More than 38 million results will come up when you Google “Game of Thrones too dark,” with cinematographer Fabian Wagner blaming viewers who “don’t know how to tune their TVs properly” for the infamously gloomy lighting and opaque action of “The Long Night.” Until you see The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power on Prime Video, the franchise’s three-year-old prequel series House of the Dragon’s continuance of this enigmatic visual language might not seem like such a huge deal. How revealing, both literally and figuratively, to be able to follow every development in battle scenes, enjoy the visual details of mythical creatures, and see every crevice of enclosed or underground spaces!
Although Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films made nearly $3 billion worldwide and won 17 Academy Awards, they concluded nearly 20 years ago, and his Hobbit trilogy was less well received. (Jackson is not involved in the Prime Video series.) In the ensuing years, Game of Thrones established a new primary visual language for fantasy adaptations. A focus on underhanded political dealings meant concealed castle interiors, from secret passageways to deep dungeons. The event-TV battle episodes, such as season two’s “Blackwater” and season five’s “Hardhome,” were often set in inky-black night or in the eerie ice blue of the North, without much variation in color palette. The overhead threat of Dany’s “children” meant a fair amount of time staring into the sky, waiting for the leathery fluttering of wings and their accompanying burst from the clouds It appears to have a recent edge.
Along with employing the Game of Thrones theme music, House of the Dragon has imitated many of these tactics, including the musty Small Council meetings and the fleeting glimpses of dragons. This all tracks thematically, but may we get some more lanterns in the Red Keep? A couple of midday melees? a stridently sunny day? Our most recent trip to Westeros is plagued by a phantom of gloom, and as a result, House of the Dragon and its characters seem to be hiding something.
The Rings of Power is a refreshing change of pace since it immerses the viewer in a world where Tolkien’s lofty sentiments of hope, goodness, and tenacity are mirrored with elaborate tableaux that are consistently well lighted by daylight, starlight, moonlight, and firelight. The first two episodes of the series are prismatically uncompromising as we fly from Valinor to Middle-earth on a massive map, dropping in among the elves, humans, Harfoots, and dwarfs. Each site has a distinctive design that both distinguishes these groups and reveals what they value.
The city of the elves is entirely made of marble and gold, with great gazebos perched on cliffs and engravings on tree trunks commemorating the warriors who died in years of conflict with the evil Morgoth. The human settlements are rough-hewn and ruggedly built, with a pub serving as the community’s hub and a single footbridge connecting it to the outside world. The nomadic Harfoots travel in hidden tents that are naturally camouflaged from larger enemies like wolves by leaves and moss. The dwarfs’ underground labyrinths are also roomy and ingenious, with gardens carved out of the rock and a network of massive spotlights that resemble magnifying glasses and refract sunshine into the compound’s darkest crevices.
Laurelin and Telperion, the trees that lighted the elves’ homes, were felled by Morgoth to begin a fight that lasted hundreds of years. The warrior Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) narrates in Valinor that “nothing is terrible in the beginning… even then, there was light.” We didn’t have a word for death because we believed that happiness would never stop. We believed that our light would never go out, Galadriel adds, but a series of pictures from the conflict—elf bodies floating in the air and on fire, a massive pile of helmets belonging to fallen soldiers—communicate the many deaths lost.
In Valinor, the warrior Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) tells that “nothing is terrible in the beginning… even then, there was light” before explaining how Morgoth destroyed Laurelin and Telperion, the trees that lighted the elves’ homes, in order to launch a fight that lasted hundreds of years. “Because we believed that our delights would never stop, we had no term for death. The words “We thought our light would never dull” are spoken by Galadriel, yet a series of pictures from the conflict—elf bodies floating in the air and on fire, a massive stack of military helmets—communicate the many deaths lost.
Elrond meets Galadriel at Lindon, the High-elf capital, where he relaxes in a grove of trees with orange and gold leaves and strolls through an emerald woodland punctuated by rays of sunlight. They cross paths at a tapestry that shows the sunburst that marks the entrance to Valinor, also known as the Undying Lands or “the region of winterless spring,” from which they cannot return and to which no elf has ever declined an invitation. Later, when the two debate whether Galadriel should travel there to conclude her search, fireworks of pink, purple, gold, and blue explode above them, enveloping them in an ethereal neon light as the warm warmth of the lanterns leading them is replaced by the ethereal neon light The tree sculptures around them are illuminated by the pathway.
Because of its complexity, each frame has a different amount of light, ensuring that no subject is ever obscured by too little or blown out by too much. Galadriel’s expression of pain and uncertainty is still recognizable even as she reluctantly sails toward the Undying Lands at the conclusion of the first episode, “A Shadow of the Past,” and is almost completely consumed by a magnificently burning portal that was earlier described as “light more intoxicating than any sensation in all of Middle-earth.” She represents the perseverance our heroes will need to defeat the evil forces converging upon them when she decides to reject immortality and plunges into the turbulent surface of the Sundering Seas to swim back to Middle-earth. An evening scene that doesn’t require changing the TV’s settings? Wild stuff! )
The humans, the Harfoots, and the dwarfs also experience contrasts between good and evil that help this vast world feel thematically and visually connected. The elves, though, are The Rings of Power’s most explicit observers of literal and figurative light. Rhovanion begins with a scene of the Harfoot kids eating wild blackberries in the sunlight, which is quickly cut short by the deaths of fireflies that come into contact with the Stranger (Daniel Weyman), who fell from the sky. In the Southlands, the romance between elf soldier Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) and human healer Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi) is subtly formed during a meeting in the village well before they become aware that orcs have started invading nearby settlements and tunneling beneath them polluting the environment and their homes.
The Rings of Power also depicts light as a prerequisite for interspecies cooperation in the bustling Khazad-dûm, which The Lord of the Rings fans might recognize as the Mines of Moria. This notion should only become more important to the series’ ideology as it goes on. Prince Durin (Owain Arthur), a dwarf, gives the seedling of an Elven tree that Elrond gave him to an old buddy, and it grows in Khazad-dûm because of the care he gives it, disregarding the suspicions of other dwarves who scoff at the possibility of this rarity surviving among them. The companionship that gave it life makes it into what Elrond calls a “symbol of power and vitality”; “Where there is love, it is never truly dark,” he says.informs Durin in a passage that both comforts, warns, and almost acts as a mission statement for Tolkien. It’s a natural counterpart to an earlier question given by Galadriel to her elder brother, whose death motivates her to join the fight against Morgoth and Sauron: “How am I to know which lights to follow?” The Rings of Power present themselves as the remedy.