“We wanted to find a huge, Tolkienian mega epic!”
That’s how showrunner Patrick McKay described his mission for The Rings of Power – Amazon Prime’s hotly anticipated Lord of the Rings TV spin-off, as he unveiled a new trailer and unseen footage at San Diego Comic-Con on Thursday.
In his armoury: a huge cast of comely elves, a rare female dwarf, the Hobbits’ ancestors, a seriously impressive CGI city, a mystery menace, an entwife and a surprise Balrog.
The Rings of Power is the most expensive show ever made, at $1bn (£832m) for five seasons – and this is fans’ best guide to how it will look, sound and feel.
But what everyone really wants to know is, can it compete with Peter Jackson’s beloved Lord of the Rings film trilogy, the winner of 17 Oscars, benchmark for composers, and populariser of second breakfast?
Wisely, it’s not trying – instead setting the action 4,000 years before the Hobbits Frodo and Sam journeyed through Middle Earth.
This is the Second Age, where the 20 Rings of Power are forged and the evil Sauron, Lord of Mordor, rises to assault the realms’ hard-won peace.
The source material is Tolkien’s appendix to the Lord of the Rings books. The core question: “How far into the darkness would you go to protect the things you care about the most?” says McKay’s fellow showrunner JD Payne.
It’s a mix of new characters, some of them original to the show, and old favourites in younger form, like the immortal Elves Galadriel and Elrond (Morfydd Clark and Robert Aramayo), who are seen sharing a tender moment in one exclusive clip played at Comic-Con.
Another atmospheric scene showed Elrond and the dwarf King Durin IV (Owain Arthur) competing to split rocks in a high-stakes test of strength. And orcs – the blighted race that formed Sauron’s army in Tolkien’s books – featured in combat with the elf Arondir (Ismael Cruz Cordova) as he battles his way out of enslavement.
More than 20 cast members rotated on to the stage to share character insights, including Clark, who referenced the stately calm of Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel in Jackson’s films.
“I wanted to show how the serenity of Galadriel in the films comes hard-fought,” she says.
Arthur said he felt an affinity with the mine-dwelling dwarves, as his family had worked in a Welsh slate quarry – but the physical transformation into Durin was a challenge: “Three hours every day and 45 minutes to take it all off!”
The lack of female dwarves in screen Tolkien has also been delightfully addressed – to the joy of actress Sophia Nomvete, who plays the dwarven Princess Disa of Khazad-Dum.
“I have the joy to host that revolutionary moment!” she declared – before sharing that she had auditioned for the role “when I was two days off giving birth… and then I got the call to say, you will be flying the torch for this incredible character, when my daughter was five days old”.
Her costume as Princess Disa was designed so she could feed her weeks-old baby between takes.
But if The Rings of Power relishes expanding into new territory, it also respects the established Tolkien lore.
Some actors playing elves told the BBC at a media round-table they had worked with a specialist to get the pronunciation of Elvish languages right.
Elrond actor Robert Aramayo said: “When you encounter any Elvish, you sort of understand it in a deeper way, what the professor [Tolkien]… language was so important to him.”
“My most exciting thing was learning to write it!” enthuses Charles Edwards, who plays the elven smith Celebrimbor who forges the Rings of Power.
“I took to it like a fish to water, I must say,” beams Ismael Cruz Cordova (who is Puerto Rican), to laughter. “It shares a lot of vowel sounds with Spanish!”
Arondir, Cruz Córdoba’s elf character, shares a forbidden love with human healer Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi), who’s also the mother of “a somewhat rebellious teenager son”, as she describes it.
Bronwyn is a rounded individual in her own right, however – something praised by Boniadi.
“They’ve given every female character such agency,” she says. “We don’t serve the men.”
Musically, we can expect more of the resonant drums and choral chanting that permeated Jackson’s films. Series composer Bear McCreary, who conducted a live orchestra and choir at the panel event, said he wanted to honour the original score – and indeed, its composer Howard Shore created the series’ theme music.
Comedian and Tolkien superfan Stephen Colbert, who hosted the panel, told the audience he had read the Lord of the Rings trilogy more than 50 times. While many may simply wonder how he found time, if highlights the intensity of feeling this mythology conjures up for fans.
Can The Rings of Power walk the line of pleasing them, while also making sense for viewers coming to the story for the first time?
Judge for yourself when the show debuts in September 2022 – but for now, the signs look hopeful.