The final months of 2022 were packed with fantasy series. Two of the most prominent and most awaited ones were House of the Dragon and The Rings of Power. They not only received the maximum amount of media attention because of the multimillion-dollar production costs, but especially because of the legacy they are meant to continue.
House of the Dragon is the prequel to the most infamous and successful tv show of all time, Game of Thrones. The other one is The Rings of Power. As the name implies, it is set in Middle-earth, the world of The Lord of the Rings. It is just like House of the Dragon, a prequel show set thousands of years before the War of the Rings in which halflings (ancestors of hobbits), dwarves, elves, wizards, and mankind fight against the Dark Lord Sauron.
When the end of summer arrived and autumn was on its way, the stage was set for two giant streaming services and two even bigger stories to battle each other, as most episodes of both shows aired during the same weeks. The stakes couldn’t have been higher.
House of the Dragon had a good but somewhat slow start. Just like with Game of Thrones there was a cast of many different characters and a story that had a slow pace that only picked up pace in later episodes.
The Rings of Power convinced with breath-taking visuals, but the dialogue and most of the actors, especially the main character, the young Lady Galadriel, portrayed by Morfydd Clark, appeared very wooden on screen. It was, of course, also a very difficult legacy to follow. In the original films, both in The Lord of the Rings Trilogyand The Hobbit Trilogy, it was no one else but Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett, who put on the costume of Lady Galadriel.
As House of the Dragon continued to drop one episode every week, it became very clear that the producers and the writers of HBO had really taken their time and created a new story for Westeros that satisfied the high demands of Game of Thrones fans.
In contrast, The Rings of Power somewhat lacked originality, and in most episodes the plot was held back and ridiculous dialogue, trying to imitate the beautiful prose of Tolkien, was at the forefront. The young Lady Galadriel quickly became very annoying, and the only other storyline that appeared to capture the viewers’ attention was the one set in Moria. Young Elrond and his unusual but interesting friendship with the dwarves were captivating to some extent. It was also the astounding and detailed worldbuilding that made Moria appear so authentic and led the plot in a somewhat more meaningful direction. Especially considering that Moria was so far only known as an abandoned and destroyed place from The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
Unfortunately, though, this plotline was only a minor one and was not explored in the way it could have been. An opportunity was missed here to actually dig deeper and find out more about dwarf politics and their lives which, even in The Hobbit Trilogy, have never been explored in depth.
At the same time, House of the Dragon gained pace and soon was being watched by as many viewers as during the best days of Game of Thrones. But especially the last four episodes, seven, eight, nine, and ten, really gave the audience a feeling of a Game of Thrones- esque experience, but above all, it created something new. The family dynamic was different. Where before, Westerosi families were plotting and murdering each other, this time, it was one big family, two branches of one family tree, that began to plot against each other. It was more Shakespearean than Game of Thrones, yet it kept the tone and the brutal way of telling a truth concerning family, politics, and power.
Where the final episodes of House of the Dragon were a proper showdown between authentic and layered characters, not to mention a visual feast of dragons, the last episodes of The Rings of Power were very anticlimactic, predictable, and somewhat tiring to watch.
But what happened here? Why did one show end up on such a high note, also ending up with a Golden Globe for Best Drama Series, whereas The Rings of Power ended up being an embarrassment for Amazon?
A part of the answer is a simple one and lies with the streaming services themselves. For decades, HBO has produced outstanding TV shows, from Sex and the City (which was the most successful TV show before Game of Thrones), The Sopranos, Westworld, Girls, Big Little Lies, The White Lotus or Euphoria, to name just a few. They are not only the most successful ones but also stand as cornerstones of how television, culture, and society changed and became sort of blueprints for genres to be transformed.
At the time, Sex and the City was a revolutionary feminist show, just as Girls a couple ofyears later. The big game changer in the fantasy genre was of course Game of Thrones breaking all imaginable records, from storytelling, scripts, fandom and naturally the hype.
Euphoria has become a cultural phenomenon that has especially captured the attention of a younger audience, centring their plot around the struggles of teenagers, drug addiction, sexual violence, sexism, death, and mental health, creating authentic characters and meaningful plots. And The White Lotus, especially its second season, is the latest addition to a cultural and social media phenomenon. The series shows the lives of individual characters on holiday with all their small and large worries that shape and make a crazy plot that grabs your attention.
HBO can be seen as a powerhouse that has produced outstanding shows with an understanding of casting, scripting, and plotting for decades. Amazon Video, or to be precise, Amazon, is first of all a company that sells stuff. It is an online shop where you can buy anything, ranging from books to clothes, to household utensils. While Amazon produced some outstanding shows, such as The Boys or The Marvelous Mrs Maisel it cannot be compared to the standards of high-quality productions that HBO has managed to produce over decades repeatedly.
Therefore, it is not surprising which of the two comes out as the winner. One has a track record of producing incredible shows, whereas the other is, in comparison, fairly new to the game, and puts their focus on enormous production costs rather than production quality.
House of the Dragon won a Golden Globe for best drama series and had a couple of other nominations. The Rings of Power, after crushing reviews, was not even properly considered for award season, and why should it be? Ultimately, the cast was mediocre, the plot was slow paced to the point of being boring, and while the visuals continued to appear beautiful, a pretty image does not make a good show.
Admittedly, the success of House of the Dragon did not come from nowhere, and it is not only HBO’s track record of outstanding shows that did the trick. Because even HBO has produced some bad, and especially disappointing shows over the years.
While the early seasons of Game of Thrones were amazing, its later seasons became weaker, and the final season let most fans down. In comparison to the strong seasons of the show, how the show ended was an utter disaster in terms of plot, writing, and character development.
Much of this failure has been credited to the writers but also to the producers, who wanted the show to finish quickly. Less time was available considering the huge production of the show and the scale on which it was produced at the time when they wrapped it. The ending felt rushed, and most plot points and long scenes of dialogue that used to be so good and were the strength of the show were thrown overboard.
While watching House of the Dragon, one could really see that the writers and producers really took their time by creating a new and exciting Westerosi story that was based on the original but transformed into its very own family focused drama.
The result was a carefully crafted plot, writing that was up to the standard of early Game of Thrones seasons, and a cast that fitted every role perfectly and allowed every character to thrive. When watching The Making of House of the Dragon it was crystal clear that the writers and producers had really sat down and learned from their mistakes from seasons seven and eight of Game of Thrones, which they did not want to repeat.
Instead of having everything fast-paced and focusing on visuals only, the team created a narrative that was reminiscent of the early seasons of Game of Thrones but also something original, showing the audience this golden age of the Targaryen dynasty.
Watching The Rings of Power, one was under the impression that most of the time the writers and producers did not really know where their plot and characters were supposed to be going, and that reflected on the watching experience. It almost felt like a fanfiction of The Lord of the Rings mythology rather than a show that presented a different Middle-earth with a new story to tell.
However, when House of the Dragon and The Rings of Power finished the year wasn’t over yet and there were two more fantasy shows of two franchises to come that fans have waited for all year long.
Just like The Rings of Power one of them was a huge disappointment. I am speaking of the Netflix production, The Witcher: Blood Origin. A few years ago, when the first season of The Witcher aired, starring Henry Cavill, it was the most streamed show on Netflix. For a while, it was even believed that The Witcher could fill the void that Game of Thrones has left behind. Unfortunately, its second season did not continue the high quality of the first season. Nevertheless, the fandom, which consisted of readers (reading the original books), gamers (playing the highly successful Witcher video games), and now viewers on Netflix, was a huge audience, and the streaming giant was certain that there must be more to come.
They focused their attention on a prequel show, just like HBO and Amazon did with House of the Dragon and The Rings of Power. This show would tell the story of the first Witcher ever created, living thousands of years before the events that shaped the fates of Gerald of Rivia, Yennefer of Vengerberg and Ciri of Cintra. However, just like with The Rings of Power, the writers and producers miscalculated their plans and created a mini-series that felt like a cheaply produced fantasy show of the 2000s. Especially the visuals could not live up to the standards of shows on HBO or Amazon. The rest of it was a mash-up of quickly written characters with hardly any depth to them.
This production very much fits into what Netflix focused on over the last few years. Instead of producing selected high-quality productions, they concentrate on producing as much as possible, hoping that the next hit will be among them. This sounds not dissimilar from what Amazon is doing, but then again, Netflix, like HBO, has a longer track record of creating very good shows, such as House of Cards, Elite, or Stranger Things. Among these great shows though, can be found a huge amount of mediocre or poorly produced ones.
The fourth and final fantasy show that has been anticipated for the end of 2022 was the third and final season of His Dark Materials. This one has probably surpassed all expectations, and as a final season and the drama that comes with that, it even outranks House of the Dragon to some extent. It does not come as a surprise that this show was produced by no one else but HBO in collaboration with the BBC.
It was especially the second half of this last season that overtook all expectations. It had, similar to House of the Dragon, outstanding writing, an understanding of the plot, started slowly and gained speed towards the end, an incredible cast of well-chosen actors, and was paired with beautiful visuals. Furthermore, the writers and producers took their time to create this final season. Instead of one year of production, they ended up working on it for almost two years. While the waiting for the fans might have been longer, the result was very satisfying.
I even dare say that some scenes in some of the final episodes were done better than in the original novel by Philip Pullman. Something like this, especially when it comes to fantasy, rarely happens. But when it does, it elevates the story to an even higher level of quality, similar to the The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which is, to this day, still the finest work of fantasy that’s out there.
To conclude, it is clear to see that it doesn’t matter how much money you throw into a production if the writing and the authenticity of the characters do not work or do not translate on camera. A good script is the most essential aspect of producing a great show.
Jeff Bezos and Amazon could learn a thing or two from HBO. Ultimately, the costs for The Rings of Power were way higher, and most of them were thrown out the window. In contrast HBO focused on good writing with a very experienced production team behind it, which set House of the Dragon on an altogether different level than The Rings of Power.
A good script gives a casting director an idea of what type of actor needs to be cast for a character. This in turn means that good dialogue gives an actor more space and imagination to play and work on a scene, rather than a bad script and a bad dialogue which only leaves you limited choices of what to do with it.
The same goes for the entire team in every department, whether it is the creative directors, production design or costume department. Clearly, Amazon should spend more time on creating good scripts rather than resting on a big franchise and throwing a lot of money into something mediocre, trying to make it more than it actually is. Ultimately, that doesn’t work.
You can hide a bad script for only so long until it is recorded on camera. Bad acting and dialogue is taken up by the camera immediately. There is no way out. The same can be said about a bad script. A good script translates from the page into the imagination of the entire production team and then transforms on camera into something great. A bad script can only do so much and will ultimately fail to convince an audience, no matter how much money is spent on it.
Creativity does not need money. Creativity needs time. This is something HBO understands now and has learned through several mistakes in the past. Obviously, it is something that Amazon and Netflix still need to learn, but I wonder if especially Amazon ever will. Then again that’s the thing about Amazon. You can buy anything on there. Clothes, books, toys, and TV shows. But no matter how much money you have or how high the price is, you can’t buy creativity.