2001, The Fellowship of The Ring debuted in theaters, ushering in the beginning of a new age of visual fantasy. Ten years later, in 2011, the fantasy world changed again when the cinematic television adaptation of Game of Thrones debuted on HBO. These two properties set a tone for visual fantasy storytelling.
without The Lord of the Rings movies, one could make an argument that there would not be Game of Thrones. without Game of Thronesit is irrefutable that we wouldn’t have today’s fantasy combo of The Rings of Power and House of the Dragon.
And yet, in 2022, both shows debuted within weeks of each other and are midway through their first seasons. While they occupy the same fantastical storytelling genre, they are as much alike as they are different. Because of this, they are, in ways, mirrored projections of each other, offering two unique experiences for viewers, which can be narrowed down to two themes that define them: politics and adventure.
A Fantastical Backbone
Both of these shows are high fantasy based and adhere to the genre’s basic tenets. Mystical and mythical lands, where the rules that govern our world do not exist or are flexible, guide these basic elements of fantasy.
The Rings of Power occupies the familiar landscape of Middle-earth, taking advantage of the goodwill and efforts that Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy set. The show replicates many of the motifs Jackson established, including the visual design, settings, character looks, costumes, etc. The same is true with House of the Dragonwhich honors its television predecessor by bringing us back to Westeros in a way that is visually familiar.
As both shows are prequels, they have the freedom to expand upon the storytelling in a few ways, but they’re bound by the visual restraints their predecessors established as well. while The Rings of Power can travel to new areas of Middle-earth, they have to maintain a grasp of the foundation Jackson built. The same is true for House of the Dragonwhich does so even more overtly than The Rings of Power. Part of that is because The Rings of Power is owned and produced by a different production company (Amazon) than The Lord of the Rings (Warner Bros.) was, complicating what parts of the story it can and cannot tell.
This is not the case for House of the Dragon, which doesn’t have some of these preexisting conditional design frameworks to adhere to. It can jump into a design that is unique to itself, and because the story takes place nearly two hundred years before Game of Thrones, it has the latitude to explain “well, some things changed during that time.” But, the crux of how these shows excel is not how they compare to their predecessors but the lenses through which they are told.
Politics and Adventure, Plot Drivers
House of the Dragon is a political thriller. The Rings of Power is an action adventure. Shaping a thematic element of a show like House of the Dragon as political does not mean it’s like The West Wing (although, in many ways, it is). It means that the show is told through dialogue, character interaction, and things that happen because of what the characters say and do. It’s political by characters scheming for their own gain or scheming against someone they consider a foe. It’s what made Game of Thrones so engaging and interesting.
We have praised the creator of this world, George RR Martin, repeatedly for his masterful control of subverting expectations. Just when you think someone is the mythical hero destined to defeat the enemy, they die — looking at you, Robb Stark. That’s where the House of the Dragon differ from The Rings of Power, for example. They both have patient, developed, and thoughtful scenes of character dialogue exchange, but House of the Dragon operates in a different realm in terms of exposition and dialogue.
Consider that during the first half of the season, House of the Dragon has only had two action scenes — the tournament and Daemon’s charge against the Crabfeeder’s army. The tournament scenes are relatively small in scale compared to Daemon’s charge, but ultimately, that’s it for climatic scenes. The rest of the show grips you in its hold through intriguing characters, storytelling, and political machinations.
Until episode 4 in The Rings of Power“The Great Wave,” we haven’t had too many scenes of political interaction, where there’s clear scheming between characters, or in this case, the building of alliances. The Rings of Power, from the get-go, has established that Galadriel and her hopeful supporting alliance are set on one goal, ensuring the defeat of the lingering threat of Sauron.
We have clear lines between good and evil. Clear lines of adventure. How we get to that endpoint we already know about is what is exciting — the same works for House of the Dragon. We know the end of this story (The Mother of Dragons), but we don’t know how we’ll get there. The big difference is that, where The Rings of Power acts as an adventure story, House of the Dragon is a political one where the enemy is unclear. There is no common threat other than the threat of the throne itself.
The Rings of Power is focused intentionally on being an action-adventure series. By leveraging what the audience already knows about who Sauron will become, we’re led down a path where the audience knows the conclusion, but our characters do not.
The show also goes to great lengths to offer sweeping shots of beautiful landscapes, wide shots of remarkable sets, and paintings on an enormous canvas. The mirrored inverse of that is House of the Dragonwhich keeps the audience close within the frame, close to the characters, and only occasionally pulls back for canvas-wide shots.
The Complimentary Mirror
While the shows may differ in their approach to storytelling and the type of story they tell, they are also remarkably similar. And because of that, the shows are both in the limelight of social conversation. While early season streaming numbers suggest that House of the Dragon is beating its competitor, there is also a lot of positive praise for both.
There is an easy argument to be made that The Rings of Power is the more audacious production, tackling a period of time created by JRR Tolkien that is thousands of years long, with only minimal detail given the timeframe. From a production budget standpoint, it is the clear monster in the room (rumored $1 billion cost). And, some have said it’s the most beautiful show ever put to screen yet.
How these shows succeed or don’t depend on viewership and social engagement. The production for each is a huge financial gamble, and the two shows competing against each other is actually a good thing. We’re talking about them, and we’re talking about fantasy!
If there’s one casualty to this battle, it won’t be either of these shows. It might be the now forgotten but excellent, Wheel of Time, another Amazon production. Even though only a single season has aired, Amazon has thrown its weight behind it. Season two is in production, and season three has been greenlit. But, after the fantastical moment these other shows are having, will audiences be able to go back to another realm — especially one many missed the first time around?