I just described.
“The Lord of the Rings” is high-flown and sexless, certainly, but it is hardly short on shades-of-gray characters, dynastic detail or political intrigue. Many of its flawed and fallible figures — from Boromir and his father, Denethor, to Grima Wormtongue and his treacherous master, Saruman — would fit in easily in the landscapes of Westeros. So would more admirable but still complex characters like the shield maiden Eowyn. Tolkien celebrates and undermines hierarchy at the same time; his most important heroes are a man born to be king and a low-status servant from an unimportant backwater. And the drama of the One Ring itself is an acutely modern portrait of addiction and corruption; there is more harsh psychological realism in the arc of Smeagol/Gollum than in that of any Martin character.
Then the Martin novels, for all their debunking spirit and sex scenes, still depend — at least in their unfinished form, I should say — on traditional conventions of good versus evil, metaphysical conflict and apocalyptic danger. The Starks of Winterfell display more flaws of leadership and judgment than Aragorn, son of Arathorn, but they are still recognizably heroic relative to most of their political antagonists. The Lannisters, the Starks’ great rivals, have their complexities and chances at redemption, but Cersei Lannister and her son Joffrey are blacker villains than most human characters in Tolkien. When Daenerys Targaryen frees the slaves of Essos, the consequences are messy, but the act itself is clearly noble. When the White Walkers threaten to plunge the world into an endless wintry night, the threat is Sauronesque, not somehow morally ambiguous.
But in the new TV spinoffs, so far, the Tolkien-Martin divergence feels much sharper. “House of the Dragon”is set in a Westerosi past with more dragons but no threat of magical apocalypse, and its initial story lines are almost all court politics and intrigue — Targaryen against Targaryen this time, not Stark versus Lannister, with no faction inspiring any special moral sympathy.
The intrigues are skillfully elaborated, the performances are strong, and the world has a lived-in feeling that eludes many fantasy productions. But there’s a “So what?” problem to the story; it’s all Machiavels versus Machiavels, with no relatable outsiders or certain moral stakes. In this way, the new series is closer to the caricature of the prior one: It’s long on dragons, nudity and cynical realpolitik and short on resonant moral and metaphysical framing, which means that the intrigues risk tedium and the violence, empty spectacle.
Then “The Rings of Power” has the opposite challenge. By moving backward into Tolkien’s legendarium, it’s set in a time that’s much more magical and mythic than the world of “The Fellowship of the Ring” or “The Two Towers.” The initial episodes excel at painting on that canvas; unlike with some C.G.I. extravaganzas, you can see where all the money went. But the visual beauty of elf realms and dwarf kingdoms needs the contrast of mortal doings, personal and political, to humanize the myth, and the new show hasn’t found that footing yet.
Despite the best efforts of the actors playing young Galadriel and young Elrond, there’s only so much you can do with sonorous elf talk. (There’s a reason that elves are largely secondary characters in Tolkien’s novels.) The show’s humans and protohobbits, meanwhile, feel more like stock characters so far, avatars in a fantasy role-playing game, than successful vehicles for audience identification.
What each new show needs, then, is a little more of what the other one has going for it — a little more Tolkien in the Martin stew, and vice versa.
“The Rings of Power” needs more politics and personality and nonmagical conflict, and I’m hopeful that it can find them on the island of Numenor, the Atlantis-like kingdom that promises to loom large in the story but doesn’t appear in the initial episodes.
“House of the Dragon” needs higher stakes than Targaryen power politics and a bigger canvas — spiritually as well as geographically — than its claustrophobic royal palaces. Unfortunately, I’m less certain where those might be found in Martin’s back stories, and the show’s occasional call-aheads to the higher stakes of “Game of Thrones” are just reminders of how painfully that saga crash-landed.
There’s enough talent involved in both productions to make them interesting, even if they fail at the synthesis I’m suggesting. But to the extent that they’re setting the tone and direction for an entire television age, “interesting”is too low a bar. We should want them to fulfill the full promise of their genre, building creations that in their heights and depths and human stakes feel as complete and intended as our own.
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