There’s nothing quite like finding a perfect new show or movie: something that keeps you entertained for its entire runtime and makes you think deeply for hours or days after viewing. This new column on the Reelgood Blog will take one excellent new film or series and provide a hearty list of semi-related recommendations to make your latest streaming obsession even more rewarding. This week’s list is all about Prime Video’s massively ambitious The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, the $1 billion bet Amazon took to hopefully become streaming’s biggest player.
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (Prime Video)
The quest for what the next Game of Thrones will be has been an expensive and fraught question for HBO’s streaming competitors. At the top of the mountain is obviously HBO with their own prequel to the massively popular and game-changing fantasy series in House of the Dragon. While Netflix has had a big swing in The Witcher and Prime Video in The Wheel of Time, nothing has really stuck. Even if reviews are solid, none of these titles have captured the water cooler conversation in the same way as Thrones. Until now.
Amazon’s Prime Video has made a serious bet both to bolster their own brand as a serious player in the streaming landscape and also reputationally as a company with their latest series, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. In 2017, the Tolkein estate put up for sale the rights for the Second Age of Middle Earth, which means the events that happened thousands of years before what transpired in The Lord of The Rings (Tolkein wrote about these instances in The Silmarillion). Amazon won the bid and paid a pretty penny in $250 million. While the first season of the show, which promises to cover the Middle Earth intrigue forging of the “One Ring to Rule Them All,” cost the streamer an estimated $500 million on the show’s production in New Zealand and likely millions of dollars in advertising and promotion.
Now that it’s been renewed for five seasons, Amazon will undoubtedly invest $1 billion into this title. That’s an absurd amount of money but a reasonable amount for Amazon to spend to truly solidify its place in the streaming world. With Netflix’s stock dive and HBO Max losing titles and losing money in its Warner Media and Discovery merger, Amazon is poised to swoop in with marquee moves. The Rings of Power, which is set to have eight episodes in its first season that air alongside HBO’s House of the Dragon, will hopefully go toe-to-toe with its biggest competitor. So far the reviews suggest it might work. If this huge bet fails, it’ll have lasting ramifications to a turbulent streaming market. If it succeeds, it’ll be doubly so for the streaming landscape.
Peter Jackson nailed the cinematic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece. Unquestionably the best fantasy film series ever and the blueprint for so much pop culture since its success in the early aughts, The Lord of the Rings manages to be a big blockbuster movie trilogy that’s as good as its massive budget. The trilogy won 10 out of its 23 nominations at the Academy Awards and made stars out of its crack ensemble cast in Viggo Mortensen, Sean Bean, Karl Urban, Orlando Bloom, Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, and Dominic Monaghan among many others.
If you were to sit down and watch all three of the original Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films, you’d be sitting down for 9 hours and 3 minutes. With the extended editions that boast a wealth of deleted scenes and longer sequences from the original films, the runtime is now a whopping 11 hours and 36 minutes. While there are a ton of extra scenes that set up future plot points, address passages from the book, and dive deep into exposition as well as Middle Earth lore, I’m not sold on these films being better than the originals. Jackson agrees. In 2012, he told IGN, “The theatrical versions are the definitive versions: I regard the extended cuts as being a novelty for the fans that really want to see the extra material.”
60 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings comes The Hobbit, where you find out how Bilbo Baggins ended up getting his hands on Sauron’s “One Ring to Rule Them All.” While The Hobbit movies came out after The Lord of the Rings films (both were directed by Peter Jackson), Tolkien released The Hobbit book in 1937, several years before he did The Lord of the Rings. Andy Serkis returns as Gollum while Ian McKellan comes back as Gandalf rounding out a cast that includes LOTR alums reprising their roles in Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood, and more. Star Martin Freeman is an excellent Bilbo Baggins.
4. His Dark Materials (HBO Max)
Compared to fantasy authors J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, His Dark Materials writer Philip Pullman was an avowed atheist. Where Tolkien and Lewis’ books contain dense Christian themes and in Lewis’ case, explicit allegories to his faith, Pullman’s fantasy series went in the opposite direction. The bad guys in this series, the Magisterium, are a pretty explicit stand-in for religion. Where the three authors may disagree on the nature of God and religion, they do seem to all write humanity-focused and thoughtful novels. While the first two seasons of this HBO series got some solid reviews, HBO is planning to finish its adaptation with a third and final season that’s yet to receive a release date.
5. Pan’s Labyrinth (Starz)
While not based on a book, Guillermo Del Toro’s fantastic 2006 film feels like a timeless fairy tale. Set in fascist 1940s Spain, the movie follows a 10-year-old girl as she navigates a mystical world that’s full of fauns, monsters, and magic away from the horrors of her own life. The film plays with your sense of reality in what’s real and what’s a dream but Del Toro wonderfully executes his vision. It’s one of the most arresting and visually stunning films of the past two decades and is a must-watch for anyone.
C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were such good friends to the point that books have been written about their relationship. They both taught at Oxford University, both fought in World War I, both preferred acronymized first names and both wrote massively successful fantasy novel series that would eventually become blockbuster film trilogies. While Tolkien’s film series helmed by Peter Jackson won as much critical adoration as it did commercial success, the Disney-produced trilogy is worth a look too even if it didn’t succeed as much on both artistic merits and box office profits. Throughout the series, you’ll see a ton of excellent actors like Tilda Swinton, Liam Neeson, Peter Dinklage, James McAvoy, and more.
7. The Wheel of Time (Prime Video)
Compared to The Rings of Power and its gargantuan first season budget, Prime Video’s The Wheel of Time cost the streamer only $80 million per season. The show is an adaptation of Robert Jordan’s (and Brandon Sanderson’s) 15-book series of the same name (if you were someone who read books and grew up in the ‘90s you will certainly recognize the book covers). If you read each installment of the series, you read 4,410,036 words, which is quite impressive. Sony Pictures and Prime Video have already renewed the series for a third season. It stars Rosamund Pike and Daniel Henney.
8. The Witcher (Netflix)
Netflix bet big on The Witcher, its adaptation of a top-rated video game and book series by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, and not just because they hired the actor who played Superman to star. One look at the fantasy series and there are gorgeous sets, stunning CGI effects, and ridiculously choreographed action sequences that require a seriously big budget. While not quite on the level of Stranger Things’ $30 million per episode, Netflix is estimated to have spent $10 million on each installment of The Witcher. The series so far has aired two seasons with a third currently in the works as well as a spin-off prequel series that’s expected to hit the service sometime this year.
9. Foundation (Apple TV+)
Lee Pace has always been one of the most magnetic actors on television, most notably with Pushing Daisies an aughts cult classic but short-lived ABC series from showrunner Bryan Fuller and AMC’s nostalgic tech show Halt and Catch Fire. On the sci-fi fantasy series from Apple TV+, Pace plays a pair of clones of Cleon I the Galactic Emperor. The series is based on the Foundation book series by Isaac Asimov and while the series takes several liberties with the source material (there are no clones in the book), it’s a quietly thrilling and underrated series.