Which Prequel Has More Promise: House of the Dragon or Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power?
It’s a tale of the tape between the new iterations of the Game of Thrones and LOTR franchises.
We’re about to witness a clash of the titans, as fantasy obsessives now have two franchise prequels to juggle: House of the Dragon, the Game of Thrones prequel that is now two episodes in on HBO Max, and The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, which debuts today on Amazon Prime. Both shows arrive with tremendous expectations, charting similar—yet decidedly different—territory. With both high-profile, mystical shows unfolding at the same time, we wanted to compare the two in a tale of the tape of sorts to see which has the most potential. Yes, we have seen six episodes of HotD and two of RoP, so we do have some concrete qualitative evidence to go by. But considering how many series take a few episodes—even a whole season—to find their rhythms, we’re also taking the long view, factoring in potential for growth based on categories like casts, source material, and stories.
THE BIG PICTURE: What’s the story?
House of the Dragon In Game of Thrones, Daenerys was driven to reclaim the supremacy over Westeros that was once wielded by her Targaryen ancestors—aka the House of the Dragon. HotD, set 172 years before GoT, is the story of those ancestors. The series centers on the civil war that erupts as members of the Targaryen family jockey to inherit the throne from the aging King Viserys (Dany’s seventh-great grandfather). The self-annihilating conflict will be known as the “Dance of the Dragons” for the massive beasts that the family’s armies ride to attack each other. These bloody battles will drive dragons to near-extinction, as we learned in GoT—as well as greatly weaken the family itself: When the battles finally end, the Targaryens’ influence and power will be badly diminished. (The Targaryens continue on long enough for King Aerys II, aka “The Mad King,” to rule—but we know how that ends. He eventually becomes paranoid and erratic, executing Ned Stark’s father and brother. This will lead to Robert’s Rebellion, in which Jamie Lannister kills Aerys II, ending the reign of the Targaryens, and Daenerys and her brother Viserys are smuggled away to be kept safe, but powerless.)
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves: When House of the Dragon begins, we’re still far from all-out war, but decidedly on the road to get there. This prequel allows insight into the rise and fall of one of Westeros’ most prominent families, while offering a look at how an earlier critical throne game played out.
Rings of Power Remember the opening prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring, narrated by Cate Blanchett? The events she describes—the creation of the rings of power and Sauron’s One Ring—will unfold throughout five seasons of Rings of Power. At the beginning of the series, Middle-earth is firmly entrenched in its Second Age (the events of The Hobbit through Return of the King take place during the Third Age), enjoying a brief moment of calm after an alliance of men and elves defeat Morgoth, the first big bad of Tolkien’s mythology.
RoP is about how another such alliance must rise up to fight Morgoth’s apprentice, Sauron. And, as we know from Galadriel’s story, the human leader Isildur will capture Sauron’s ring, but be too beguiled with it to destroy it, allowing the dark forces to rise up again in the Third Age.
Rings contains a lot of familiar Tolkien archetypes and a handful of younger versions of characters seen in that prologue, including younger versions of Isildur, as well as elves Galadriel and Elrond, the future Lord of Rivendell. Rings will also highlight various kingdoms at the height of their power, such as the Dwarf kingdom of Khazad-dûm (which will eventually fall to ruin, and where the Fellowship encounters the Balrog) and the human kingdom of Númenor.
House of the Dragon draws from Martin’s 2018 novel, Fire & Blood, which serves as a pseudo-textbook of Targaryen family history. In a decidedly meta turn, Fire & Blood is “written” by Archmaester Gyladyan, who quotes primary sources, many of whom have their own agenda and serve to be unreliable narrators in their own right. Adding to the book’s subjectivity is the fact that Gyladyan inserts his own hot takes about the Targaryens: Any time a lord dies, the Archmaester lays out a list of suspects, but no definitive culprit.
However, HotD has the participation of a most reliable narrator: George RR Martin himself, who has been heavily involved in the series. Thus, with his blessing and input, showrunners Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik can provide more definitive answers to the questions raised throughout Fire & Blood, so the series can be considered canon. Case in point: Condal and Sapochnik have already added an intriguing addition to the Thrones world: Unlike in the books, the HotD premiere has King Viserys (Paddy Considine) mention the “Song of Ice and Fire” prophecy. This divination predicted the existence of the Night King, and Jon Snow’s critical role as the one to unite the kingdoms, as both a Targaryen and a Stark. This confirms that the Targaryen royals knew the Night King would pose a great danger to the realm in Game of Thrones—even if they didn’t know him by name yet. If House of the Dragon continues to drop critical lore nuggets like this, it could become a very rich text for diehard Thrones fans who have been starving for new history as they enter the twelfth year of waiting for Martin to finish his next novel.
Rings of Power The source material for Power, on the other hand, is slightly more complicated. Per a Vanity Fair report, the Amazon series only has the rights to use The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King, the appendices, and The Hobbit. All of these stories critically take place during the Third Age; many of the major events of RoP’s Second Age are covered in supplemental Tolkien materials like The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, The History of Middle-earth, and other sources that the series won’t have access to. In the VF story, co-showrunner Patrick McKay assures viewers that, “There’s a version of everything we need for the Second Age in the books we have the rights to,” while his fellow co-showrunner, J.D. Payne, views Rings as “the novel that Tolkien never wrote about the Second Age,” which means that while there will be certain guideposts along the way that diehard Tolkien fans may know—large swaths of the story are crafted from whole cloth.
CAST: Which show’s actors are you more likely to recognize?
The Rings of Power While the LOTR films kicked off with a Fellowship full of familiar faces (Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, and so on), the TV show seems to feel no need for star power. A24 fans may recognize Morfydd Clark from the 2019 horror movie Saint Maud (Clark plays the titular Maud), or some viewers might ID Nazanin Boniadi as Nora from ten episodes of How I Met Your Mother. But Amazon seems confident that Tolkien is the only star they need.
House of the Dragon Ironically, when Game of Thrones first premiered, one of its most recognizable cast members was Sean Bean, who lent the show fantasy credibility thanks to his having played Boromir in Fellowship of the Ring. His clout likely inspired many LOTR fans to sample GoT…and eventually turn its cast of mostly unknowns into big stars.
House of the Dragon isn’t settling for just one star this time. Matt Smith, who plays the nefariously charming Daemon Targaryen, also has strong bona fides with the sci-fi/fantasy crowd, having played Doctor Who for three seasons. (He’s also known for his more Earthbound roles, notably as Prince Philip on The Crown.) As King Viserys, Paddy Considine is recognizable from Simon Pegg’s Hot Fuzz and The World’s End, as well as the third season of Peaky Blinders. Rhys Ifans, who blew up in America in Notting Hill, has been in everything from The Amazing Spider-Man to the penultimate Harry Potter film. And there are many others with familiar credits: You might not remember where you saw the cast of Dragon, but you’ll recognize their faces.
SHOWRUNNERS: Which creative leaders seem to have more credibility for this kind of show?
Rings of Power Showrunners Payne and McKay have dabbled in the worlds of theatrical franchises; the two did uncredited work on Star Trek Beyond and were tapped at one point to work on a script for the fourth Trek film, which earned them high praise from J.J. Abrams. In fact, Abrams apparently recommended the duo to Amazon for the Rings job, per a Deadline report. Additionally, the duo worked on an initial draft of Dwayne Johnson’s, Jungle Cruise.
House of the Dragon Sapochnik directed some of the best episodes of Thrones (most notably, “Battle of the Bastards”), but he’s not really a writer. Condal, on the other hand, ran USA’s alien-invasion series Colony, which ran for three seasons to decent reviews. Like Payne and McKay, Condal also has studied under a Lost guru: Colony was created by Carlton Cuse.
Though none of the writers have a credit that screams, “Oh, they were born to take on this franchise,” it’s only fair to note that the GoT showrunners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, had similarly eclectic IMDb credits before taking on Westeros.
VISUALS: How do the shows, you know, actually look?
House of the Dragon Game of Thrones rarely looked cheap; some of the dragon effects were spotty in areas, but shooting on location in a variety of European locales gave the series a lived-in reality that helped to ground its more fantastical elements. By extension, House of the Dragon follows suit. Most of the finished episodes sent out to press (a few of the later installments had unfinished VFX) stand in equal measure—or even surpass—Thrones’ visual quality. One thing is for sure: the dragons of Dragon definitely look like they got an upgrade from when we last saw them—and they already looked pretty decent. Dragon also carries over Thrones’ more muted color palette, in contrast to the more colorful backdrops of fantasy tales like…
Rings of Power With a reported price tag of $715 million, Rings of Power is the most expensive show ever made—and it certainly looks it. It’s one of the most visually astonishing television series ever put to screen. Across the two episodes provided to the media, it is incredibly difficult to tell where the constructed sets end and the visual effects begin. For example, the majestic sprawl of Khazad-dûm quickly conveys the massive opulence the dwarves have mined for themselves, while the lush forests of the elven kingdom Lindon evoke an eternal autumn. The varied, colorful scenery is a welcome and stark contrast from the slightly drab visuals of Dragon. Rings just looks much better.
THE STORYTELLING: Just how entertaining are the early episodes?
House of the Dragon HBO has an advantage here, having provided an early look at six out of ten episodes, as opposed to RoP sneak-peeking only two out of its season’s eight episodes. As such, we get a better understanding of Dragon’s overarching narrative. The big picture is pretty simple to recognize: The battle to succeed Viserys will eventually lead to war. And we’re already seeing hints of another major storyline, the growing tensions between Rhaenyra (Viserys’ daughter and pledged inheritor of the throne) and Alicent (Rhaenyra’s best friend and Viserys’ new wife). After all, having your best friend marry your dad is likely to put a bit of a strain on your friendship. Once that angle clicks into place, the show’s battle for control will take on a decidedly personal angle that it took longer to reach in Thrones. Weighing depth over breadth allows for a much more intimate throne game—and makes the show feel more compelling. However, Dragon desperately needs a Tyrion-like character to lighten the mood every now and again.
Rings of Power Judging by only two episodes, the series’ narrative aspirations are ambitious, with an expansive story and an ensemble to match (the show will eventually feature 22 series regulars). Some stories are immediately crystallized: Galadriel is on a quest to ensure evil has been driven from Middle-Earth; an Orc invasion brews in the Human-based Southlands; Elrond must negotiate with the dwarves to enlist their engineering prowess. Less so for the arc of the Hobbit prescuors (aka harfoots), who are hanging out with a mystery man in the middle of the woods for hazy reasons. That said, they are a fun bunch to watch as they eat, drink, and be merry. At this point, it’s a little too early to tell if the weighty narratives will collapse upon themselves, but (for now) there’s a solid foundation to build upon.
THE BIG CONCLUSION: Which show has more promise?
House of the Dragon is a tad more interesting…while Rings is more fun. In the wake of Thrones’ ending, Dragon had quite the uphill climb to convince spurred Thrones fans that another trip to Westeros would be worthwhile. Yet, through those first six episodes, Dragon proves it’s capable of spinning a yarn compelling enough to warrant a return to this world. However, Rings easily has the higher immediate upside. The first two episodes are just far more fun to see, as impressive as a Lord of the Rings movie in terms of production value. It also helps that Rings isn’t quite as serious in tone as Dragon.
That said, the RoP story is in such an early state that it’s hard to tell whether or not it can continue to balance its various characters and stories, which gives me pause about its future. Dragon has a slight advantage here in that it’s playing off of an established playbook, coached by its mastermind. A lot of Rings is pure invention, making for a high-risk, high-reward situation. I’m optimistic: Rings has the potential to become something truly special—a sprawling tale rivaling Thrones’ scope, but with even more epic visuals. To mix metaphors, Rings is a baby dragon, and if given room to grow, it could become an even more massive, awe-inspiring beast.
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